Thursday, August 22, 2019

What the Book Club Thought Extra - Matt Haig's How to Stop Time at Boswell's Books and Beer Book Club

It is a rare evening when I can attend one of our other book clubs. Most Monday evenings, we either have an author talk going on in the rear in the store or at an offsite location. But it is August, and that means the schedule is a bit lighter. And so I decided to join up with Jen's Books and Beer Book Club at Cafe Hollander. Knowing the set-up of our In-Store Lit Group, I just don't think I would have been able to eat a plate of Brussels sprouts* while discussing a book. Plus I've told people time and again not to eat Brussels sprouts in the store. At least the drippy kind with sauce.

We formed the Books and Beer Book Club with a slightly concept - a mix of genres, and an entertainment component to the stories. The kind that almost always got film rights sold, though lately, it's more streaming series than films. That said, because we do like to pick selections with vetting that includes looking at reviews and interviews, but not by reading the book in advance, sometimes the books aren't as entertaining as we hoped. But that happens with all our groups - a recent science fiction book club consensus was that the book they just read was not at all what was promised. Books and Beer skews a little younger than the other clubs too, which might be a function of the books chosen, or it might be the beer.

This week's selection, How to Stop Time, has been a fixture on Boswellian Tim's rec shelf, and that encouraged Tim to attend. So that was two booksellers, plus Jen plus our other attendees, which brought us to double digits, which is a nice size for discussion. I'd attended a few meetings on start-up so I knew a bit what to expect. Every book club is run a bit differently - Jen's proceeds with a series of questions to the group and ends with us having to rate the books from zero to five stars. She well knew that rating things is tough for me, but I was game, only confessing that I give every book on Edelweiss eight stars or I don't review it all. Books I don't like are my little secret.

We'd put How to Stop Time on our recent time travel table, but truth be told, it's not a time travel novel, except in the book's structure of jumping around in time as the story is told. Our protagonist, currently named Tom Hazard, has a disorder that causes him to age at one tenth the speed of a normal human. So here he is in London, teaching history to kids, only he's lived it, having been alive since the 1400s. He lives by a few rules, one of which being he can't fall in love. And then, of course, he catches the eye of a fellow teacher, Camille.

For over a century, Tom lived by his wits, playing the lute for Shakespeare (he's a talented musician), finding and losing love (with Rose), fathering a child (Marion). And then the Albatross Society got a hold of them, a secret organization that keeps self-proclaimed Albos out of trouble, by giving them a new identity every eight years and otherwise keeping them financially solvent. Hendrich, the self-proclaimed leader, made his fortune in tulip bulbs. Their mission? To recruit other slow agers and keep them out of the hands of witch hunters (historically) and scientific experiments (more recently). And if you say no? Uh oh.

Tom really does have one mission - to find his missing daughter, who is also a slow-ager. It doesn't have to be that way. The condition, which appears to be either recessive or random, may or may not manifest in your kids, as one of the slow agers has an elderly child. Hendrich promises he's helping Tom find Marion, but it's a big world and she's stayed off the radar. And if there's another thing Tom has to come to terms with, it's feeling at fault for the death of his mother, who was drowned as a witch. Talk about guilt inducing, the townspeople make it clear that it is Tom's fault.

The problem with living almost effectively forever is that its hard to come up with a focus. You can always try to live life later. Hendrich suggests losing yourself in material indulgence, and Tom's friend Omai (who is mostly only referred to in memory) lives for the moment. And so the story becomes not just an adventure, a speculative thriller, and a romance, but a philosophical investigation as well. And that is not particularly surprising because Matt Haig's biggest seller before this was Reasons to Stay Alive, a memoir about overcoming depression.

Most of the attendees really liked How to Stop Time, far more at least, than their previous club selection. Jen asked some conversation starters, including pondering the trope of why all these time travel books wind up having the protagonists interacting with famous people in history. Is that tired? Well, having been recommending Vintage 1954 all summer, I sort of feel like this comes part and parcel with the genre. And we know that even in historical fiction, many editors are advising authors to add in real-life figures. Authors have told us this at their events. Not that every mystery has to have a murder, but it doesn't hurt.

Jen noted noted that in a lot of ways, How to Stop Time used some of the conventions of vampire** novels, as well as Deborah Harkness's The Discovery of Witches. It reminded me of the Magnus Flyte novel, City of Dark Magic, that was popular about five years ago. But the contemporary parts of the book really called to mind Nick Hornby as well - a self-doubting good egg floundering at life until he finds the people who can help him put the pieces together. And Tim? His comparison is David Mitchell. How's that for a range of influences?

This is a great book club selection for folks with groups who want a spirited discussion with a little meat, but also have attendees who need some solid action to keep them going. How to Stop Time was a New York Times Editor's Choice pick, and was shortlisted for the British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year. Neil Gaiman wrote: "Matt Haig has an empathy for the human condition, the light and the dark of it, and he uses the full palette to build his excellent stories." Here are interviews in Book Page and The Guardian. Did we mention the movie is being filmed?

One big complaint that was pretty much a consensus - the ending wraps up a little too neatly for our tastes.  So my big question, which is always something I think about when someone has problems with a book, is, if you were an editor, what would you try to change? And would that help the book or lead to more problems?

The next Books and Beer Book Club selection is The Municipalists, by Seth Fried, on Monday, September 16, 7 pm. Alas, I'll only be there in spirit; we have two author visits that evening. Here are the rest of our upcoming Boswell-run book club selections.

*The greatest Brussels-sprouts-themed novel ever is Don Lee's Wrack and Ruin.

**Matt Haig wrote at least one vampire novel, The Radleys. It's available, but it's a high-priced POD title. Oh for the days when the new publisher would repackage the backlist. But nowadays, the ebook rights don't seem to ever move, so it doesn't make sense. Thus it's much harder for an author's hit novel to breathe life into their previous works, unless they never move publishers.

No comments: