Tuesday, October 10, 2017

What did the book club think of Population 485 - an excuse to write about Michael Perry and his new Montaigne in Barn Boots (on sale November 7)

I make decisions on what books we read for our In-Store Lit Group in all sorts of ways. Sometimes we have an event coming up with that author. Sometimes it's a book that I feel is missing from my literary vocabulary, and often that is because so many people have told me to read it. It could be spotted on the new paperback table or the awards case. And of course some books are suggested by our regulars. Our October selection was a combination of reasons, but a stray comment from an author/critic sealed the deal. 

I hadn't started reading Michael Perry until we opened Boswell. Before that, whatever advance reading copies we'd get would be enthusiastically scooped up by his fans on staff. And because we generally were hosting him at one of our stores, a spare extra would go to that store, in the hopes that we'd pick up another read or two from a bookseller who could then help sell the book and the event.

And once Boswell opened, one of those booksellers became me. Our first event with Perry was for Coop, which came out in 2009, only weeks after we opened. Perry appeared at Boswell as well as Next Chapter and Oconomowoc's Books & Company. Because Schwartz had never placed Perry at an "urban" store (I hate air quotes, but here they feel appropriate, because any New Yorker would look at Downer Avenue and laugh at the notion of urban. It looks more suburban than most towns half an hour outside city limits), we set up 35 chairs with the hopes that we'd have 50 attendees.

When we wound up with 165 people, we learned several things:
--People will drive pretty far to see Michael Perry
--We can add a lot of chairs very quickly
--Urban schmurban.

I have a rule. While I can't read every book for every event, if an author's event is successful and returns to Boswell, I will do everything I can to read their book as long as my reading it actually helps sell the event. In other words, if it's clear I'm not liking it, it's better off for me to stop and say I haven't read it.

So it was in 2012 that I read Visiting Tom. At that time, we still had an art wall and the acclaimed photographers J. Shimon and the late J. Lindemann, who had worked with Perry in the past, curated a selection of photographs to make a mini gallery space. I read Visiting Tom and fell in love with Perry's storytelling voice, love of language, and sense of humor.

Then I read The Jesus Cow and it became one of my favorite novels of the year. We had a particularly wonderful event that had Perry in conversation with fellow writer Dean Bakopoulos. And there've been other events too, like bringing Perry into schools for his kids book, The Scavenger, and selling books at several area libraries that hosted Perry.

As I grew to become a Perry-phile, something nagged at me. We hosted Jim Higgins for his spring book, Wisconsin Literary Luminaries and Perry was one of his chosen writers to feature. And Higgins noted that while Perry has created a great Wisconsin-packed body of work, Population 485 was still his book that stood above the others.

With Higgins words ringing through my ears, it was easy - the In-Store Lit Group would read Population 485. Like many, no, most of Perry's works, it's a memoir divided into a series of essays. In this case, Perry discusses his early work as an EMT and later as a volunteer fire fighter. Each chapter has a through line of one incident, jumping off in a hundred different ways to both complete the narrative and tickle us with delightful asides. Think of it as a tree - the branches can't' survive without the trunk, but it's the branches that give the tree its character.

I would say the group split bell curve style, with a more pronounced hump on the positive side. Most of us liked it. Some were lukewarm, while others would say they really, really liked it. Su., who couldn't attend, wrote me a note saying this was the second time she read the book and she couldn't imagine there was a person who wouldn't like it. So of course A. didn't, and wrote out many pages of notes explaining why. And then there was M., who knew she'd love the book as soon as she heard A. was having problems with it (and they are good friends, and wouldn't the world be a better place if more people who disagreed went to book club together and talked it out).

We had two folks who brought personal experiences to the reading. G's father was a fireman while J. has been an EMT. They said the stories were quite realistic and brought back a lot of memories. D. was reminded of growing up in Nebraska and compared Perry's writing to Ben Logan's The Land Remembers. I haven't thought about that book in a long time, since we used to get the books from Northword Press (anybody remember Loon Magic?)

And then there was Sa. I had no idea what she'd say when she started speaking. And then she said she wouldn't have read Perry, but she did for the Group, and completely fell in love with his voice and after we met, she went on to buy more of his books. And that's all I needed.

That's the thing about Michael Perry. Make assumptions about who he is and he will confound you. And Perry takes that to the next level on his newest book, Montaigne in Barn Boots, which comes out November 7. The book is a meditation on Michel de Montaigne's work, with each chapter being an exploration of a different aspect of Montaigne's writings, spun through the lens of Perry. Much like Montaigne, he takes the philosophical and makes it personal. Perry has never been afraid to talk about mortality, reaching back to Population 485. You can't be an EMT or volunteer fire fighter without being aware of the fragility of life.

It's such a great work, reminding me a lot of perhaps my favorite essayist, Phillip Lopate. When I first read Lopate as part of my "I love everything that Ann Patty at Poseidon Press publishes" phase of my life, I had the same reaction as Sa. I dropped everything I read one Lopate after another, whether he was writing about being a new York public school teacher, feeling lost in Houston, or shaving. That's from memory - did he really write about shaving? Lopate is probably best known for editing The Art of the Essay, but if you want to know the book that turned me on to Lopate, it was Against Joie de Vivre.

Montaigne in Barn Boots gave me that same exhilaration, much as Montaigne's essays have done for generations of readers. You're already primed to love Montaigne, because his work is an important part of Amor Towles's runaway bestseller, A Gentleman in Moscow. Now that I've read Population 485, I don't know whether to tackle the essays themselves (800 pages of Penguin Classic, can I handle this?) or Sarah Bakewell's How to Live. We'll see how this goes. I also expect to one day catch up on several more of Michael Perry's books. I keep my reading list (only the books I finish) on the blog, so you can keep track.*

Important dates to know!

Tuesday, November 14, 7 pm, at Boswell: Michael Perry discusses Montaigne in Barn Boots. He'll also be at Books & Company on Wednesday, November 15. I really can't say enough about how good this book is and I shouldn't have to convince you that Michael Perry is a joy in person.

Monday, November 6, 7 pm, at Boswell: The In-Store Lit Group discusses The Atomic Weight of Love, by Elizabeth J. Church. This selection was suggested to me by our friend and voracious reader Nancy at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.

Monday, December 4, 7 pm, at Boswell: The In-Store Lit Group discusses Zadie Smith's Swing Time. I seem to be on an every other book cycle with Smith for reading purposes.

 *I should note that Mr. Perry has spoken highly of Boswell in the past, most notably in Milwaukee Magazine, so you may consider this logrolling.

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