Thursday, February 26, 2015

Newish Displays: The Red Table, The Literary Road Trip Table, The Dog Table, The Spy Table, and the Fitzgerald Table.

I'm trying for four posts a week, down from six, down from seven, up from two. My goal is Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, but for obvious reasons, I'm posting our Friday post, a tour of new displays, on Thursday.

1. The red table was Sharon's idea, when I was in display desperation. We enjoyed doing the blue table so much for Christopher Moore, that...why not? I'm not sure how well books pop off a color-themed table, as there's really no call to buy, but it is pretty. The focus of the table was originally Paul Fischer's A Kim Jong-Il Production, but after that event on February 16, we switched it to the hardcover of Boris Fishman's A Replacement Life. You should note that both books are about "Reds", though Fishman would note that the North Korean government is neither Communist nor Socialist, but instead a personality cult crossed with an organized crime family. One should also note that the paperback edition of Fishman played down the red coloring. Our event with Boris Fishman, co-sponsored by the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at UWM, is Thursday, February 26, 7 pm, at Boswell. If you are reading this post the day it went out, that would be tonight.

2. Jane came to me with an idea for a literary road trip. But wait, we don't have an event to hook it on! But when you've got a good idea and an empty table, you've got to go for it. Several booksellers helped Jane in putting this together. The idea from this display came from Emma Hooper's new novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, which is recommended by Jane and Jen. Other titles on the display include The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out the the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Joanasson, The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe. About Emma, Jen says " Everyone has a journey they need to take and at 83 years old Etta is finally taking hers. Leaving her husband Otto a note saying she's gone to see the ocean and will try to remember to come back, Etta sets off. She embarks on foot through the quiet farmland and dust she meets new friends and becomes some what of a celebrity through the towns she passes. Meanwhile, her husband Otto has been keeping himself busy trying out his wife's recipes, getting a pet and getting a hobby that will attract the attention of passerby. This book has heart and soul all over it."

3. Sometimes a table just screams out to be made, when events cluster together. That's the case for our two dog events, for Gina Cilento's Mitzie Boo and Mia, Too: Go to London, on Saturday, March 7, 2 pm, followed up by Cat Warren's What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World., which is scheduled for Tuesday, March 10, 7 pm. This is a change of subtitle from the hardcover, which was The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs. They also changed the breed, from German Shepherd to Black Lab. Following my rule about dog eye contact selling books, I actually like the hardcover a bit better, but we'll see if the experts outdo the bookseller. I should also mention that this summer we're hosting Momo of Find Momo. Momo is coming with Andrew Knopp for their new collaboration, Find Momo Coast to Coast. It's a similar tour to the Maddie on Things that we hosted in 2013, and just as exciting. Look, something sold off of the display!

4. For the window, we decided to help promote our event with Erik Larson by featuring narratives about boats. My dream was to somehow have a ship in the window but we settled on this painting of sailboats that somehow wound up in storage and nobody has ever picked up. Our event with Erik Larson is for his new book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. The book goes on sale March 10 and our event is March 24, 7 pm. Our tickets are $30 and come with a copy of the book. Buy your ticket now on Brown Paper Tickets now. Boswellian Sharon enthuses: "This is what brings history alive for the reader – learning details about the actual people that lost their lives in such a horrific and unexpected manner. Even more fascinating are the circumstances that resulted in this tragedy. If even one small thing had not occurred or happened in a slightly different way, the Lusitania would have arrived safely at her destination." I should note that this event will likely sell out.

4. Spy table! After reading the new Joseph Kanon, Leaving Berlin, I asked Jen to put a spy table together. Because we actually have an espionage section (and I have a standing rule that display books should not be from one subsection, with general fiction excepted), we highlighted a lot of true spy narratives that are shelved in history and biography. Atria booked this event early with us (Kanon is coming Wednesday, March 11, 7 pm) and it's really paid off; we've sold way more Kanon backlist off our upcoming event display than we ever have since we've opened. Thanks to Anne for picking Istanbul Passage for the mystery book club. Too bad it was zero degrees out when they met. I think Kanon's been held back a bit by multiple formats and publishers. There's not question that Alan Furst (to compare him to a comparable author whose backlist has sold a bit better) is helped by the beautiful uniform packaging. Get Kanon out of mass market and come up with a uniform design. Even with the rights dispersed, I have seen agents put this together, most notably for Elmore Leonard.

Here's my recommendation for Leaving Berlin: "It’s just after World War II and Berlin is divided into four zones of occupation; a blockade against the American and British zones has left much of the city struggling. Arriving back after 15 years in the United States is Alex Meier, a noted writer, half-Jewish, with socialist leanings, who fled when the Nazis rose to power but left America when the rise of communist witch hunts started pointing at him and the government asked him to name names. He’s been invited back by the Socialist Germans to be an artist in residence, but what they don’t know is that he’s been recruited by Americans to funnel information, in return for amnesty. What the Germans also don’t know is that the Russians have their own intelligence system and they’re not sharing information, nor have they made clear that German POWs are being used as slave labor in uranium mines. Things get more complicated when Alex hooks up with Irene, an old flame, now an actress, who is also having an affair with a Russian bigwig. Oh, and did we mention that Irene’s brother shows up, having escaped from the slave camp, dying of radiation poisoning? Alex Meier finds being a spy is a bit more difficult than he hoped. This is great intellectual espionage that held me in its grip, anxious to know what happens, but almost fearful to find out." (Daniel)

5. Fitzgerald Fever! Can you tell that the person who is picking out displays is also booking the events? You may scoff, but I these are still good display ideas and many of them sell books pretty well, bringing together titles that might not otherwise be found in the section. For this, I was inspired by the Winter Institute conversation between Stewart O'Nan, author of West of Sunset, and So We Read on: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures. Coincidentally, the conversation was moderated by Erik Larson. The reason this was held was partly because we stayed at The Grove Park Inn in Asheville, where Fitzgerald stayed for a period of time. One of the authors mentioned staying in the Fitzgerald room. In any case, the beloved Stewart O'Nan (Last Night at the Lobster and Emily, Alone have done particularly well for us) is coming to Boswell on Friday, March 20, 7 pm. Here's Elizabeth Berg talking about O'Nan, as we are hosting in conjunction with her Writing Matters event at Oak Park on March 21. "That's Stewart's great gift, getting inside the head of whoever he's writing about, and showing us what's there, and teasing out of us a genuine affection for what we might at first have called an unremarkable person. But as author Elizabeth Strout says, O'Nan is the king of the quotidian." George Saunders calls him "an icredibly versatile and charming writer." And perhaps most importantly, Stewart is a genuinely nice guy." Are you a Chicago reader? Get tickets for his appearance in Oak Park here. And I should note that we also included Clifton Spargo's Beautiful Fools in the display, the inspiration for our last Fitzgerald table.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

New Mysteries and Thrillers at Boswell: Laura Lippman, Laurie King, C.J. Sansom, Ariana Franklin (and Daughter) and Lene Kaaberbol.

We're very excited about the crime novelists who are visiting Boswell this March. There's Joseph Kanon on Wednesday, March 11, 7 pm for Leaving Berlin and Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt, who is appearing at Boswell for The Whites on Saturday, March 21, 2 pm. If there's one author we'd love to host in the store someday, it would be Laura Lippman. All the mystery folks in town seem to be friends with her and have , which would probably expand to several more of us with an upcoming event. Even I, not the most dependable mystery reader, have read at least three of her novels, if not more. Lippman tends to alternate stand-alones with new entries in the Tess Monaghan series, but even her series books have morphed from the early days of Baltimore Blues..

Her new book is Hush, Hush, and we have a great read from Sharon Nagel. She writes: "Tess Monaghan is back, and this time she is balancing motherhood with the perils of being a private detective. She and her business partner, Sandy Sanchez, are asked to assess the security needs of Melisandre Harris Dawes, a woman who was acquitted of leaving her infant daughter to die in a hot car a decade before. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Now, she is back in town to reunite with her remaining teenage daughters, and film a documentary about the whole thing. As a mother herself, Tess has mixed feelings about working for this client, who is haughty and domineering. As frustrated as she gets with Carla Scout, her own strong-willed daughter, she cannot fathom making the choices that Melisandre has. Whether you are a new reader of Laura Lippman, or a longtime fan of Tess Monaghan, drop into Baltimore to enjoy her latest mystery."

Going back in time a bit is Laurie King's series, featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. Everyone loves Sherlock, because he is public domain, thought the heirs are still fighting this out. The argument is that his personality was augmented in later works that fall past the 1923 copyright cutoff. I'll let you decide the case on that one. But Dreaming Spies, the latest case of Mary Russell, also known as Mrs. Sherlock Holmes takes place on a steamer to Japan, with travel on to California afterwards. S.H. recognizes the Earl of Darley said to be a blackmailer. And then there is Haruki Sato, a young Japanese girl who offers to teach the couple haiku, but M.R. thinks she's hiding something. The results are shocking, "involving international extortion, espionage, and the shocking secrets that, if revealed, could spark revolution—and topple an empire" say our friends at Bantam.

Is every mystery writer with a new book named Laura? No, there's also C.J. Sansom, whose Sheldrake series, whose Sheldrake series started with Dissolution in 2003. For some reason, there was a four-year break between entries five and six, but he's back with Lamentation. The new book finds King Henry VIII on his death bed (it's 1546) and Catherine Parr, his sixth wife, under attack by Catholics. Parr is Sheldrake's one-time memoir, so he helps her recover a stolen manuscript, only one page has been found, clutched in the hand of a murdered London printer. I don't know what the context is, but Kate Atkinson is quoted as calleing Sansom "one of my favorite writers," while the late P.D. James branded C.J. "among the most distinguished of modern historical novelists." Alfred Hickling writes in the UK Guardian that "his interpretation of history is always strongly substantiated and frequently provocative."

These historical/mystery hybrids are quite popular, particularly in, as you'd guess, Great Britain. The late Ariana Franklin, author of Mistress in the Art of Death, has had her new book finished off by Samantha Norman, her daughter. Set in the 12th century, the book is called The Siege Winter, or if you are outside the United States, Winter Siege? Huh? Doesn't reviews from The Economist and Financial Times and all these websites like the Guardian and Independent make it more important than ever to keep titles across territories, especially when the change is inconsequential? Civil War has divided the country, as King Stephen vies for the crown with Empress Matilda. Who? It would have been nice if my high school or college coursework touched on English history beyond the Magna Carta. So in this book, a young peasant girl is attacked and left for dead, but she finds a protector, who dresses her as a boy, and  well, together their story converges with the two factions vying for dominance (plus I assume she has to take vengeance on her awful tormentor). Lots of great reviews on this, plus a quote from the obviously comparable Sharon Kay Penman.

And finally, Doctor Death, the start of a series, from Lene Kaaberbol. It's 1894 in Varbourg and little Madeleine Karno wants to grow up to be a pathologist, which we know from P.D. James is an unsuitable job for a woman, except of course in books. A young girl is found dead, the family won't permit an autopsy, and Karno and her father find a clue, a parasite only found in dogs in her nostril. And then the priests who held vigil over the girl's body is brutally murdered. Kaaberbol writes another series with Agnete Friis, which started with the popular The Boy in the Suitcase. In her native Denmark she's was previously known as a fantasy writer. The starred Publishers Weekly review offers: "Deftly exploring such themes as the struggles between mind and body, science and spirit—without detracting from a gripping plot—the novel transcends its period to contemplate the eternal." Here's a question-and-answer session with the author on the My Bookish Ways blog. The questions are strangely generic, but that's coming from a man who completely paraphrased the publisher copy to write this round-up post.

Completely paraphrased! But the silly asides are totally original. But here's something you won't find on the jacket--Doctor Death was translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Boswell Presents: Emily Gray Tedrowe on Tuesday, Feb. 24, Robert Sabuda at MIAD on Wednesday, Boris Fishman Thursday, Plus Melissa Falcon Field on Tuesday, March 3.

Tuesday, February 24, 7 pm, at Boswell:
Emily Gray Tedrowe, author of Blue Stars

Chicago writer Emily Gray Tedrowe has written a graceful and gritty portrayal of what it's like for the women whose husbands and sons are deployed in Iraq. The author has a champion in UWM professor Liam Callanan, but he's not the only writer who's a fan.

“A strikingly nuanced portrait of military family life, Blue Stars examines the battles women face when reunited with their soldiers. Emily Tedrowe opens up a world of spouse support groups and ‘mandatory fun,’ acronyms and hierarchies, maxed-out credit cards and hospital waiting rooms, relationships that last the long separations and those that don’t. Her characters are gutsy, flawed, and incredibly real. If you’ve ever wondered what happens when wounded service members return, read this book.”
–Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone

“This heartbreakingly beautiful novel by Emily Gray Tedrowe colors in the often shadowy voices of the women on the homefront during wartime. Layered with the love, mess, fear, bravery and grief that lurk in the back end of war, Tedrowe’s crisp clear voice weaves a haunting tale of the unvarnished intricacies of the human spirit and the very dear price we pay for human conflict.”
— Lee Woodruff, author of In an Instant and Those We Love Most

I was looking over Tedrowe's list of events, and I saw she was reading at one of the two remaining Womrath's bookstores, in Bronxville, New York. In my childhood, this chain (or was it a franchise, I never knew) had several locations that I knew of in Manhattan and one in Fresh Meadows Queens, down the block from the Bloomingdale's. When that store closed (replaced by a K Mart), the Womrath's seemingly closed an hour later. They operated not just bookstores but book departments and rental libraries. The other store is in Tenafly, New Jersey. One operates under womrath.com, the other under womraths.com.

Wednesday, February 25, 6 pm, (doors open 5:30) at MIAD, 273 E. Erie Street, 4th floor:
Robert Sabuda, discussing "The Art and Craft of Paper Engineering", as part of the MIAD Creativity Series. His most recent book is The Dragon & the Knight: A Pop-Up Misadventure. 

Robert Sabuda is a #1 New York Times best-selling children’s book creator, leading children’s pop-up book artist, and paper engineer. He began his careerafter graduating Summa Cum Laude from the Pratt Institute in New York City. His interest in children’s book illustration began with an internship at Dial Books for Young Readers while attending the Pratt Institute. Initially working as a package designer, he illustrated his first children’s book series, “Bulky Board Books.” He enjoyed wide recognition after he started designing pop-up books for children.

From the starred Kirkus review: "Highlighted by a dragon head that lunges out at viewers with a gush of paper 'flame' as the spread opens, the pop-ups are, predictably, gobsmacking assemblages that whirl into multilevel scenes or rear up to seemingly impossible heights. 'Want to play again?' asks the knight. The invitation is well-nigh irresistible.With Sabuda, it’s hard to set expectations too high or wide, but here he rides triumphantly roughshod over them anyway."

MIAD Professor Christiane Grauert says, "Robert Sabuda persistently pushes the boundaries of what is feasible within pop-up design. He will provide an insight into his challenging negotiation of artistic vision and engineering considerations."

Robert Sabuda's visit is sponsored by Eileen and Barry Mandel. Reservations are requested, by emailing Carol Davis.

Thursday, February 26, 7 pm, at Boswell:
Boris Fishman, author of A Replacement Life.
This event is co-sponsored by the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at UWM.

A Replacement Life was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review and shortlisted for the National Jewish Book Award. I should note that he lost to David Bezmozgis's The Betrayers, who also read at Boswell, as did another finalist, Joshua Ferris, author of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. The winner of the debut fiction prize was another Boswell visitor, Stuart Rojstaczer, author of The Mathematician's Shiva.

Yevgeny Gelman, grandfather of Slava Gelman, "didn't suffer in the exact way" he needs to have suffered to qualify for the restitution the German government has been paying out to Holocaust survivors. But suffer he has--as a Jew in the war, as a second-class citizen in the USSR, as an immigrant to America. So? Isn't his grandson a "writer"?

High-minded Slava wants to put this immigrant scraping behind him. Only the American Dream is not panning out for him--Century, the legendary magazine where he works as a researcher, wants nothing greater from him. Slava wants to be a correct, blameless American, but he wants to be a lionized writer even more.

Slava's turn as the Forger of South Brooklyn teaches him that not every fact is the truth, and not every lie a falsehood. It takes more than law abiding to become an American; it takes the same self-reinvention in which his people excel. Intoxicated and unmoored by his inventions, Slava risks exposure. Cornered, he commits an irrevocable act that finally grants him a sense of home in America, but not before collecting a price from his family.

Listen to this interview with Fishman on NPR's Here and Now.

and coming up next week:
Tuesday, March 3, 7 pm, at Boswell
Melissa Falcon Field, author of What Burns Away.

Good wife, good mother. That's all Claire Spruce is trying to be, but the never-ending snow in this new town and her workaholic husband are making her crazy. Even the sweet face of her toddler son can't pull her out of the dark places in her head. Feeling overwhelmed and alone, she reconnects with her long-lost high school boyfriend, Dean, who offers an intoxicating, reckless escape. But Dean's reappearance is not a coincidence. He wants something from Claire-and she soon finds that the cost of repaying an old favor may lead to the destruction of her entire life.

From Christi Clancy in the Journal Sentinel: "What Burns Away is that rare mix of well-written literary fiction with the suspense of a spy novel. Falcon Field asks hard questions about aging, innocence, loyalty and the importance of place, while keeping us on the edge of our seat. Lou Reed once said, 'I don't like nostalgia unless it's mine.' Yet Claire's nostalgia is so thoroughly documented and explored in What Burns Away that Falcon Field masterfully makes Claire's nostalgia feel like it is our own, and through Claire, we have the guts to go back in order to move forward.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Boswell's Annotated Bestsellers, Week Ending February 21, 2015.

Hardcover Fiction:
1. Prudence, by David Treuer
2. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins
3. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
4. A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler
5. The Whites, by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt (event Sat 3/21 2 pm)

According to a recent interview on Fresh Air, Richard Price signed a contract writing a novel under the pen name Harry Brandt and then had regrets and now says The Whites is just like any other Richard Price novel. My original perception was that the books under Harry Brandt might follow the mystery structure more tightly, but whatever, many critics are saying this might be Price's best novel to date. John Wilwol in Newsday praises "the vivid portrayals of the streets," the characters of the Wild Geese (wizened detectives who bonded after rising from street soldiers to detectives), and of course, the language, perhaps "the chief pleasure" of Price's work. And yes, really, Price is coming to Boswell on March 21, 2 pm.

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. A Kim Jong-Il Production, by Paul Fischer
2. The Beautiful Music All Around Us, by Stephen Wade
3. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald
4. Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
5. What the Dog Knows, by Cat Warren (event for paperback Tues 3/10 7 pm)

H is for Hawk had great credentials even before coming out in the United States, including winning the Costa Prize and the Samuel Johnson award. Now it's the front page feature in The New York Times Book Review; Vicki Constantine Croke calls this memoir of training a hawk in the wake of the author's grief "breathtaking." Boswellian Mel is also a big fan.

Paperback Fiction:
1. Girl-King, by Brittany Cavallaro
2. In the Light of What We Know, by Zia Haider Rahman
3. Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger
4. The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon Van Booy
5. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

We had a quick start to the paperback edition of In the Light of What We Know, the story of a struggling investment banker who gets a surprise visit from an old friend, a South Asian mathematician who disappeared under mysterious circumstances several years prior. The Kirkus starred review set the tone: "War can divide friends. But then again, so can peace and all that falls between, the spaces inhabited by this ambitious, elegiac debut novel."

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
2. The Emotional Life of Your Brain, by Richard J. Davidson
3. Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
4. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
5. Milwaukee Mafia, by Gavin Schmitt (event Sat 3/14 2 pm)

I was reminding a bookseller my crazy pet peeve that the propped books on the edge of the display should face the direction that would make a visitor walking the store see them. I'll save the details for another post (it involves charts!) but as we were talking about it, a customer came up to us and said, "I'm buying Milwaukee Mafia" because I saw it displayed on the floor. Gavin Schmitt's book chronicles the 20th century crime families, and while it has the same name as his previous work from Arcadia, Milwaukee Mafia, one should note that the previous work was mostly archive photos, whereas the new book is text.

Books for Kids:
1. Big Magic for Little Hands, by Joshua Jay
2. I am a Bunny, by Ole Risom and Richard Scarry
3. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
4. Click, Clack, Peep, by Doreen Cronin
5. Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

We've mentioned before that additions to an established picture book franchise either have a holiday element (the Christmas book) or reflect some child's first experience (the first day at school, a new sibling). What was amusing for me about Click, Clack, Peep, is that while "getting a child to sleep" is a cottage industry unto itself (Good Night Anything), Cronin's latest almost seems like advice to the parent, not the child. But don't feel fooled, it's a "delightful" (Booklist) bedtime story.

From the Journal Sentinel, Jim Higgins reviews Jill Bialosky's new book of poems, The Players. He writes: "With its thematic sequences, straightforward vocabulary, and broadly appealing subjects, The Players is an accessible collection of quality. If you've wanted to try or get back into contemporary poetry but have been afraid of getting stuck in something hermetic, here's an excellent choice for you."

It was a busy week for the JS crew as it was time for the preview of fall theater in the Milwaukee, the equivalent of the week before Summerfest for popular music in town. Here's Higgins' piece on the upcoming season at the Milwaukee Rep. The paper also reprinted this profile of Paula Hawkins in the Houston Chronicle from Maggie Galehouse, getting to the story behind the amazing breakout of The Girl on the Train.

Friday, February 20, 2015

What Did the Book Club Think of "Doc", Mary Doria Russell's First Novel of the Old West? (And Don't Forget, She's Coming to Boswell for "Epitaph", the Follow Up, on Thursday, March 5, 7 pm).

Who can forget the buzz that surrounded Mary Doria Russell’s first novel, The Sparrow, the story of a Jesuit space explorer, the last survivor of a mission? Was this a science fiction novel? A religious allegory? Whatever it was, booksellers and customers were crazy about it, and it led to years of strong sales. One former Schwartz coworker, seemingly sold The Sparrow to every person he talked to, no matter what they came in looking for. OK, some critics were mixed, like this anonymous reviewer in Publishers Weekly.

Russell looked like she was on track with a sequel called Children of God, but then she made a left turn and followed that with two historical, A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day. Jason once mentioned to me that Russell writes her books in pairs, and so he for one was not surprised when her next novel was Doc, a Western that went behind the myth of Doc Holiday, outlaw dentist. And yes, she has followed that up with Epitaph: A Novel of the OK Corral, which releases on March 3, just before our event with Russell on March 5.

I do try to read as many books as I can from upcoming authors, but time has told me that when you have as many events as we do and there are other jobs to be done, I can’t possibly accomplish that. One should also know that some books are better for me not to read, and I shall say no more about that. Now for many years, I had a good excuse as to why I didn’t read Russell. I always worked with so many avid fans that any advance copies I got would go to them. But that enthusiasm is contagious, and after we had at least four recommendations for Doc, and we got the news that we would host Russell for Epitaph, I had to read something.

But a Western, so outside my tastes. And that gave me an idea. One thing the In-store Lit Group always says is that we read books that normally wouldn’t be on their radar. And of course picking Doc would make sure I read it; I’ve only once not finished a book for book club, and boy did I get grief for it. Now one other thing I should mention is that we have already read a Western, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. Now nobody would call that book classic genre, but Russell’s book, at least on the surface, seems more traditional.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. While we were discussing Janice Clark’s The Rathbones, I noted that Clark wrote a historical novel that used the structure and tone of a fantasy, with a strong heroine and lots of ancillary characters that were less important, but to me, what she was doing with that book was world building. And that let me to this realization (with help from reviewers; I don't have an original bone in my body when it comes to critical thinking), that Mary Doria Russell took a classic Western story, stripped away the conventions (there is nary a shoot ‘em up) and rebuilt it as a classic historical novel.

Somewhere between Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel lies the structure of historicals. A sense of place is important, with much research to build the story out. But almost more important than that is character and motivation. And the thing about Doc is that every preconceived notion you had about Doc Holliday, the Earp brothers (particularly Morgan and Wyatt), and Bat Masterson, are held up for reĆ«valuation. You’ll understand why I spelled the word that way after you read Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen*, by the way.

So what did the book club think? We were particularly fascinated by the relationship of Doc and Kate, his off-and-on love interest, the contractor prostitute who had the brains to do far more, but was hampered by the roles of gender and class. But what a foil for Doc; he had nobody else with whom to build an intellectual relationship.

We talked about what led people to the West. Why would people leave civilization for a lawless society? Of course lots of folks were trying to make their fortune, but much like the early attempts to get folks to move to (not really a swamp) Florida, there was a lot of misrepresentation of what Dodge City, Kansas was. It certainly wasn’t much of a place to be a dentist, though I should note that for a few years anyway, John Henry Holliday did a decent amount of business. I love that at that moment, doctors were the quacks and dentists were the more noble profession. And for those who liked the religious aspects of earlier Russell novels, there is Father Paul and Father Alex, too Jesuit priests with very different attitudes. thing Russell did to tie together the story was one of the fictional characters in the story, John Horse Saunders, an Native/Black kid who was educated in the Jesuit school and moved to Dodge City to work numerous jobs, including dealing cards. His murder (sorry, I’m giving one plot point away) and the whodunit aspect seemed like a secondary frame for the story, and added another aspect to the race/class/gender issues explored in Doc, but some of the attendees were dismayed that it wasn’t true.

Several readers thought that Morgan Earp was the glue that held the characters together. There’s a running storyline about Wyatt’s desire to buy race horses. And illness is another connector. Doc spent most of his life struggling with consumption (tuberculosis), as did his mom and the young daughter of one of Doc’s enemies. One of the things Russell brings to life is just how sickly a fellow Holliday was, quite a change from his pop culture persona.

There are lots of reviews to read, and Ballantine's official book club page, but one particularly interesting article is from the Washington Post, featuring Ron Charles's profile of Russell two years after the book came out. A huge champion of Doc ("fantastic!" is just one of his superlatives, read his review here), Charles noted that Russell had been dropped by her publisher just as the tour was going on, and she chose to not talk about it. I've known a lot of authors who've been orphaned, including two who came to Boswell for their last books who just lost their editor to another house in an announcement this week, and another author who revealed that her editor left during the process for both of her novels, from two different houses. Russell wound up with nine authors for five novels, which really takes the cake.

Our upcoming book club discussions:
--Monday, March 2, 7 pm: The Boy in the Black Suit, by Jason Reynolds Monday. This second novel follows When I Was the Greatest, which was awarded the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award from the ALA.
--April 6, 7 pm: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill, with guest co-coordinator Boswellian Carly. Lots of best-of lists for this one, including The New York Times Book Review ten best books of the year, which makes it one of their top five novels.

And don’t forget, Mary Doria Russell is coming to Boswell on Thursday, March 5, 7 pm. This event is free and open to the public but should have a good crowd, so get there a little early.

*Dare I say it? Norris is coming to Boswell on Sunday, April 12, 3 pm. So excited about this one too!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

New Releases: Brainy Reading from Michael Gazzaniga, Norman Doidge, David Adam, Yuval Noah Harari, and John McQuaid.

I'm playing catch up! There's a lot of good nonfiction out there and for some reason, I'm missing all of it. First up is Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience. From the publisher: Michael S. Gazzaniga, "the father of cognitive neuroscience," gives us an exciting behind-the-scenes look at his seminal work on the enigmatic coupling of the right and left brain. From the publisher: "His split-brain theory suggest that that the right and left hemispheres of the brain can act independently from each other and have different strengths." Why I'm interested: I just listened to the TED Radio Hour on brain science, including Jill Bolte-Taylor, who is the author of My Stroke of Genius. And ever since Richard Davidson came to town, we can't stop selling The Emotional Life of Your Brain. It was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal, where critic Sally Satel notes: "It is as much a book about gratitude—for the chance to study a subject as endlessly fascinating as the brain, for the author’s brilliant colleagues and, mostly, for the patients who taught him, and the world, so much."

What is it with all these brainiacs? Also fairly recent is The Brain's Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, by Norman Doidge. If Gazzaniga is into the split brain, Doidge, whose previous book was The Brain that Changes Itself, is into the elastic brain. From the publisher: "Doidge explores cases where patients alleviated years of chronic pain or recovered from debilitating strokes or accidents; children on the autistic spectrum or with learning disorders normalizing; symptoms of multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and cerebral palsy radically improved, and other near-miracle recoveries. And we learn how to vastly reduce the risk of dementia with simple approaches anyone can use." Until now, all we had was Sudoku! Tracy Sherlock in the Vancouver Sun, as reprinted in the Calgary Herald, called the book "astonishing...By merging scientific information into timeless and fascinating personal stories, Doidge makes his discoveries extremely readable."

For more neural stuff, we get personal with David Adam, the Nature journal editor is a book on OCD that mixes science and memoir. From the publisher: "The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought is his unflinchingly honest attempt to understand the condition and his experiences. What might lead an Ethiopian schoolgirl to eat a wall of her house, piece by piece, or a pair of brothers to die beneath an avalanche of household junk that they had compulsively hoarded? At what point does a harmless idea, a snowflake in a clear summer sky, become a blinding blizzard of unwanted thoughts? Drawing on the latest research on the brain, as well as historical accounts of patients and their treatments, this is a book that will challenge the way you think about what is normal and what is mental illness." I heard him on the radio, and it was a very good interview. His compulsion was panicking about getting AIDS. You can listen to it on Wisconsin Public Radio's Central Time.

As long as we are taking about brains, we should mention Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. From the publisher: "Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this highly original book that begins about 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas." Here's Harari on All Things Considered, discussing, among other things, the not-so-great leap forward that was the agricultural revolution.

To cap things off, before I get a snack, here's a little about Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat, by John McQuaid. This January release from a journalist (sorry, we're now delving into lay territory) posits: "Taste has long been considered the most basic of the five senses because its principal mission is a simple one: to discern food from everything else. Yet it's really the most complex and subtle. Taste is a whole-body experience, and breakthroughs in genetics and microbiology are casting light not just on the experience of french fries and foie gras, but the mysterious interplay of body and brain." David Busis in The Wall Street Journal compared this work to Gladwell, but not in a good way. Drake Bennett in Bloomberg Business was more upbeat, noting "McQuaid is a deft writer with a talent for vivid metaphors, and what he leaves you with most is a sense of all that remains unknown. In one of the most interesting chapters, he looks at the quandary of why human beings seem to take pleasure in eating painfully spicy food. Research has suggested it might be a way to feed the human hunger for risk and arousal without the downside of actual bodily harm."

Monday, February 16, 2015

Boswell Events for This Week: Paul Fischer Tonight, Quan Barry with Opening Reader Tuesday, Brittany Cavallaro Thursday, Stephen Wade Friday Afternoon, David Treuer Friday Evening, Plus Three Staff Recs

Today our email newsletter went out. It turns out I can cut and paste it into a blog. It seems hard to believe but the code moves.

Happy President's Day to you!  Let's begin by sharing some of our favorite new releases. Next week brings Home, the first picture book written and illustrated by Carson Ellis, and it's already causing a stir among picture book fans. At Winter Institute, a recent bookseller conference, Ellis had the longest signing lines at the author reception, besting folks like T.C. Boyle and Wendell Berry. And we're so excited to be hosting Ellis for a signing, but not until March 25th (at 7 pm), when Ellis travels along to several dates on the tour for The Decembrists, fronted by her husband Colin Meloy.

We have many numerous enthusiastic bookseller recommendations, but let's hear from Boswellian Barbara Katz: "Readers can anticipate a treat coming when they view the striking cover of Home and see its bright red endpapers. The large pages feature many homes, such as the artist's home on the front and pack pages, a bus home, and even a shoe home! Bold illustrations done in gouache and ink feature muted colors accented with bright red and yellow. Small details in each picture create a story for the reader to imagine. Fun touches include a bird appearing throughout the book, and surprises in the artist's studio. This beautiful book invites readers to interact with it, as they think about other homes and also answer 'Where is your home?  Where are you?'" Here's hoping Barbara convinces you to have us hold you a copy on the February 24 release date.

Another beautifully designed book is the new release, H is for Hawk.Here's a recommendation from Boswellian Mel Morrow: "When Cambridge Professor Helen Macdonald's heart is ripped from her chest by her father's untimely death, she finds solace in a goshawk named Mabel. Their training summons the spirit of T. H. White, best known for The Once and Future King, but behind that fame, a tortured man who sought redemption in manning Gos, the bitter trial captured in his lesser-known work, The Goshawk. The sleepless weeks with Mabel on her fist divide Helen's many selves until she is able to distinguish her childhood dreams from her adult desires, her father from T. H. White and falconers past, and ultimately, wilderness from civilization. H is for Hawk is a shocking, brilliant jewel of a memoir about loss and determination, as well as touching tribute to the healing power of connecting with animals. Blurring the lines between autobiography, literary criticism, and eco-poetry, this book is unlike any book you'll ever read."  H is for Hawk is the winner of the Samuel Johnson prize, named the Costa Book of the Year, and was a best of 2014 pick from The Economist and The Guardian
And finally, a reminder that A Spool of Blue Thread, the new novel from Anne Tyler, is here, and it's up to her high standards. Boswellian Sharon Nagel writes: "Starting an Anne Tyler novel always feels like coming home to Baltimore to visit your family. Never mind that I've only been to Baltimore once. This twentieth offering is no exception. It tells the history of the Whitshank family, Abby and Red, their children and grandchildren. Abby has become somewhat forgetful, and her son, Stem, and his wife, have moved back into the familial home to keep an eye on his parents. Reminiscences and flashbacks tell the tale of how Abby and Red met and fell in love. Old and new fans of Anne Tyler will relish A Spool of Blue Thread." 

Now you've got a reading list going. Here's hoping we can now help you mark your event calendar.

Documentary Filmmaker Paul Fischer Chronicles a Strange Moment in Film History Tonight, Monday, February 16, 7 pm, with North Korea at the Center. 

Boswell is excited to welcome award-winning film producer, Paul Fischer, for a talk and signing of his debut nonfiction thriller, A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power , the extraordinary true story of Kim Jong-Il's 1978 kidnapping of the noted South Korean film director and his star actress (and ex-wife), the movies they made, and their escape, being billed as The Orphan Master's Son meets Argo.

Here's Boswellian Daniel Goldin's recommendation: "In the 1970s, it was not unusual for a South Korean or Japanese person to be plucked off the beach and abducted to Pyongyang, North Korea. And while there were various reasons for these kidnappings, none are quite so strange as the case of Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, two South Koreans who were acclaimed for their work together as director and actress, but had since divorced and fallen on hard times. Could they, once re-educated, bring the North Korean film industry to a level of acclaim heretofore unknown? Drawing on the couple's unpublished-in-English memoir, interviews with various defectors and the cooperation of Madame Choi herself, in addition to what was likely to be completely contradictory news reports, Fischer has constructed a fascinating account, at once horrifying and absurd, one of the strangest incidents in a particularly strange country's history, which is also surprisingly timely, for political junkies, film buffs, or anyone who wants a great read."

Duane Dudek recently profiled Paul Fischer in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Here's a taste: "The kidnapping of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her former husband, director Shin Sang-ok, is the event around which Fischer's book A Kim Jong-Il Production is organized. But it occurs in the context of a backstory that in cinematic terms could also be considered a foreshadowing of recent North Korean threats of reprisal over The Interview, a film which portrays the assassination of current leader Kim Jong Un."

Paul Fischer is a film producer who studied social sciences at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris and film at the University of Southern California and the New York Film Academy. Paul's first feature film, the documentary Radioman, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Doc NYC festival and was released to critical and commercial acclaim. Our event with Paul Fischer is tonight at Boswell, Monday, February 16, 7 pm.
UW-Madison Professor Quan Barry at Boswell on Tuesday, February 17, 7 pm, for Her First Novel.
Boswell Book Company is proud to welcome award-winning author and professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Quan Barry, appearing for her debut novel, She Weeps Each Time You're Born, the tumultuous history of modern Vietnam as experienced by a young girl born under mysterious circumstances a few years before reunification-and with the otherworldly ability to hear the voices of the dead. Our opening reader for this event is local author Steph Kilen, winner of the journal Phoebe's 2014 Fiction Contest, who will read from her award-winning story, "Pie Girl." 

At the peak of the war in Vietnam, a baby girl is born on the night of the full moon along the Song Ma River. This is Rabbit, who will journey away from her destroyed village with a makeshift family thrown together by war. Here is a Vietnam we've never encountered before: through Rabbit's inexplicable but radiant intuition, we are privy to an intimate version of history, from the days of French Indochina and the World War II rubber plantations through the chaos of postwar reunification. With its use of magical realism-Rabbit's ability to "hear" the dead - the novel reconstructs a turbulent historical period through a painterly human lens. This luminous fiction debut is the moving story of one woman's struggle to unearth the true history of Vietnam while simultaneously carving out a place for herself within it.

Here's what Boswellian Todd Wellman had to say about She Weeps Each Time You're Born: "Barry reveals a Vietnamese people who are easy to imagine as characters in a post-apocalyptic novel a la The Road - except the sting is that these are images of people from our past, those who survived war and being carted about their country. Spanning 30 years, the novel features an artful narrator who poetically reveals the landscape while unwinding the life of Rabbit: daughter, friend, lover, ghost-whisperer, and more to those around her. It's easy to revel in Barry's language and story-lingering on description like it was dessert, attending scenes that coalesce as footage of a life of endless searching for what calls."

In addition to her novel, Saigon-born Quan Barry (you may also know her as Amy Quan Barry) is also author of four poetry books; her third book, Water Puppets, won the AWP Donald Hall Poetry Prize and was a PEN/Open Book finalist. She has received two NEA Fellowships in both fiction and poetry, and her work has appeared in such journals as The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Ms., and The New Yorker. Read more in this Boston Globe profile from Kate Tuttle. And mark your calendar for Tuesday, February 17, 7 pm, at Boswell. 
An Evening of Poetry with Brittany Cavallaro, Thursday, February 19, 7 pm, at Boswell. 

It's not often that a PhD candidate has her poetry published by a prestigious literary press, but that's the case with Brittany Cavallaro, who will read from and sign copies of her latest collection of poems, Girl-King,  which explore themes of femininity, power, sexuality, and marginalia throughout history.

The poems in Brittany Cavallaro's Girl-King are whispered from behind a series of masks, those of victim and aggressor, nineteenth-century madam and reluctant magician's girl, of truck-stop Persephone and frustrated Tudor scholar. This "expanse of girls, expanding still" chase each other through history, disappearing in an Illinois cornfield only to reemerge on the dissection table of a Scottish artist-anatomist. But these poems are not just interested in historical narrative: they peer, too, at the past's marginalia, at its blank pages as well as its scrawls and dashes. Always, they return to the dark, indelicate question of power and sexuality, of who can rule the city where no one is from. These girls search for the connection between "alive and will stay that way," between each dying star and the emptiness that can collapse everything.

Brittany Cavallaro's poems have appeared in the Gettysburg ReviewTin House, and the Best New Poets anthology. She received her MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was awarded the Milofsky Prize in Creative Writing. Recently, she is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference as well as fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is currently a PhD student. And yes, her first young adult novel, A Study in Charlotte, has already been acquired by the Kathereine Tegen imprint at HarperCollins. Celebrate with us on Thursday, February 19, 7 pm.
Preview the Milwaukee Rep's One-Man Show with Stephen Wade on Friday, February 20, at a Special Time of 3 pm.

Please join us for a talk and some music by Stephen Wade, the Grammy-nominated star of the one-man show The Beautiful Music All Around Us. A perfect piece for the 
heartland, lovers of folk music, bluegrass, history, long-lost melodies, and true Americana will revel in Stephen Wade's show, based on the book The Beautiful Music All Around Us. Wade showcases nearly two decades of research in which he tracked down the communities, families, and performers connected with early Library of Congress field recordings across the American South, including the Southern Appalachians, Mississippi Delta, and the Great Plains. This iconic, enduring music, recorded in the '30s and '40s, brings to life those everyday people-prisoners, cowboys, farmers, and housewives-who poignantly captured the American experience.

Musician and author Stephen Wade has spent nearly his entire life studying American folk-life, uniting the twin strands of scholarship and the creative arts. Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, Wade was exposed to a number of vernacular musicians who had moved north to the city from the Mississippi Delta and the Southern Appalachians. By the late 1970s, he developed Banjo Dancing, a theatrical performance combining storytelling, traditional music, and percussive dance, one of the longest-running, off-Broadway shows in the nation. A recipient of the Helen Hayes/Charles MacArthur award, Wade has also received the Joseph Jefferson award for his work. Wade's folksong commentaries have aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. He is also the author of Banjo Diary: Lessons from Tradition on Smithsonian Folkways, which was nominated for a Grammy.

The Beautiful Music All Around Us runs at the Stackner Cabaret through March 15. For more information and to buy tickets, visit theMilwaukee Rep website
David Treuer Returns to Milwaukee for His Newest Novel, Friday, February 20, 7 pm, co-sponsored by UWM American Indian Student Services.

Frankie Washburn returns to his family's rustic Minnesota resort for one last visit before he joins World War II as a bombardier, headed for the darkened skies over Europe. Awaiting him at the Pines are those he's about to leave behind: his hovering mother; the distant father to whom he's been a disappointment; the Indian caretaker who's been more of a father to him than his own; and Billy, the childhood friend who over the years has become something much more intimate. But before the homecoming can be celebrated, the search for a German soldier, escaped from the POW camp across the river, explodes in a shocking act of violence, with consequences that will reverberate years into the future for all of them and that will shape how each of them makes sense of their lives.

Here's what Boswellian Daniel Goldin has to say about Prudence: "This is a world of lost opportunities and missed connections, where the chances for happiness cannot just be tripped up by who one loves, but by who one is. Treuer's 1940s remote landscape mirrors the characters souls, where the only two options are desolation or delusion. Beautifully written, artfully told."

  Jim Higgins at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is also a fan. He writes: "Treuer returns late in the novel to the Germans, introducing a POW who has remained in Minnesota, married an Ojibwe woman and carved out a new life through his cleverness, dexterity and moonshine still. A confrontation with a surprise visitor exposes some of the same questions as the stories of Prudence, Frankie and Billy: How truly does one know the person one loves? What do new revelations about a beloved's past mean? What does one need to know?"

 

David Treuer is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. The author of three previous novels and two books of nonfiction, he has also written for The New York TimesLos Angeles Times, and Slate. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology and teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. David Treuer's first teaching job was at UWM in the 1990s and wrote much of The Hiawatha while living in Milwaukee. Celebrate the publication of Prudence on Friday, February 20, 7 pm, at Boswell.