Thursday, February 11, 2021

Why haven't you read Leonard and Hungry Paul?

One of the crazy things about being a bookseller is that we’re constantly recommending books to our customers, but a lot of our customers can get frustrated because we don’t always read what they recommend back to us. Sometimes they even drop the book off for me to borrow. I’m sure this has happened to a lot of booksellers. And now I apologize to every customer whose book I either didn’t read or did read and wound up not liking, so I pretended I didn’t read it because from my experience, that’s better than saying you didn’t like it.

But for every time that does happen, there’s Leonard and Hungry Paul.

On December 19, my friend John (former Schwartz coworker and longtime friend) came into Boswell and recommended Rónán Hession’s debut novel. He had bought it from us in November and was completely moved by the book and couldn’t stop talking about it. Now John, who worked with me for many years at Schwartz, obsesses over many things. Currently he’s been sending me a link to a different Therapie TAXI video each day. From my experience, you have to wait until he finishes the book to know how he truly feels; he’s susceptible to strong openings.

I took the recommendation to heart and bought the book. But did I read it? No, it went into my pile. I had a lot of event books to read. Plus our January book club book was Shuggie Bain. That That seemed like a long one. It was only when another former colleague, Rebecca, was shopping at Boswell and recommended the very same book that I really took notice. I immediately moved the book to the top of my pile and started reading.

There are books that I like and books that I don’t. There are books that I love and ones where I can’t get through 25 pages. And then there’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, where after I finished the book, I thought "I’ve got something here." It’s like when an agent or editor starts reading and starts calculating their offer. 

But I’m also a second guesser. So I wrote to the other person who’d bought Leonard and Hungry Paul from us – we’d sold three, one to me, one to John, and one to Annette in Wauwatosa – and fortunately we’d just waved to each other when I delivered books to her front door, so I felt like we were already friends, and she told me she loved the book and would pass it to Julie, who was actually in my book club. She wound up loving it too. Aha!

And so I decided to buy another copy to pass around to booksellers. And then I suggested Jason read it. And he did. And then Jenny did. And then Jane. And I’m not saying that everyone who walked into Boswell walked out with Leonard and Hungry Paul, but enough have. I set my sights on being the #1 store on Edelweiss. I looked at the numbers and I thought, we can do that. And actually we’re now just about double #2 in sales. (British edition at left)

But here’s the thing. I think just about any bookstore can sell this book in this way. I don’t know what it is, why this book resonates, why it doesn’t appear cloying to my customers who recoil at that sort of thing. Perhaps because it’s so matter of fact. Perhaps because we all are looking for a little kindness. And while I really love placey books, there’s something unplacey about the way Hession wrote this book that makes it universal. Sort of like when writers refuse to give their characters names, only not as, well, I guess it depends if you like that sort of thing. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

And now, here’s some serious selling. First up, the Boswell recommendations. (Hession's second novel at right)

Jason: “Here’s a story of two best friends who are attempting to move beyond the bubble they have kept themselves inside with the same routines ruling them. Leonard’s mother has passed away, and he is caught a bit off guard when he realizes a woman has taken an interest in him. Hungry Paul is comfortably still living with his parents, though his sister is getting married and attempting to get him to move on with his life. Through their friendship with each other (and Hungry Paul’s parents and sister) these two socially insecure men are able to move onward without changing who they are or what they believe. A heartwarming tale that will cause you to smile and laugh as you read. It did for me."

Jenny: “Honestly, there’s hardly a sentence in Leonard and Hungry Paul that isn’t a delight to read. Musician and first-time novelist Rónán Hession drew me into his novel with his mix of laugh-out-loud funny scenarios and the subtle humor of his writing, but I kept reading for the characters. Leonard and Hungry Paul are best friends and game night enthusiasts who have always found happiness in simple, quiet moments and a sweetly endearing bond with their parents (they both live at home). When the usual meanderings of everyday life intrude to shake up their steady, reliable days, the result is a gentle tempest of complications and unforeseen emotions. How they endure and even blossom makes for a charming novel that can’t help but leave you feeling happy. And after the year we’ve all just had, it’s the book we all deserve.” (the paperback jacket at left loses the Scrabble tiles)

Jane: “There are few titles I would compare to Gail Tsukiyama’s The Samurai’s Garden and Jeanette Haien’s The All of It, two highlights of my bookselling career. But Leonard and Hungry Paul generates a sense of wisdom and leaves the reader with a calmness beyond the plot, in a world overrun by uncertainty and endless noise. Irish writer Rónán Hession renders in poignantly lovely prose the story of two men whose friendship and mutual kindness, ultimately defined by at what stage does a helping hand become one that holds a hand. Hungry Paul and Leonard will endear themselves to every reader and their story will continue to inspire with each re-read.”

If you know Jane, those are two of her all time go-to books that she compares L&HP to. My rec referenced A Man Called Ove. But I could also mention The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It feels like that. Of course for every book that took off nationally after we handsold it, there are more that never quite jumped to national success, like The President’s Hat.

Remember Little Bee? Chris Cleave’s novel was a highlight of our first year in business. I worked so hard trying to sell it, and even got to appear on NPR to talk it up. At one point, I made a display of booksellers around the country raving about Little Bee. I would do something like that for L&HP, but I don’t know if that many other booksellers around the country have discovered it. Nine booksellers loved it on Edelweiss, but only one, Jason, posted a review.

Here’s a tenth. The Rebecca mentioned above is Rebecca Schwartz, President and CEO of Porchlight Book Company. She’s also the person who got me to read Leonard and Hungry Paul. And when I told her that John suggested the book to me, she noted that she told John to read the book too, which he confirmed.

Here’s Rebecca in the Porchlight blog: “As everyone around me knows because I can’t stop talking about it, I just read Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, a novel of such gentle loveliness that almost masks its honest truth about friendship and authenticity. The story surrounds two thirtyish fellows over the course of a few months, one just after the death of his mother and the other just before the wedding of his sister. And while the novel is a quiet one – no guns, no screams, no slammed doors – it resonates loudly in the way the friends evolve and reveal just what they have inside. One of the many enormous, if coincidental pleasures of reading Leonard and Hungry Paul is that it’s the perfect antidote to the times we are living in, offering subtlety over vulgarity, intelligence over boorishness, sensitivity over indifference. Published by Porchlight Friends Melville House, this is the perfect book to read now – and again.”

And now here’s John: “Sometimes it seems like our reading tastes have become so balkanized- if you liked this you'll like that- so it was refreshing to discover a novel for everybody. I've recommended L&HP to various friends of various tastes and everyone adores it.”

Nancy, another ex-Schwartz person, now with Schlitz Audubon Nature Center (and the reason we have more than 500 registrations for our David Sibley event on Feb 23 - register here), told me she also loved the book. It’s the book we read right now, and she’s selling to everyone who took her recommendation for Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Just one more ex-Schwartz person. I was corresponding with Susie, a long-time Brookfield Schwartz bookseller, who had ordered some books from us. I had done some good recommendations for her, notably Virgil Wander, and so I got cheeky and insisted she add on L&HP to her virtual pile. Here was her response:

“I am in a state of readerly bliss as I spend time with Mr. Hession's debut novel. What a balm for the soul it is. Being released at a time when we all have been confronted with sadness, illness and ugly behavior, here is a book that transports you to a state of lightness, love and appreciation for one's fellow man.

“The author packs quite a lot into a paragraph, so I am reading slowly in order to savor it all - the gentle, respectful relationships in each ordinary day, and the English terms and phrases that make me smile. For instance, what part of the body would be considered an ‘oxter?’ I have a guess, but it's more fun just musing about it. There is so much to love about Leonard and Hungry Paul. You couldn't have recommended anything any better for me. Sign me up as a Hession fan; what a talented man.”

I cannot top that. Our virtual event with Hession is Friday, February 12, 2 pm. Register here. Hardcover available here and paperback on May 11.  It's cohosted by CelticMKE. After the event, find it on our virtual event archive page.

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