So I was visiting my mom and sister in Massachusetts for a few days, and I asked my sister, "Do you want me to bring you a book?" And she says, "Yes, but bring me something lighter this time. Everything you're reading is so sad." And I'm paraphrasing here of course, as I wasn't taping the conversation, and had no intention of using this to jump-start a blog post*.
But it's true, I thought. I really have been reading some sad stuff lately. Beautiful, yes. Inspiring, yes. But sad.
Can it be that I am influenced by Pixar's Inside Out, which while not getting the gross of Jurassic World, is still the movie of the summer, at least for me? While I love Amy Poehler's Joy, there's no question that Phyllis Smith's Sadness takes the story to another level. OK, well maybe Richard Kind's Bing Bong does too, but I'll save my imaginary friend thoughts for another day. (Really! Amie and I were discussing that imaginary friends are hot in the children's book world). Alan Sepinwall in Hitflix called Inside Out Pixar's "best movie ever" and Sadness is the reason.
I'm not talking about weepies here. I don't think you'll be crying hysterically. But these books do help a reader work through one's emotions and the result is a little more complicated that pure release all-out crying. And I should mention that one of the books I was thinking about, as was my sister, was Matthew Thomas's We are Not Ourselves, and I did hear from one reader that she bawled for the last 200 pages.
Many sad books simulate grieving, don't they? And it's not the death itself that brings us sadness, or we'd be crying a lot more reading murder mysteries. Yes, the death is sad, but the decline can be even harder, as we know from Thomas's story. And dealing with the loss, and trying to get life back on track afterwards can be mighty hard too. The new memoir from David Payne, Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother's Story, took fifteen years to write.
While each of Dean Bakopoulos's three novels had different tones (the first elegaic, the second manic, the third resigned), all of them had a sombre tone, even when the story is in fact quite funny, and there's no question that sadness is a big part of that. In Summerlong, some characters are struggling with the end of a marriage, while others are contemplating the passing of life.
I think all this sadness reading was meant to culminate in the release of Lauren Fox's third novel, Days of Awe. Like David Payne, Fox has written a novel about carrying on in the face of the death of someone close to you, first idealizing that relationship, and then coming to terms with its imperfections. Like Bakopoulous, Fox has a wild sense of humor that is not just fun to read, but beautifully captures life's absurdities. And like Matthew Thomas, Fox is very good at everyday details, and while not a vivid celebration of place, the way at least the first half of We Are Not Ourselves is towards Queens, its distinctively Milwaukee, and that's something we do not get much of in novels from New York publishing (though Amy Reichert's The Coincidence of Coconut Cake is also recently out).
This is Fox's third novel with Knopf and it's feeling like a big moment. Of course Still Life with Husband was released when I was at Schwartz, and so while I read the book, I had no connection with the author. Pivotal scenes were set at White's Bookshop, and if you know that many of the local details were coined by the law of opposites, that was in fact the Schwartz ("black" in German) Bookshop in Shorewood.
When Friends Like Us was released, it was during Boswell's tenure, and we hosted the event. But a lot of us still didn't know Fox well, And we certainly didn't hear about the book as it was coming together. But this time Jason and I attended the Knopf party at Book Expo 2014 and chatted with Fox's editor Jenny Jackson. She mentioned that a draft of the novel had just arrived and how excited she was by it. She had also told us about a little book she was excited about called Station Eleven. Nice going!
The advance copies came just about a year later and committed to making Days of Awe one of my books to talk about at the 2015 Book Expo. I think it's important to have a book to talk up when you're interacting with other booksellers. Let that be a lesson to all of you who do not prepare in this way! (Fox's photo credit is Amanda Schlicher).
The enthusiasm at Boswell has been very strong. There are at least four big fans of Fox's work on staff, and three sent in recommendations.
Sharon Nagel: "Isabel Moore seems to have it all – a happy marriage, a loving daughter, and a close friendship with Josie, a fellow teacher. Things certainly can change on a dime. As Lauren Fox’s latest novel opens, Isabel’s husband has moved out, her daughter is barely speaking to her, and her best friend is dead, disastrously killed in an automobile accident. Days of Awe is an attempt to make sense of tragedy and loss, while still finding humor and grace in everyday life. A reminder to appreciate what you have, and how quickly you can lose it."
Jannis Mindel: "Isabel Moore's life is in the midst of chaos. Her best friend and fellow teacher has died in a tragic car accident. Her once happy marriage has fallen apart in the wake of her grief and her daughter has begun her moody journey through adolescence. Lauren Fox has written a wickedly funny, heartbreaking and tender portrayal of motherhood, marriage, and relationships."
Me (Daniel Goldin): "Lauren Fox captures that moment in life when the world seems like it’s falling apart, and to be fair, it sort of is. Isabel Moore is a distinctively Lauren Fox heroine, observant and funny and painfully self-conscious, and Days of Awe might be her best book yet, all the better for striking some raw nerves is it mines for the truth mother lode."
It's so early that we just don't know what the trade reviews will be. How will it connect with critics? The advance reviews are strong. Publishers Weekly wrote: "Filled with insecurities and anxieties, Isabela's nuanced character is relatablea her struggles are universal and the reader will root for her to succeed. Raw and darkly humorous at times, Fox's novel is a winner. "
And here's a great excerpt from Kirkus Reviews: "What makes the book so special is Isabel's smart, acerbic voice and her way of seeing everything from a sharp angle. Fox studs Izzy's narration with surprising metaphors, turning ordinary domestic items into dangerous beasts ('the herd of wild minivans') and Josie's fatal accident into something almost domestic ('Her rusty 11-year-old Toyota skidded off the slick road like a can of soup rolling across a supermarket aisle'). Isabel (and Fox) has such an offbeat way of looking at things that you'll eagerly keep reading just to see what she's going to say next. Read it for the magnetic voice and Fox's ever interesting perspective on work, love, friendship, and parenthood-because, really, what else is there?"
Shelf Awareness is a bookseller newsletter that offers longer reviews of upcoming books. Kathleen Gerard wrote about Days of Awe recently and was quite enthusiastic: "Humor brings levity to Fox's frank, thought-provoking story that adds surprising depth and meaning, layer upon layer, page by page. As in Fox's other novels, Still Life with Husband and Friends Like Us, she presents scenes of seemingly mundane life that resonate with much larger and deeper dramatic implications. By employing a wry, likable narrator to chronicle the aching, pull-and-tug of grief and the joys and perils of domestic life, Fox once again explores, with a smart and refreshing perspective, the underside of friendships, marriage, love and loss--and the range of emotions that can plague and liberate the human heart."
I'm not sure if I'm allowed to mention this, but Fox's publisher tried to move away from the relationship drama covers of her first two novel, but there were accounts that would commit to the book in a bigger way if the cover became more distinctly female. Being a painting, it still has an artsy-literary twist to it, but I also like the pointillist bent of the earlier incarnation, which was also a woman's face, only you couldn't exactly tell on first looking at it. It's sort of Seurat meets pixel. Speaking of jackets, that German edition of Friends Like Us is pretty racy, no?
There are so many books out there, but it's clear that if reviewers (and readers) find this book, a whole bunch of them will fall in love with it. No, there's not a murder, and the only zombies and aliens are us, all too human, and yes, as a woman, the story will be categorized as women's fiction, as opposed to if a man told basically the same story, but these are all things we have to live with. There was a little panic as the book was not showing up on the best novels of summer, but Jason and I thought that most summer round ups want the books out by July, if not June, and August 4, the book's release date, already seems like a fall preview. And the story is nothing if not autumnal, with much of it taking place at the school where Isabel and Josie taught together.
I can't help but end by returning to Inside Out. Now when I read Days of Awe, "I keep thinking about Phyllis Smith's Sadness knocking aside Amy Poehler's Joy and taking control of Isabel, knowing that they probably have to work together to survive. But some of the asides have a touch of Mindy Kaling's Disgust in them, don't they? And since I do enjoy these clever profiles, here is Fear and Anger.
Days of Awe publication is Tuesday, August 4, and it begins with an event at Boswell. You can reserve your copy right now. At right is Fox participating in our Independent Bookstore Day quiz show, along with other FOBs (friends of Boswell) Larry Watson, Carole E. Barrowman, and Mike Fischer. She wound up raising money for Pathfinders. And it was a lot of fun, so keep an eye out to see when we do it again.
Can't make our event? Maybe you're near one of these venues.
Thursday, August 6, 7 pm, at the Highland Park (Illinois) Library.
Tuesday, August 11th, 7 pm, Brilliant Books in Traverse City
Wednesday, August 12th, 7pm: Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor
Thursday, August 13th, 7 pm: Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis
Tuesday, August 18th, 7 pm: Joseph Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati
Wednesday, Wednesday, August 19th, Round Lake Library in Round Lake (Illinois)
Wednesday, August 20th, 7 pm: Books and Company in Oconomowoc.
There are probably more out there, but this is what I found.
*To circle back to my opening, I'm probably going to send Days of Awe to both sister, even though one of them asked me to parcel out the sadness. But don't worry, I upped the joy quotient too, too, by sending as a gift Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove. And just one sad novel update - one of my favorite books of 2014, All My Puny Sorrows, is now out in paperback.