Sometimes you just don't know where you're next favorite book will come from. I read a lot of reviews, but when The Turner House came out, I thought to myself, that this seems like a good book. I have a pile of good books, a tower of good books, a castle of good books. I don't have an event with this author, so I'm not getting pressured to read it, and I don't know the editor, so he or she isn't sending me very lovely notes about why this is the best book ever.
It got a wonderful review from Mike Fischer at the Journal Sentinel, which always resonates with me. But of course I had already fallen in love with another National Book Award shortlist title, Fates and Furies, and we were hosting an event with another, the eventual winner, Adam Johnson for Fortune Smiles. And I didn't want this to turn into a three-way emotional horse race, so I put off the read until paperback, where I hoped we'd read it for our in-store lit group.
But Mr. Fischer made another pitch in the store. There are books he loves and books that I love, and he was well aware that not every book is in the intersection. But he Venn Diagrammed me on this one and he was completely correct. I love this review quote, which really captures the story in all its poetic glory: "For all our past failures and disappointments, can we be more than the ruins we all eventually resemble? Can we escape the haints that would pull us backward into a darker past? Do we, against the evidence, still dare to hope?"
The story is set in Detroit. I have been reading a lot of Detroit books lately, including Beer Money, Frances Stroh's memoir of growing up at the tail-end of a beer dynasty, and much but not quite all of Once in a Great City, David Maraniss's history of early sixties Detroit. On my pile now is Tom Stanton's Terror in the City of Champions, a story of domestic terrorism in the 1930s set against an unprecedented year of Motor City sports achievements. Stanton's coming to Boswell on Friday, June 10, 7 pm.
The Turner family home is in East Detroit. The patriarch has died, mom's having health problems and is now living at her eldest son Cha-Cha's house, and though she's raring to return, her kids, 13 in all, know that's not likely to happen. The house is under water from remortgaging and the kids are not on the same page about what to do - keep the house and have someone live with her, or sell at a short sale. One son, Troy, as the idea to sell at a short sale to a friend of the family, keeping the house but getting the bank to take the hit.
One of the great things about Angela Flournoy's novel is that it is very much a story about a story about a contemporary African American family, and yet the large family complications and machinations are universal. I convinced my colleague Jane to read the book and she took to it in a big way. Being that she's from a family of 12 herself, she saw some of the same family dynamics play out in her own family.
Despite all these characters, Flournoy wisely decides to focus on three of them - the oldest son \Charles, and the two youngest, Troy and Lelah. That said, you really get a feeling for a lot of the siblings and there's one fascinating passage where every sibling gets their voice.
And there's another through line -- Cha Cha is convinced that he's seeing a haint. That's like a ghost, only with a bit of an African American twist. Haints are one of the plot points of Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men, so I know have an additional homework assignment to read that. You can also check out Flournoy's essay about the book's influence on her in The Atlantic.
There's so much to talk about in this book. There's the issue of parental caregiving, which we've also been discussing in George Hodgman's Bettyville. There's the backstory of Detroit itself. There are the family dynamics, and there's also the Great Migration from the South to Detroit, and what happened when the jobs dried up. And there's the way that Flournoy gave each character a struggle - you might call it an addition - Cha Cha's haint is most noticeable, but there's also Lelah's gambling addition, one sibling who has struggled with drugs, the brother obsessed with self help success, and the sister who a collector verging on hoarder.
And of course there is the youngest daughter Lelah's predicament, homeless through a series of bad breaks and of course her uncontrolled gambling. Its like a story straight out of Matthew Desmond's Eviction. And I want to note that Flournoy does a really great job capturing the euphoria that gambler's feel in the moment.
Albert didn't expect to like The Turner House but he was won in by Flournoy's ability to radiate humanity. These characters are real and you feel the flaws. On the other side was Mickey, who didn''t connect with the characters. Other attendees, however, wound up liking a number of the characters a lot. I had one reader say to me, "I am totally Francey!"
Jeff thought that Flournoy had a particularly good ear for dialogue, particularly the party scene. And by the way, according to Daniel's law, this is in my book officially a comic novel, as it ends with a party. I also really loved the party, I want to add. That was another scene when the less-seen siblings really came to life.
Juli loved it. She really enjoyed the obsessions, and found the therapist an interesting character. I forgot to mention that Cha Cha sees this therapist when his haint causes an accident and while she clears him, he keeps seeing her until things get a little complicated on both sides.
We had a few more loves, some mixed, some disappointed - the usual mix. This is the market of a great book club selection; you need a little disagreement to keep the juices flowing. One problem we had with A Man Called Ove was that everyone liked it so much and the conversation seemed to peter out after we all agreed it was good. Backman suggests that book clubs read My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry instead - it's a lot more polarizing!
For Jane and me thought, the book hit hard, and it's been so much fun telling folks to read it. We're in the top five stores for sales on Above the Treeline (which most indies use as a buying resource but I obsesss over in terms of how we're doing against other stores on particular titles) and for a while we were #1, but we've slowed down after the book club. I'm hoping to get a lot of clubs in the metro area to choose it.
Rand Richards Cooper reviewed The Turner House for Commonweal Magazine. He wrote: "Flournoy’s command of unspectacular daily realities is near perfect. She’ll write a passage describing life on an automobile assembly line, and not only does she get it right, but the passage lacks the researchy feel that such set-pieces can have; instead, the depiction of work forms a seamless and necessary part of the evocation of the life of Cha-Cha Turner, the family member who’s working the line. Flournoy moves deftly from small daily actions to the interpretations her characters themselves make of those actions; she catches the way people read big meanings into the small events of their own lives"
Oh, and if you wind up liking The Turner House, I've already read two books coming out this fall that have to go on your to-be-read list - Brit Bennett's The Mothers and Jacqueline Woodson's Another Brooklyn. Flournoy has a great quote on The Mothers, which is one of the things that drew me to this book coming this fall.
I've got our next three in-store lit group selections laid out and take special note, because two meetings don't follow our normal schedule.
On Monday, June 6, 6 pm, we're reading Paul Goldberg's The Yid. We're meeting early so we can attend his conversation at 7 with Joel Berkowitz of the UWM Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies. The Yid is set in the last days of Stalin, when a ragtag group of rebels comes up with a plan to assassinate him. Goldberg will stop by at the end of our discussion to let us ask spoiler questions. Don't attend if you haven't read - we plan to reveal all twists! Note that you get 10% off on our selection if you're reading it for the book club, but folks are getting 20% off on this one since we don't normally choose a hardcover. It's hard coded, so you don't have to ask on this.
Because Boswell closes at 5 on July 4, the in-store lit group will move to Monday, July 11, 7 pm, to discuss Anne Tylers A Spool of Blue Thread. The science fiction group is also meeting at that time so we'll be at the back of the store. I've read a lot of Tyler over the years but stopped a few books ago, but this one has gotten some of her best reviews and was shortlist for both the Baileys Womens Prize and the Man Booker Prize.
Speaking of prizes, well be discussing Viet Tranhn Nguyen's The Sympathizer, recent winner of the Pulitzer as well as the Edgar for Best First Novel. It's about a group of Vietnamese folks who post-war, wind up in an American immigrant community. And one is a spy!