Friday, August 14, 2020

What Did the Book Club Think? A Retrospective of three discussions - Lost Children Archive, Trust Exercise, Miracle Creek

What Did the Book Club Think? A Retrospective

Three of our book clubs are chugging along virtually through Boswell and a fourth one, the Mystery Group, has spun off on their own for now. We’ve got booksellers hoping to start two more, but everything moves slowly in the age of COVID. And even before the age of COVID.

Here is a round-up of the last three books that we’ve read.

June’s selection was Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli. This is a twist on a classic road novel. A mother and father take their two kids to a project in Arizona. Dad is an audio ethnographer and is interested in documented Apache Indian history while Mom has been charged with finding out what happened to the children of an undocumented refugee who insists that her kids are still out there after a failed border crossing, despite Mom fearing the worst. The story is told mostly from the mother’s perspective and is structured as a series of boxes or archives.

Valeria Luiselli wrote the book inspired by her experiences working as, per Jeffrey Brown of the PBS News Hour “an interpreter for children seeking to remain in the US,” and actually wrote Tell Me How It Ends, her book of essays, while the in the midst of writing her novel. Many of the attendees felt the story really kicked into gear when the perspective changed from mother to son. This book was named one of the ten-best books of 2019 by The New York Times and was praised by its sensitive portrayal of migrants without co-opting their stories. In a way, it’s a counterpoint to American Dirt. I am reading so many books with nameless protagonists that I simply have to adapt to this, but sometimes I just buck a trend and hope I’ll like the next thing better.

I bought my copy at RoscoeBooks in Roscoe Village, on my last trip out of town before the COVID shutdown. I recall not touching anybody. The store is wonderful, by the way. I can see why I’ve heard so much good about it. Lost Children Archive is a book that makes no bones about what it is – an intellectual book for a sophisticated reader. The story is filled with maps and photographs, as well as various inventories. You will never mistake it for genre or escapist entertainment, and it’s hard to imagine it would be adapted to a film or streaming series by anyone but the auteuriest auteur. I admired the book for the achievement it was, and that’s probably the way I would sell it. We’re in a multiple tie for 15th place on Edelweiss’s inventory-sharing database of independent bookstores. That seems about right. The book club was mixed.

On the other hand, it is not surprising to imagine reading Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise and think you’re reading a plot-driven book. For much of the book, you think you’re reading a high school novel about a theater program at an arts high school, focused on a boy and girl with a relationship that might remind you a bit of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. It makes you squirm a bit, especially when you read about the acting exercises which first of all, didn’t seem to have much to do with acting, and second of all, didn’t seem appropriate for a high school. I suppose this could devolve into a discussion about whether acting experimental acting techniques create amazing actors or are more psychological obstacle courses. In a way it reminded me of the different ways to write fiction.

But the true thing about this book is that writing about it is a spoiler minefield. Several folks have compared it to Asymmetry in that there are three parts and the book is very much about writing and perspective. They are triptychs of a sort, but uneven ones, with much of the story weighted towards the first third, which is both sets up the thesis and offers hints about how said thesis will be destroyed later on. Several of us loved this, but there were definitely discussion participants who did not love the rug being pulled out from under them.

Our paperback sales have really been hurt by the lack of browsing, and one idea I’ve had is to do spoiler author events – book club discussions on a larger scale where you only join if you’ve read the book, knowing that we’re not going to keep any climaxes or twists from attendees. I’d really love one for this, especially after I watched videos with Susan Choi. Unlike Luiselli’s book, where some people liked it, others disliked it, but nobody was visceral, this book was more polarizing. People either loved it or hated it. I think it’s because Lost Children Archive never promises to be anything other than it is, but Trust Exercise throws a curve ball. Much like Asymmetry, the secrets in the final third (hardly a third of the novel) were hard for me to unlock without help, which is why this makes a good book club book.

I will note that we’re number 4 on Edelweiss's bookseller sales sharing site (all stores anonymous, though we know who we are), which is much higher than I would hope to be. Remember, Trust Exercise won the National Book Award and was on many best-of lists for 2019. I think this book’s paperback release was when a lot of bookstores had their doors closed and many booksellers couldn’t even inhabit their stores. Instead, they sold off of Ingram’s direct-to-home and the Bookshop website. We don't participate in Bookshop at this time, but I know many indies do. Did you love Trust Exercise? My favorite New York book critic Bill Goldstein on Today in New York suggests you read Yiyun Lee's Must I Go, another novel that uses structure to tell a larger truth about storytelling.

Finally we have a novel that appealed to the plotties in our group – Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim. When Jason put this book in legal thrillers, I looked at the cover and thought, really? But he was completely on the mark – the entire novel is told as a courtroom trial. Set in suburban Virginia, it’s set in the aftermath of a fire at Miracle Submarine that killed two of patients getting oxygen therapy. The business is run by a family of Korean immigrants, but after the devastating event, the father Pak is in a wheelchair and his daughter Mary has been in a coma. But Elizabeth is on trial, a mom who skipped treatment and was caught with cigarettes that might have set the fire.

The hyperbaric oxygen chamber is used to treat a number of conditions. Matt is hoping it will recharge his fertility. But many others are thinking that this treatment will affect children’s autism. At the same time these treatments are going on, a group of protesters are championing the cause that kids on the spectrum are normal and there’s no reason to change them. Elizabeth has done just about every treatment you can do, and that has led to some resentment by Teresa, Elizabeth’s seemingly only friend, when it becomes clear that Rosa isn’t responding to treatment

As the defense and prosecution call witnesses, we learn the backstory. Who is keeping secrets? Well, the answer to that one is everybody. And Kim (photo credit Tim Coburn) does a great job of weaving in what its like to be a parent of a special needs child – the great love that parents give to their children, but the frustration that sometimes accompanies this, as well as the rivalries that can sometimes arise between families whose kids have different levels of symptoms and sometimes respond differently. Kim also captures the immigrant experience – this family has sacrificed so much for America and what has it gotten them?

The story is told from various perspectives, but I think the group agreed (not consensus, mind you, but majority) that at the heart of the story is Young Yun, Pak’s wife and Mary’s mom, who we learn quickly (no spoilers) was left at the controls when Pak left to handle another problem. And the story becomes not just that of a trial with several mysteries at its center, and not just an immigrant story, and not just a special needs story, but a story that will resonate with all families.

Angie Kim has written a book that's a hybrid between Scott Turow (who praised the book) and Celeste Ng. There was almost total positivity regarding Miracle Creek, including some of the naysayers that had trouble enjoying the previous two selections.But we had one naysayer – she said, after the dense and complicated narratives we’d been tackling, this was almost too easy!

Our next In-Store Lit Group virtual meeting is on August 31, 7 pm where we’ll be discussing Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing. Here’s the link to register. Meetings are about an hour and if this is your first time, email me at daniel@boswell and I’ll give you the lay of the land.

On October 5 (our September meeting is almost always the last week in August because of Labor Day), we’ll be trying something different. Once or twice a year, we’ve brought in an author to answer questions from the group, followed by a public event in the rear of the store. Sometimes the book club read the same book as the main event, sometimes the previous book. But now that we’re virtual for the moment, it made more sense to me to have the author talk about the book before our discussion. So we’re having an event with Helen Phillips, author of The Need, a novel that like Miracle Creek, is also about motherhood and also plays with genre, though in this case it’s psychological horror.

At 5:30, we’ll have a conversation with Helen Phillips that is open to all. It’s like any of our other author events, I’ll talk about The Need with Phillips, she’ll discuss writing it, what she set out to do, and so forth, only with one twist – nothing is off limits. It’s the spoiler zone. You can ask about twists and ask about the ending, which we generally haven’t allowed folks to do in author events. With that in mind, we highly recommend you read the book first. The only thing we ask is that like all author events, you respect the author and if you don’t like the book, you share that with your book club (organized or spontaneous) afterwards.

Then at 7 pm, we’ll have our regular In-Store Lit Group discussion, sans author.

I’m excited to experiment with these spoiler events. I’m just finding that without regular browsing, paperback fiction is suffering, and I’m trying to figure out something that will turn that around. And yes, I know that we could just open for regular browsing, but the truth is that stores that are open generally have much lower traffic, so either way, the browsing is greatly diminished. What I’m finding is that paperback reprints get so little promotion and publicity that our customers aren’t paying attention. We already knew that downloads were cutting into paperback sales. But it’s not so much the format as the second publication that’s suffering. Everything being paperback is one option, but many books being hardcover only is another.

It’s not helped that as prices rise, the paperback becomes closer in percentage to the hardcover price. Think about it. If a hardcover is $25 and the paperback is $15, the paperback is 40% cheaper. But if the hardcover is $30 and the paperback is $20, that’s only a 33% discount. I’ve noticed (we do this too) that hardcovers are more aggressively discounted. The print is generally smaller and the paper quality is rarely better, often worse. At the beginning of COVID, we experimented with discounting more paperbacks 20%, but we still didn’t see the pop in sales that we saw for hardcovers. So that’s where we are.

There’s a chance we might have a spoiler-friendly paperback discussion with Angie Kim for Miracle Creek too. I’ll keep you posted.

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