Friday, July 3, 2015

This should be the "what did the book club think?" post for Lily King's "Euphoria" but due to circumstances beyond my control (I can't find the notes), it's more of a meditation.

As I mentioned on a recent post, we recently updated our book club brochure. It was due for revision; there are a number of paperback release that have exploded in popularity in the past few months. While almost all of them hit the bestsellers lists in hardcover, several of them seem to be reaching even greater heights of success in paperback. Both Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and The Vacationers, by Emma Straub climbed their way to the top ten, while both Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, and Euphoria, by Lily King, bubbled under the top 15. It's so great to see quality books (well, at least from my perspective, being that I enjoyed them all) finding popular success. Of course this is all in perspective--they are a speck in the universe compared to say, an even remotely popular film.

Now we have several other favorites that have not gone top ten on the New York Times bestseller list, including several that did make the top 15 in hardcover, most notably We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas, and Nora Webster, by Colm Toíbín. So after spending something like an hour looking at hardcover bestsellers lists, I've come to the conclusion that a slow steady climb bodes better for paperback success than a pop and drop. I think the first indicates word of mouth, while the second is the result of publicity hits. By that measure, we should see a good paperback run for Anita Diamant's The Boston Girl which at least on the lists, performed more like a scrappy underdog than a seasoned superstar. And heck, that's not a bad thing. Oh, and I also think that really long books have more trouble breaking out in paperback. Yes, I know The Goldfinch is doing fine in paperback.

Of the books that broke out in paperback, I remember Everything I Never Told You, which was a May 2014 release in hardcover, creeping up to just under the top 15 in early 2015. But I can't for the life of me figure out exactly where Euphoria got to and when. The book came out in June 2014, and we saw some nice pop in sales from the reviews in July, but it was when the book started to make all the best-of lists that our sales exploded, with year-end sales (December and January) more than double the sales from the first three months (and remembering that we're an independent bookstore, not BigMart or, we're talking about 27 copies, but for a non-event, non-bulk sale, that's quite good. But for the paperback, we're closing in on 100 copies, and the book doesn't feel tapped out at all. And that's happening all over the country. (Photo is courtesy of author website).

This is Lily King's fourth novel with Grove Atlantic, and like the example of Anthony Doerr and Scribner, this a great payoff for an author and publisher sticking with each other. And according to interviews, all the books were edited by Elizabeth Schmitz, the editor behind such works as Cold Mountain and Peace Like a River, and more recent breakouts such as H is for Hawk and An Unnecessary Woman. Grove Atlantic worked very hard on Euphoria, featuring the book and author both at 2014's Winter Institute and Book Expo. And that's just the bookseller component. I'm not saying that always works, but it certainly can, and did this time.

So sadly, what a lot of folks don't remember is that Boswell hosted King for a small event for her third novel, Father of the Rain. While it was a great was a summer event, without quite the right hook, for a book that was getting accolades--it wound up winning the New England Book Award for fiction--but just didn't have the momentum behind it. I thought I had a good recommendation, but it just wasn't sticky, as we say. A wonderful person, a passionate read, but just didn't get that sweet spot of 25+ that might have led to us getting on the King tour for the next book. Here's that passionate read, by the way.

"The father-daughter relationship can offer no fewer complications than the traditional father-son one, only with sexual tension substituting for rivalry. In King’s third novel, she fuels the mix with alcoholism, bigotry, and old money. The story is structured like a play in three acts, moving from Daley Amory’s childhood (when her mom leaves the monstrous Gardiner) to early adulthood (when wife #2 Catherine walks out, leaving her holding the caregiver bag) to a last attempt at reconciliation. There are lots of disturbing moments along the way—giving up her professorship and her chance at happiness with her boyfriend Jonathan are only part of the shortlist. Badly behaved is putting it mildly. Father of the Rain is not a book to recommend to someone wanting exciting plot twists, but this quiet character study is quietly moving in its deftly-told fashion." (Daniel)

So what was different about Euphoria? For one thing, it was King's first historical novel. Of course there are many different kinds of historicals, and King chose to use the loose story of Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands, but change all the names, so that while the book was heavily researched, the history didn't get in the way of the story. We see a lot of that lately, most recently with, as I've said before, Jim Shepard's The Book of Aron and Judith Claire Mitchell's A Reunion of Ghosts. Interestingly enough, when we were reading the book for our In-store Book Club, some attendees found this freeing, while others were frustrated when the book veered from reality. No spoilers here, but there's quite a bit of veering. And yet, it didn't stop several others from reading Coming of Age in Samoa, and noticing the similarities.

One of the beautiful things about Euphoria is that it looks at anthropology, Margaret Mead's work in particular, and extrapolating the scientific method to social sciences in general, showing how fieldwork can be affected by the workers. Can you really study a tribe while employing some of them as servants. And can you really generalizations about human nature without putting your own worldview and prejudices into the construct? That's one thing we see again and again in Euphoria--the dynamics of the triangle play out in their research.

So how did our book club discussion go? Most people liked it, a few people loved it, a few didn't like it any more. Honestly, that's pretty par for the course--bell curve. While booksellers can be pretty good at predicting what books will be liked, and who will like them, there's always an outlier. I suggested to one customer that he buy The Red Notebook for his wife, and she hated it. And that's after selling lots and lots and lots of Antoine Laurain to customers that had pretty similar tastes. I never said it would win the Nobel prize (no, that was left to The Red Notebook character Patrick Modiano), only that reading the book was a lovely way to spend some time.

It's true confession time. I can't find my notes from our Euphoria discussion. But honestly, I don't think you'll go wrong if your book club picks it. I wish I had taped Jane discussing the book, but I did not. But I can tell you what the cover is--it's a closeup of the rainbow eucalyptus tree.

Coming up, the in-store lit group is meeting on Tuesday, July 7, 7 pm to discuss the as-mentioned-above Matthew Thomas's We Are Not Ourselves. We bumped the discussion by a day so I could work the Daniel Silva in conversation with Jody Hirsh event at the JCC for The English Spy. Tickets still available.

For August 3, 7 pm, we're discussing My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. This is one of those books that people have been telling me to read by several years. It's translated from Italian and is published by the independent Europa. And if people wind up liking it, there are more novels in the series.

And then I'm going to lead a special pre-event book club discussion on Thursday, August 20, 6 pm, for Rebecca Makkai's The Hundred-Year House. The event at 7 will be a joint appearance with Makkai, appearing for her new book of stories, Music for Wartime, and Aleksandar Hemon, for his new novel, The Making of Zombie Wars.  But for the 6 pm event, we'll be talking about The Hundred-Year House. It will be a spoiler zone, so we ask only folks who've read The Hundred Year House to attend. It will be a traditional book club meeting, except that Makkai will attend for the last part so we can ask her questions, ones with spoilers, I should add.

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