Thursday, July 14, 2016

The "What did the book club think of Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread" post turns out to be a jumping off point for me to write about my longtime love of Anne Tyler.

I'm missing an Anne Tyler book!

This thought came to me I was putting together my thoughts on A Spool of Blue Thread, the 20th novel by Anne Tyler, and the subject of our most recent in-store lit group discussion. I knew I had read every book since Digging to America, bought but skipped reading The Beginner's Goodbye and Noah's Compass, and then when Spool exploded in sales for us (compared to her last few), I realized I was choosing the only Tyler book I didn't own to read. Go figure.

My college friend Julia recommended her first to me, and they always say that you have a particularly warm place in your heart for the first novel that you come to love. For me, it was Searching for Caleb, the story of a tight-knit family, the Pecks, and the patriarch Daniel's attempt to locate his long-lost brother Caleb. I find the book so interesting now because it resonates with some of the themes of Tyler's new book, and all of them, but it reminds me that I haven't really heard from my friend in 14 years, having sort of disappeared after she released a rather reflective memoir. Art imitates life, or vice versa.

I don't know if I feel comfortable reading my copy of Searching for Caleb, as it's a rather brittle mass market. I think I read the book in 1981 or 82 because Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was the first of her hardcover books that I paid attention to. I thought I bought it in hardcover, but hey, I barely had a job and picked it up in mass market (which is a correction from the original post. See more below.* After finishing that, I looked around for more backlist titles and finding them turned out to be harder than I thought - several of the titles had slipped out of print.

Back then, paperback rights were generally sold off by hardcover publishers to (mostly mass market) paperback houses. I ran around looking for copies that were still available and finally hit the jackpot at the Womrath's in Fresh Meadows (next a Bloomingdales, and seemingly closed an hour after the department store announced it was leaving the area). They were Popular Library editions, first part of CBS, which I think they acquired with the magazine company Fawcett, and became part of Random House's Ballantine division. I'd say that is why the paperbacks are published by Ballantine today, instead of being fed from Knopf to  Vintage or Anchor, which would keep it within one Penguin Random House division, but those Popular Library books were sold off to Warner, and the ones we had the rights on stayed with us for a few years until the rights were renegotiated to Berkley, which I think started publishing Tyler when they acquired Playboy Books (really, there was one), who bought the paperback rights to Morgan's Passing for a lot of money. But who really knows? Look closely and you can see the Playboy colophon on my paperback. It's not a bunny, by the way.

I have kept very few of my old mass markets - just these and an assortment of Margaret Atwoods. Maybe I'll start reading Atwood again too? But I stopped reading her because of the science fiction direction (too different) while in the case of Tyler, it might have been overfamiliarity. When I'd read mystery series, I'd eventually stop, thinking, OK, I get it. This was back when I could read faster and whatever I wanted - now of course I'm forced to read new and upcoming events, and that means I get to read one book in a series before I stop, instead of 5-6 or in the case of Dick Francis (and his wife), about 10. Elmore Leonard is different. I considered him more like Anne Tyler than a mystery. he didn't even really start doing recurring protagonists until late in his career. But I digress.

Anne Tyler's 20th novel - I can't say it's the newest, as Vinegar Girl was just released - is set in Baltimore, of course. It's about a quirky family, the Whitshanks, who don't always get along but still stick together, sort of. Their son Denny has no tolerance for conflict and is likely to run off after a spat and disappear. Some have compared the parents Red and Abby to the couple in Breathing Lessons, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that pretty much takes place during a couple's road trip, very different people that have trouble getting along but wind up unable to break the bonds of family and time. Not sure if I got that exactly right - I am definitely not going to read 21 novels to write a blog post, unless somebody pays me enough money to hire people to do all the other things I have to do at Boswell. Seems unlikely.

Someone implied that like Tyler's other creations, the Whitshanks lived in the old money Roland Park, but I don't remember that ever being mentioned. I do know that Abby's family lived in Hamden, where her father ran a hardware store, and wherever Red's parents lived, it was considered more upscale than that.

So Red's father Junior builds this beautiful house for a client (the family is in construction) and Red and Abby wind up living there too, but it's likely that their kids will not, until they decide that their parents need someone to take care of them, mostly because Abby is having these blackouts. She pooh-poohs them, insists its not dementia, but it's a little scary that she is, as they would say, disappearing. It was interesting to our book club to discuss this soon after Angela Flournoy's The Turner House. Boswellian Jane had also noticed the similarities and somewhere she has a chart (alas, I'm not going to duplciate it hear) with Tyler and Flournoy's novels compared and contrasted.

I have mentioned that A Spool of Blue Thread has been a much bigger success than her previous two novels, and while it was before Boswell, I'm guessing it is outselling books going further back like Digging to America. Reviews have been good but not always - Michiko Kakutani was quite dismissive, comparing it unfavorably to earlier works, with Digging to America being the last book that she liked, probably because she liked the immigrant themes that Tyler wove into that story. It's not a great review so I'm not linking to it. Do your own digging.

But I really think what's been driving sales has been the British reaction to A Spool of Blue Thread. While she's been published in the UK, they definitely had a big campaign for this one themed around "Anne Tyler is the best novelist you've never read" and Tyler supported that with a good more interviews than she's done of late. And while I don't think you could ever relaunch Tyler like that here, due to previous accolades, her reaction in the UK has been quieter. So the book was shortlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) and then it truly hit paydirt. In only the second year that the Man Booker was opened to all books written in English and published in the UK, A Spool of Blue Thead made the shortlist. And Tyler is just the kind of author the that much of Great Britain adores - you can see her fitting into the canon of Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, Angela Thirkell, and even Ivy Compton-Burnett.

So what did the book club think? Of the 12 of us, most of were in the middle, liking the book but not feeling it was groundbreaking. I remember reading recently, perhaps in Chuck Klosterman's But What If We're Wrong, that someone who has produced a good amount of work finds their newest creations judged not just against other works, but against their own work. So if you don't keep breaking new ground, you're falling behind. But I've noticed a contrary development as well, the building buzz factor. So it you haven't broken out, each book gets better, in the sense that it gets more attention and reviews, as more people discover it. But this did not account for the folks in the group who had not read Tyler before and still thought it was perfectly fine. I will note that several attendees took exception to Red and Abby being old in their seventies. Even one of Tyler's biggest fans thought maybe the couple should have been in their eighties But Tyler herself is 74, and so it seems fair her to make that decision.

One interesting discussion we had was about believability. Amusingly enough, when one attendee complained about a certain incident that gave the book its title, I was able to note from an interview that while Tyler in general does not draw from her own life, at least consciously, that said incident actually happened to her. But my usual reaction to the "didn't believe it" argument is "It's a novel. It didn't really happen."

We had one attendee who absolutely hated the book, which is always interesting if you don't take the assault on your own taste personally, as it keeps the discussion lively. But for me, it just reminded me that I not only have three Anne Tyler books I haven't read, but that I have 17 others to reread. Being that my sister Merrill is currently rereading every Anita Brookner (an author where I've read everything except her last novel, and I don't know why I stopped there), it certainly can be done. And there's always Olivia S., our bookseller who has read Harry Potter 32 times.

We had a little bit of a conversation about what were the touchstone Anne Tyler books. Of course I am partial to Searching for Caleb, being my first, but I think that most people would say Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (her first breakout bestseller, her first to get multiple award nominations, and for a long time, said to be her favorite), The Accidental Tourist (because of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the movie), and Breathing Lessons (because of the Pulitzer). I'm guessing that A Spool of Blue Thread is going to be on this shortlist as well.

Upcoming in-store lit group discussions:

--Monday, August 1, 7 pm: we discuss Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer

--Tuesday, September 6, 7 pm: we discuss Quan Barry's She Weeps Each Time You're Born (with the date being changed because of the Labor day holiday)

--Monday, October 3, 7 pm: we discuss Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, with guests from the Florentine Opera, who will be performing the world premiere of this adaptation on October 7 and 9, 2016. Tickets now on sale.

PS--the book I was missing is Earthy Possessions. It's a good one too - I think I must have lent it out. *And when I looked closer, I realized I own Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in mass market, not hardcover as originally noted, so I wasn't able to start buying hardcovers until The Accidental Tourist. (Author photo credit is Michael Lionstar)

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