Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The bookseller ramble - Ask Again, Yes, from Mary Beth Keane

Title/Author: Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane

Previous books: The Walking People and Fever, both novels. Fever is based on the life of Typhoid Mary. Both books draw on Irish American culture.

The setup: Two New York City cops, one just over from Ireland, the other second generation, meet on the job and befriend each other. They wind up becoming neighbors in Gillam, a suburb that I think is in Rockland County. If I had taken better notes, I might know better. Something bad happens that drives the familes apart, but it can't keep away the next generation, who are doomed to inherit the burdens of addiction and mental illness.

Did I like it?: Yes, and you can ask again. After all, I'm writing this really long blog post, and we're not even hosting the author. Here are the stores on the tour.

Who would read this book: Of course, the answer that every writer and publisher wants to hear is, "Who wouldn't?" But there are a few key names that come up, most notably J. Courtney Sullivan and Matthew Thomas, whose recent books, Saints for All Occasions and We Are Not Ourselves, would be great matches (and I read them both, so I'm not fudging). Both gave quotes for this book too. Thematically, you can certainly add Alice McDermott and Colm Tóibín, though to me, they are a bit different stylistically.

How the book and I collided: My rule of thumb is that when I go to a publisher dinner with authors, it's my responsibility to read one of the books beforehand. For the life of me, I do not know how other attendees seem to have read all of them. Several options run through my head - they are incredibly fast, they don't actually work at a job, they are either fibbing or doing that thing where you say "I read it," but you really are saying "I read 50 pages."

I started reading a couple of other books for the Winter Institute Dinner in Albuquerque, but I didn't connect with either of them. So I contacted Wendy at Simon and Schuster and asked her what I should do. She told me to read Ask Again, Yes. She's a long-time bookseller and has a good handle on matching people and books.

Was anybody impressed that I read the book?: Not really. I wound up seemingly talking to everyone but Keane at the dinner. I really liked all my dining companions, one so much that I went back and read her book, even though it was out of my comfort zone. After the dinner, I got her to sign my book and moved on. I could tell she had just interacted with forty some booksellers, and unless she's the most extroverty of extroverted writers, that was probably enough for the day.

How have I done with hand-selling it so far?: It's only been out a day! In advance, I set my sites on getting early reads from two authors. The first (recommended via correspondence) always has a lot on her plate, but at least one of the quotes was from someone she knows and admires. That can sometimes help. The other author was visiting and we were chatting about books, and she had read all my comparison titles. And then she realized she already had a copy. I don't know how that turned out, but I really feel like I might have won her over. In my brain, I'm batting .500. In reality, TBD.

What did I learn from the acknowledgments?: What, you don't read the acknowledgments? I now get irritated if they are missing from a book. I'd like to know the editor, the agent, the writing teachers, the friends, and who gets thanked in the family. Was a bookseller thanked? Now that this has happened to me a couple of times, I know this is possible, and I sort of like it when our profession gets a shout out. Chris Calhoun was the agent, Nan Graham and Kara Watson were the editors (the acquirer and the shepherder, so to speak). Eleanor Henderson gave her quotes for both Ask Again, Yes and Fever and is also thanked. If they are not best friends, they should be!

Cover treatment: I can't help but think that the art director was hoping for a Little Fires Everywhere connection. Not just because of the imagery of suburban houses, but also with the very similar blue-green color story. That story looms large for me because on the day of our Celeste Ng event, Olivia noted that I had dressed to match the book.

What's the best quote?: Louis Erdrich clearly gets top billing. "Mary Beth Keane takes on one of the most difficult problems in fiction – how to write about human decency. In Ask Again, Yes, Keane makes a compelling case for compassion over blame, understanding over grudge, and the resilience of hearts that can accept the contradictions of love."

Would I read another book by Keane: Yes, I would. I would also read this book again if she were visiting and I was doing the conversation. Sometimes I change the facts in my head in novels, and it takes another read to sort that out.

Our best chance for the author to come to Milwaukee: Our friends at the Irish Fest Literary Tent should invite Keane. They do ask you to hang out there a long time, but you do sell a lot of books, or so I'm told. We just hosted Carl Baehr for his book, From the Emerald Isle to the Cream City: A History of the Irish in Milwaukee: A History of the Irish in Milwaukee.

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