Monday, February 8, 2016

George Hodgman Taps into Our National and My Personal Obsession with Caregiving (and Hodgman is at Boswell for Bettyville on Wednesday, February 10, 7 pm)

Have you ever read a number of books in a row and only realized in retrospect that the books were related? I think I'm picking books at random, but this is clearly not the case. For example, I just finished the newest novel from Cathleen Schine, titled They May Not Mean To, But They Do. It comes out in April. It's about a couple both struggling with their aging parents. Freddie's father keeps getting asked to leave his assisted living facility in Los Angeles, while Molly's parents back in New York are still in their apartment, but her father is barely holding on, and her mom, in her mid-eighties, is trying to take care of him while still keeping her job at a museum. The book comes out in June, when I'll have more to say about it, but folks anxiously awaiting Schine's latest will not be disappointed.

Last month I read My Father the Pornographer, a memoir from Christopher Offutt, which officially goes on sale February 9.  I've been a big fan of Offutt's for years; if my reading lists were more organized, I could list which books I've read, but let it be said that I'm pretty positive that I've read two other memoirs, a short story collection, and a novel. I'm assuming he waited for his dad to pass away before writing this book, but to my knowledge, there was really no hint that his father was a prolific writer of adult content work, written using various pseudonyms and covering just about every sub-genre. At its heart, however, it's a father-son story, and in a lot of ways, it's about the changing relationship he had with his father as each one aged. In this case, his mom took care of his father, and while they had a working relationship for much of their life and kept the secret together (he wrote, she typed), she certainly had her hands full; Dad did not seem like the most pleasant person to be around. You can read my rec here.

There's a cultural zeitgeist regarding caregiving. Look at the reaction to Can't We Take About Something More Pleasant? Not that that book wasn't amazing, but there are a lot of amazing books in the world but they don't generally sell like Roz Chast's. And of course Chast herself has never had a book that sold like that either. 

And then there's George Hodgman. His memoir Bettyville came out last year and has gotten raves from any number of publications and shows, such as Fresh Air, the Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times. It's even being adapted into a series for Paramount television. It's a book that really touches a nerve. One of our sales reps, not the rep for Bettyville, told me how much she loved the book. She'd done her share of caregiving and told me that Hodgman put into words what so many feel when they are in the position. And then I was talking to someone at public radio about another book, who when she heard we were hosting Hodgman, practically swooned. "I love that book," she exclaimed. 

I hadn't read the book in hardcover publication, even though everyone was convinced I had. When feelers were put out that the publisher was considering sending Hodgman to Milwaukee for the paperback, I dug in. Bettyville so captured the dynamic of mother and son - of a gay man struggling with addiction, having gotten through the AIDS crisis, lost his job, juggled freelance work, of having escaped a small town only to have to return. And his mom too had her own disappointments, outliving her husband and a companion, accepting her lot but also wistfully shopping at the fancy stores in St. Louis, imagining what it would be like to have had, well, a different lot. But after reading the book, you can't help but love them both.

So with all this success, Bettyville is now out in paperback and George Hodgman (photo credit Sigrid Estrada) is coming to Boswell on Wednesday, February 10, 7 pm*, but after that, Jane and I will be talking Bettyville up to book clubs all spring, and if we hit a nerve, longer than that. I think the nerve it hits is clear. And it does it so well. As Steve Weinberg wrote in the Kansas City Star: "What a superb memoir it turned out to be. Hodgman is by turns wry, laugh-out-loud funny, self-deprecating, insecure to the point of near suicide, an attentive caregiver despite occasional, understandable resentments."

So the thing to note is that my own mother, who has been in assisted living for several years, has been struggling with decline. I'm not the family member on duty - that honor goes to my sister in Massachusetts. We haven't been able to talk of late since she just can't hear over the phone. I installed Skype, only to have her get a infection that led to a hospital stay and further decline and now I'm worried she won't know who I am. I hope to visit her sometime soon, but for now, I've been getting updates from Claudia and sharing news with my other sister, Merrill, in Arizona.

So when I told Claudia that I was buying her a signed copy of Bettyville, she said to me that she wasn't sure that this was exactly what she wanted to read right now. But I said, trust me, I'm a bookseller, and this is exactly what you want to read right now. I could be wrong, but I'm feeling confident. We'll see how it goes.

*Our caregiving memoir series (I guess it's a series now) continues on Wednesday, February 24, 7 pm, when we're hosting local writer Joel Kriofske, author of And Good Night to All the Beautiful Young Women: A Tale of Episodic Dementia - The Parent Becomes the Child. It's the story of his relationship with his father as the latter drifted in dementia. 

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