Wednesday, July 5, 2017

In-Store Lit Group Update: What We've Been Reading: In the Time of the Butteflies, The Little Red Chairs, Homegoing

It's been a while since we had a book club blog. It's like any habit - when you slip up, it's hard to get back into the routine. Here's what we've been reading since I left off.

In April, the book club tied into the Milwaukee Public Library Big Read. The selction was Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies, a historical novel about a group of sisters who have become remembered in the Dominican Republic for their defiance of the longtime dictator Rafael Trujillo. This fictionalized version of Las Mariposas tries to hew pretty close to the historical record, and Alvarez is said to have interviewed the suriviving sister for the book. 

Of late, I've been less interested in creative storytelling, so I think I wasn't so much of a fan of the one sister who only got to tell her story through journal entries. It's sort of the way I now look at a novel and when I see it's told in second person plural, I've been putting it back on the shelf. I'm sure I'll come back, but right now, I tend to be cranky. "This book has too much dialogue!" That book has too much description!" I'm beginning to remember one of my long-ago customers who couldn't read a book that was in first person singular. 

What did the in-store lit group think? Responses were generally quite positive, but In the Time of the Butteflies is a hard book to criticize because the book and the history are so connected. If you don't like it, does that mean you are pro-dictatorship? 

Of course I had to go look at the complete list of NEA Big Read titles to see how many I read. I can check off 12 out of 28 which doesn't seem too bad. I guess you can imagine that once an author is on the list, it's much less likely that they'll come to Boswell, as their time is bid up by grant-driven appearances. I'm personally anxiously awaiting the completion of Luis Alberto Urrea's next novel, The House of Broken Angels. I just spotted it show up our advance title list, currently set for March 18, 2018.

Our May In-Store Lit Group read was Edna O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs. I am embarrassed to say I have never before read Edna O'Brien, and I was intrigued to notice that reviews for O'Brien's most recent novel was her best reviewed in a decade, despite now being in her eighties, when many writers are not at their peak.

I'm sure you know the setup. It starts as a sweet Irish village novel. A mysterious man comes to town, a positive psychology guru, and he charms everyone, most notably Fidelman, who comes under his sway physically as well as psychologically. Well, he turns out to be a charlatan, but more than that, he's a Serbian war criminal, and when his his disguise is uncovered, he's sent back to be tried at the Hague. And it gets worse, as some of his former colleagues who now consider him a traitor take revenge on him via Fidelma.

It's a story that changes tone several times as the story progresses, and this through some folks off. Despite my enthusiasm, the book had a mixed reception, but you can't discount the phenomenal reviews (here's Joyce Carol Oates in The New York Times Book Review and James Wood in The New Yorker) or the fact that a solid minority of my fellow readers loved it as well. 

Apparently Ms. O'Brien isn't done yet. With Pat Strachan now at Catapult (she brought O'Brien over to Little, Brown from FSG), her newest novel is making the rounds of publishers. 

I don't know much about how our June discussion went because I was working at the Riverside Theater, being the night of our event with Sheryl Sandberg in conversation with Jane Hamilton. But I do know a lot about the novel, Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, one of my favorite novels of last year. I'm always on the fence about whether to have the In-Store Lit Group read something I've already read. My rule of thumb is to do this when we're tieing into an author event, but in this case, I wanted to give an extra push to a book that should get as much book club love as it can.

This book's plot is not a secret. Two half sisters in Ghana's destinies diverge when one is sold into slavery and sent to America, while the other stays behind in Ghana and is married off to a British commander. Married is in quotes. Here is Isabel Wilkerson in The New York Times Book Review and Ron Charles in The Washington Post with their enthusiastic reviews, though I should note Laura Miller wasn't as much of a fan in The New Yorker. I liked the episodic quality of the book and the warmth of the characters. I thought it was an different take on slavery, told in an episodic fashion that could have felt like connected stories, but didn't. 

Here are our upcoming meetings.

On Monday, July 10, 7 pm, we're talking about Simon Van Booy's Father's Day. Nice reviews and three great reads from fellow Boswellians - Jane, Anne, and Sharon. It's about a young man who is probably not a great candidate to take on raising his niece after her parents die. The group read The Illusion of Separateness in conjunction with Van Booy's visit to Boswell. I'm excited to note that we have sold over 400 copies of Illusion! Please note we're meeting the same day as the Science Fiction Book Club. They'll be in the front of the bookstore and we'll be in the back.

Monday, August 7, 7 pm will be the time for Noah Hawley's Before the Fall. I decided summer is the time to read a thriller and Hawley, who has written a number of novels previously but hasn't broken out before, is probably best known as the screenwriter of the Fargo television series. Before the Fall was not only a New York Times bestseller, it won the Edgar Award for best novel. 

I'm still trying to figure out what we'll be reading in September, but hope to have the title picked by Friday!

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