Wednesday, January 12, 2022

A year in reading - the Boswell In-Store Lit Group

What did the book club think?

It’s been a while since I highlighted the books in our In-Store Lit Group, partly because of COVID (the in-store component of the name has not been appropriate for almost two years!) and partly because the days go so quickly that I never get around to writing it. January seemed like a good time to recap. Here are our 2021 selections and some thoughts on each. There wasn't a single book that I thought was a bad book club read - it's just that not every book is for every book club. Some folks want an intense discussion and others are just happy to have everyone show up and for most of the attendees to have read it.

January: Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stewart. I always prioritize the big prize winners in our selections, particularly if I haven’t read them, in my hopes that we are furthering the cultural conversation. Last year’s Man Booker Prize winner took off in a big way, and momentum was furthered by BookTok. Most folks liked the book. It was long, so not everyone finished. And it was sad. And some people just don’t like sad books. It’s been a huge success for indies in general. I should also note that addiction is a rich topic for writers and the alcoholic dependency of Shuggie’s mom is heartbreaking. Stewart’s next novel, Young Mungo, comes out in April 

February: Feast Your Eyes, by Myla Goldberg. Here’s a book that was shortlisted for the National Book Award, but at least for us, had been relatively quiet (which translates to under 5 copies). It was an event with the Jewish Community Center that turned me onto this book, which took the form of an art catalog for a New York street photographer. I hadn’t read something from Goldberg since The Bee Season, her debut. We tend to do well with novels about the art world. Conversation focused a lot on the alternate structure and the artist’s burden of juggling career and family (she’s a single mom) without support. It was also interesting to explore the women who shaped Goldberg’s fictional character. I wound up placing this on our book club table for a season, as there was a very enthusiastic reaction to this novel.

March: Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu. Another prizewinner, Yu’s novel received the National Book Award for Fiction. Based on his previous book, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, I thought this book would have a stronger speculative component than it does. I’d place it more in the realm of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West – a speculative element to the premise, but a relatively realistic follow-through. It’s set in a complex where they are shooting a police procedural on the first floor (think Law and Order) while Asian actors live upstairs. Since reading this book, I’ve read several others that explored the prejudice that Asian actors have been faced with in the performing arts – interchangeable identities, forced accents, and the lack of rolls. For more about this, read Kal Penn’s You Can’t Be Serious or Don Lee’s upcoming collection, The Partition. Yu has written for Westworld – you can see that influence too.

April: The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sarah Collins. This book won the Costa Prize for Best First Novel, which is one of many prizes I pay attention to. It was also on the radar of now-retired colleague Jane, which I consider a book club plus. It’s a historical novel, set on a Jamaican plantation and then in London, about a woman who lives under a cruel master, and then, despite being anti-slavery laws in the books, is given to a London family. I should note that Collins mentioned that she was inspired by the story of Francis Barber, the servant of Samuel Johnson and an important source for James Boswell. We’d had some success doing spoiler virtual interviews in conjunction with our book discussions, but Collins was already hard at work on her next book, though I checked, and it’s not yet scheduled.

May: The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste. One thing I found interesting about my research is why some books take off and others don’t. Mengiste also had a major award nom, a finalist for the Booker Prize, but an Edelweiss check showed that her novel had much stronger sales at indies than the Collins book did. It was also a historical novel, set in Ethiopia during Mussolini’s invasion of the country during 1935. The result is an Afro-centric war epic, which also celebrates the achievements of women. Another nice thing about historical fiction is that one can also focus on the story’s true elements. Some book clubs chafe at books that are longer than 400 pages, but for every group who wants longer books, there’s another that wants to know when they can read another book like A Little Life, which is over 800 pages. The answer? Hanya Yanighara’s follow-up, To Paradise, released this week.

June: A Children’s Bible, by Lyida Millet. Millet’s novel was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and even more importantly for sales, was named one of The New York Times’s ten best books of 2020. We tend to have strong sales on these books, which are featured through the holidays. The only problem? Macmillan ran out of copies – they experimented with a print-on-demand hardcover that got mixed reviews. It’s about a group of children left alone by their drinking and carousing parents, who fall prey to just about every bad thing that can happen – definitely filed under apocalypse fiction. To me, there’s a style of writing that’s very popular with critics, with Millet alongside writers like Jenny Offill and Patricia Lockwood. For me, they make great book club picks because I feel the need to read them, but I probably need support from fellow readers to get through them. But they are not for every group - though I'm almost definitely going to include No One Is Talking About This on my In-Store Lit Group selections.

July: Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell. Sometimes it’s important to give the group a sure thing, especially when the regulars grumble. I also usually pick one book a year where I’ve already read it. And so I picked Hamnet, a novel akin to Geraldine Brooks, which focuses on Shakespeare’s family, and the notation of O'Farrell's that Shakespeare never wrote directly about the Plague, but named a play Hamlet several years after the death of his son (Hamnet). I also was reminded of Maureen Corrigan’s comment that her book club, on discussing the title, asked if they could just read Hamnet over and over. Apparently I like Corrgan’s picks – more than half of them have either been features on our book club table and/or the In-Store Lit Group. Still a huge seller for us!

August: Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawaii Strong Washburn. Lots of great reviews for this one, which sold okay for us in hardcover (that translates to 5-10 copies). There was also a special Independent Bookstore Day edition that put it on my radar. Plus I got to chat with him for 30 seconds at the 2020 Winter Institute, something that I wasn’t able to do in 2021 and now 2022, both virtual. But it was my nephew Adam who convinced me to read it – I sent him a lot of books, and he gave me some feedback – it’s a story about Hawaii, when you’re not a tourist and the islands are not a paradise for you, just life. The eldest son in the family performs what is perceived as a series of miracles, leaving both him and his miracle-less siblings scrambling for meaning, not just in their youth, but in early adulthood.

September: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong. This is one of those books where I thought I would read it before publication (once again, I got to say hello to the author back at the 2019 Winter Institute), but after a certain point, I thought it would be perfect for book club. And what a pedigree - longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal in Fiction, the 2019 Aspen Words Literacy Prize, and the PEN/Hemingway Debut Novel Award, shortlisted for the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and winner of the 2019 New England Book Award for Fiction. It’s a poetic (the author’s prior work is poetry collections) memoir-like novel of a queer Vietnamese-American kid growing up in Hartford and the legacy of trauma in his family. This is one of those books that took an extra year for paperback, as hardcover sales were so good.

October: The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich. Apparently I lost interest for a few months in sleepers. This was one of our big books of 2020’s COVID spring, and that was before the Pulitzer Prize win, which exploded sales. We’d last read Erdrich’s The Round House, which was structured like a thriller, though with Erdrich’s trademark multi-voice structure. This one might be more classified as historical fiction with a contemporary frame, another popular bookstore genre, focusing on a historic attempt to decertify an indigenous tribe, which Erdrich’s own grandfather was active in fighting back. It also hinted at Erdrich’s sense of humor, which really comes to the fore in her latest novel, The Sentence. Like Hamnet, it’s been very, very popular with book clubs, and unlike with the sleeper novels, it’s hard to determine the effect we’ve had on sales.

November: The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice, by David Hill. I was hoping to discover another Killers of the Flower Moon or Say Nothing, but in the end, it reminded me a little more of Rich Cohen’s Sweet and Low, a combination memoir/history that I think was my favorite of the Rich Cohen books back when I was reading one after the other. It’s about the rise at fall of Hot Springs, Arkansas, which at one time competed with Las Vegas, and before that, Havana, as the gambling capital of the United States, only with one caveat – the gambling there was never legal. His voice alternates between the kingmakers and a poor croupier, who turns out to be his grandmother. I also found it interesting as Kirk’s parents live just outside Hot Springs, so I have visited the village, which still has the legacy of the baths, but not really the casinos.

December: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, by Deepa Anappara. Djinn Patrol is told through the eyes of a young boy in an Indian slum as children go missing and he and his friends try to solve the crime. It wound up being longlisted for the Women’s Prize (we’ve read a number of winners and shortlisted titles over the years) and winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel. I’m not sure it would satisfy the tastes of traditional mystery readers, but I think it’s a good book club book, though we had a less-than-usual number of readers finish it. I think they got caught up in the Hindi words spread throughout. My advice is to not worry about them so much or let them slow you down – come back to them later. Being that the writer is a journalist, this story is inspired by a true incident in India.

January: The Pull of the Stars, by Emma Donoghue. I figured out a really strange stat – I have now read one novel of Donoghue’s every decade – Stir Fry in 2004, Life Mask in 2004, Room in 2011 (also for the book club), and now her latest. Donoghue, a relatively prolific writer, certainly for literary fiction, already has her next novel scheduled: Haven, for next August. The book had lots of press, published in the midst of COVID, but was a little quiet in paperback, at least for us. Hoping to help change that. This novel, the story of a nurse in a maternity ward in Dublin during the Great Flu of 1918, won almost universal praise from the 16 attendees, plus everybody finished it, a rare achievement. I don’t normally mention the naysayers, but I loved this comment by our one member who didn’t like it – she thought it read like a medical manual. Like Room, all the pivotal scenes take place in closed quarters, and like many of Donoghue’s books, there is an interest in exploring questions of motherhood. It will definitely move to our book club table.

More about the Boswell-run book clubs, what we’re reading next, and how to join. For now, they are still virtual. And yes, we have a new book club starting soon.

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