Tuesday, July 31, 2018

What did the book club think of Jenny Zhang's Sour Heart?

At our most recent meeting, the In-Store Lit Group discussed Sour Heart, a collection of stories from newcomer Jenny Zhang. The book won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the Los Angles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and was named one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker, The Guardian, and Buzzfeed. The New Yorker review, from Zia Tolentino, was won of the best, calling the collection "astounding...combines ingenious and tightly controlled technical artistry with an unfettered emotional directness that frequently moves, within single sentences, from overwhelming beauty to abject pain."

I originally received a copy of Sour Heart and passed it on to my sister, who passed the book on again to her daughter-in-law, and came back to me in the form, not of the physical book, but a strong recommendation. One of the other early champions would have to be Lena Dunham, who picked this work as the debut of her Lenny imprint. At one point we were confirmed for selling books at a Lena Dunham event in Milwaukee, and Jenny Zhang was going to appear, only Sour Hearts wasn't quite out yet (I remember stewing about this), only it all got cancelled when Dunham got ill.

There are immigrants' tales with the twist. Through the eyes of girls, these stories take place in Brooklyn and Queens. The families are kind of sacrificing for their kids, living in cramped conditions with other families. The stories are connected through Christina, the protagonist of the first and last story, as most of the other girls know her family as they traveled to various living situations on their way to stability.

I had decided when selecting Sour Heart that it would make an interesting counterpoint to The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and I think I was right. See's characters are poor in China and by the time they come to the United States, they are very wealthy. Zhang's characters, at least in some cases, were poorer in the States than they were back home. Both stories show the effects of the Cultural Revolution on families.

This was one of those collections where there wasn't a ton of middle ground - attendees either really liked the stories or didn't. Some found them depressing while others had trouble even processing that criticism (if it actually is a criticism). I should note that one reader who didn't like the collection wished he'd been in the conversation first before reading the book - he thinks that might have changed his perspective.

I should note that one particularly transgressive story led to one member telling me she had to stop reading and couldn't come to the event. I wished she had read through and come to talk about it but every reader needs to follow their own heart regarding such things, unless there's a test at the end semester.

I think it's an excellent book club selection but there's some skewing involved if you want to get the best reaction from your readers. If UWM's Creative Writing Program had a book club (maybe there is one?) I would fight for this to be on the inaugural list. If you want to read more about where Zhang is coming from in her writing, read this excellent conversation with Stephanie Newman in the LA Review of Books.

Upcoming In-store Lit Group meetings - not a number of adjustments for fall meetings!
--Monday, August 6, 7 pm, at Boswell - Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann
--Monday, August 27, 7 pm, at Boswell - Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward (moved to avoid Labor Day)
--Tuesday, October 2, 7 pm, at Boswell - The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry (moved to avoid Hank Green)
--Monday, November 5, 6 pm, at Boswell - The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason (time moved so that we could have a public event afterwards)

Other upcoming Book Club meetings
--Monday, August 13, 7 pm, at Boswell: Sci Fi Book Club Reads Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar
--Monday, August 20, 7 pm, at Cafe Hollander on Downer Ave: Books and Beer reads Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose
--Monday, August 27, 7 pm, at Boswell: Mystery Book Club reads Death on Nantucket, by Francine Mathews

Note that on August 27, the In-Store Lit Group will meet in the rear of Boswell and the Mystery Group will meet in the magazine area.

Our Boswell-run book club page links to all our discussion books through mid-November. No registration required, though someday we're going to have Facebook pages for each group.

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