Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The virtual celebrity book clubs in the age of virtual everything - a lot of book picks and one book I fell in love with - Hidden Valley Road

I’m not really sure whether our celebrity book club sales has popped at Boswell because other options have been closed off for purchase (online website delays, libraries closed for physical book borrowing) or because with so many folks staying at home, these book clubs offer something to do. In addition, several of our customers’ book clubs went on hiatus until they worked out the kinks of converting to an online experience. But it appears their sales are rising with us.

Take Now Read This: The PBS/New York Times book club. While February’s pick of American Prison (Shane Bauer) barely registered with us, March (Inheritance, by Dani Shapiro) and April (Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips) have both had sales pops, though I should note that April’s is much closer to pub date and is also having a new-in-paper moment.

Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club’s April success has been staggering. I don’t know if you can give the club complete responsibility for the success of Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, especially considering that the February (The Scent Keeper, by Erica Bauermeister) and March (The Jetsetters, by Amanda Eyre Ward) had very minor sales for us. But then you get to January’s Such a Fun Age from Kiley Reid, and you have what is likely one of our biggest bestsellers for 2020.

Here’s another weird twist to Untamed’s success. I went back and looked at Love Warrior, Doyle’s 2016 release, and we’ve now sold five times as many copies of Untamed as we did of the three editions (two in hardcover, one paperback) of her previous book. And that book was an Oprah Book Club pick. I would never have dreamed! While we were not ever scheduled to host Doyle, we were cosponsors of a now-postponed-indefinitely UWM event with Doyle’s wife, Abby Wambach for Wolfpack.

One of the great discoveries for me is that of all the celebrity book clubs, my taste meshes best with Jenna Bush Hager. I have read and enjoyed five of her last ten book club picks, and all but one had been contenders in my to-be-read pile. I also found the Good Housekeeping site listing the books that cleanest to navigate. Hager’s last four books hit The New York Times bestseller list, with Valentine getting all the way to #2. Both Tim and I loved Valentine and we’re still hoping to do a virtual event with Elizabeth Wetmore.

With a lot of these book clubs, it’s sometimes hard to differentiate from sales that would have been there anyway. That’s why I’m particularly impressed with the Reading with Jenna picks, as I have to think that while the Barnes and Noble book club also featured Dear Edward, I can’t find another reason for The Girl with the Louding Voice’s NYT appearance. Speaking of which, I really like the April pick for B&N, Afia Atakora’s Conjure Women. I didn’t read it; I just like the idea of it, and I’m tempted to log on!

This brings is to the grand dame of book club selectors in modern times – Oprah Winfrey and Oprah's Book Club 2.0. While we don’t have phenomenal sales of her picks the way we did in the golden days of her daily television show, there is no question that spacing the picks closer together helps our sales, though like many of these clubs, she’s picked some books that didn’t need the help. But picking American Dirt helped heat up the book’s controversy. In the end, there was backlash to the backlash, and I’m guessing the book sold as well as it would have had there not been identity-based attacks.

That said, Oprah avoided a second controversy by backing out of picking My Dark Vanessa, a novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell about a teenager who has an affair with a forty-something teacher. I’m not sure exactly why she cancelled on this one, since that complaint was more focused on the publishing industry rewarding a white writer over a similar book written by an author of color more than this particular book. According to Book Marks, major reviews were either raves or positives, with only The Atlantic coming in as mixed.That’s better than most books I like. I suspect she and her team had controversy exhaustion, something she hasn't experienced much of late. Despite that withdrawal of approval, My Dark Vanessa was hardly a bomb, holding a number of weeks on national bestseller lists and a nice run at Boswell.

Like many of the contemporary book clubs, Oprah’s has a strong digital component. Read the ebook, download the audio, connect on Apple devices (a sponsor). But our book sales spiked for her latest pick, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker. While I wind up reading a number of these book club picks in advance-copy mindset, once they are picked, I tend to shy away; they don’t need my help and rarely tour. But something about this book called to me, especially since I’d picked up and put down at least five other books after finishing the play, Kim’s Convenience.*

Journalist Kolker chronicles the Galvin family, who settled in Colorado Springs with the creation of the Air Force Academy. Don and Mimi wound up having twelve kids, and six of them were eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic. The family history, often from the perspective of Lindsay, the youngest child (non-diagnosed) alternates with a history of the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia. The split between advocates of nurture and nature hypotheses continues since the break between Freud and Jung. And to call out historical sexism, nurturists really had a thing for moms, didn’t they?

No playing this down - I loved Hidden Valley Road! I can’t believe how Kolker was able to give such distinct life to the six men who presented their illnesses in such different ways. It’s a tragic story, but it’s also about survival story for the six kids who weren’t diagnosed, including one who seems to have skirted by the illness. If you are a fan of Brain on Fire or The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks, it’s worth checking out this book, though I should note that Kolker’s book does not have the racial justice angle of Rebecca Skloot’s. Boswell followers will also note that we’ve been very enthusiastic about Matt Richtel’s An Elegant Defense, which also balances memoir with science history. It’s another good comparison title.

Read this interview with Kolker by Laura Miller in Slate Magazine. Miller asks Kolker how he came to the story of the Galvins: “My friend and former editor at New York magazine, Jon Gluck, went to high school with Lindsay. One day in 2015 or 2016, Lindsay came through town and met up with Jon. She told him that she and her sister wanted their family’s story told but had decided they didn’t want to write a memoir themselves. They were ready for an independent journalist to take this wherever it was going to take them. Jon thought about me because he’d edited my magazine article about the Long Island case (editor’s note: I think this is the basis of his book Lost Girls) and understood that I wrote about people in crisis and vulnerable sources.”

I would also visit Kolker's website to learn about how many of his stories could make fascinating books. Did you know he wrote the story that became the basis of the 2020 HBO film Bad Education starring Allison Janney, who according to Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, could be grocery shopping six feet away from you if you live in Dayton, Ohio.

It’s just about time for all the book clubs to announce their May selections. We’ll see if interest keeps up at Boswell. Maybe one of them will pick The Story of a Goat!

*The play Kim’s Convenience is interesting reading for fans, mostly because you can see the origins of the characters in the television show. One detail is that the characters are all seven-to-ten years older than they are in the series.

No comments: