Thursday, February 13, 2020

What did the book club think times four? Catching up with the In-store Lit Group

It's been a few months since I've done a recap of the In-Store Lit Group selections. I'm not planning on doing a full post on any of them, but let's have a mini write up of what did the book club think?

November: The Incendiaries, by R.O. Kwon
Set on a college campus, The Incentiaries is told from three perspectives. Phoebe Lin is a well-off student holding onto guilt for her mother's death in a car accident. Will Kendall is a student transfering in from Bible College. And John Leal is an escapee from a North Koean prison camp who is now the charismatic leader of a religious group on campus. The story may start with Will and Phoebe but slowly John's pull becomes clearer until things get out of control.

Both The Incendiaries and R.O. Kwon had a massive amount of media attention, but the book was rather quiet at Boswell and I thought our book club could jump start some energy in the paperback. There were great reviews, like Thu Huong-Ha's in The New York Times. And Ron Charles's review in The Washington Post was particularly insightful, and definitely helped generating conversation. He discusses how religious fanaticism is at the heart of the book. He also noted that all three of the story protagonists are lying in one way or another. Kwon noted in an interview that this book is inspired by her loss of religious faith despite the plot development being the journey of Phoebe from faithless to faithful. Fascinating to me, but I just didn't have many folks who wound up liking the book. There's something about the way the book is written that puts distance between the book and the reader. Oh well.

December: The Library Book, by Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean offers a love letter to the Los Angeles Public Library with a three-or-perhaps-four sided narrative. The story is framed by the famous Los Angeles Public Library fire of 2006. Then there is a history of the Los Angeles Public Library system, with more than its fair share of quirky characters. And then there's a tour of the library system's various departments. And finally, there'a a little bit of memoir, as Orlean is inspired by her mother and their relationship with libraries. And Susan Orlean can make any subject interesting, so imagine what she can do with a library.

If you are a professional librarian, you might get a little bored of the system tour - I heard this from librarians. If you love true crime, you'll be let down a bit by the fire, which is never quite solved, though it does have a particularly lively suspect. Advice to suspects: one alibi is usually better than seven. And the memoir seems almost like a ghost element - there's one particularly emotional piece in the middle of the book about Orlean's inspiration for writing the story, and she returns to that in the end, but mostly, it seems like this was a long manuscript and that angle got a lot of cutting. The library history is particularly fascinating - especially the Great Library War of 2005. But really, if you love libraries, it's almost impossible to not love The Library Book. If nothing else, your book club will just tell library stories.

January: Ohio, by Stephen Markley
Four plotlines converge on New Canaan, Ohio, a small-to-medium city between Columbus and Cleveland. Instead of interweaving the four voices of the four, all high school classmates, Markley tell four novellas (would one call that Corrections style?), and while it would give away too much plot to explain each story, the opener, from Bill Ashcraft, a progressive, drugged-up bro with some hypocrisy issues, sets the tone. The story itself opens with the the wartime death of the effective hero of the story, who gets honorary memorial parade and all the trimmings. Pretty soon we learn that another character with a big voice has died of a drug overdose.

With the story taking place mostly over one night, with each character back in town for a reason, we get to relive a lot of the plot points from multiple perspectives (what I call Go, style, referencing the John August and Doug Liman film set in a dumpy Los Angeles supermarket), and so if at first you're confused, by the second or third time , you've got a better handle on things. This was Chris's favorite novel of 2018 and now wonder - about 80% of the group loved the book and another 20% despised it. There was no middle ground. Discussion was heated and it was very nice that we were able to have some intergenerational banter. Highly recommended, well, except for the people who hated it.

February 2020: Family Trust, by Kathy Wang.
I do love a dysfunctional family comedy and this one has the classic "fighting over the inheritance" plot that has brought life to a books like Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's The Nest. Wang has an insider's knowledge of Silicon Valley, which of course gave it a vibe like the HBO series Silicon Valley, and it's got a Chinese cultural spin (more specifically Taiwanese) that makes it more distinctive. The book club recently read The Wangs Vs the World, which was more of a road trip novel. Several us conjectured that this might have been bought in the wake of Crazy Rich Asians' success.

Could this book have also been called Crazy Rich Asians? No, because they don't feel rich. For the Huangs, there's clearly money floating around, but they all live in a bubble where they have this perception that everyone has more money than they do. And on top of that, they are all being roped into one scam or another, from shady investments to cheating spouses, to well, online romances - Linda Huang decides to start dating via the Tigerlily app, and she quickly spends her way to VIP status. It appears that online romance scams are the story for this Valentine's Day.

I was a little worried the group wouldn't have enough to talk about, but Family Trust kept us chatting for over an hour. The only hiccup was dealing with the complaint that the characters weren't likable enough. I don't know why that's an issue and why women writers seem to face that critique more than men do.

Here are our coming selections for In-Store Lit Group

Monday, March 2, 7 pm, at Boswell - Girl Woman Other, by Bernardine Everaristo - Man Booker co-winner. Lots of enthusiastic buzz from attendees for this already

Monday, April 6, 7 pm, at Boswell - The Story of a Goat, by Perumal Murugan - Murugan was longlisted for the National Book Award translation prize for a different novel

Monday, May 4, 6 pm (note time), at Boswell - Mostly Dead Things, by Kristen Arnett, who will join us for spoiler questions at 6:30 in advance of her 7 pm public event

Monday, June 8, 7 pm (note date), at Boswell - Lost Children Archives, by Valeria Luiselli - New York Times Ten-best books of 2019

Monday, July 6, 7 pm, by Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi - National Book Award winner

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