Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Winter Institute Inspiration--Looking for Kansas City Between the Pages.

After spending a weekend in Kansas City, bookended by snowstorms, I was hungry for more. I hadn't been to the town since 1989, when I visited with a friend. Back then the Macy's department store from the first go-round (the purchase of the John Taylor Dry Goods Company in 1949) had just been sold to Dillard's, but the Jones Store (part of Mercantile Stores) were still downtown.We had visited a store called Whistlers in Westport. Still I had missed the golden days of Bennett Schneider (at least according to Burt, one of my long-time sales reps), which closed as a stationery store just last year, but once upon a time sold a ton of books out of Country Club Plaza.

Alas, the show was so packed with sessions that we didn't have time to explore, though several folks headed to suburban Fairway's Rainy Day Books for an anniversary party. In addition, I noticed that a new second-hand store called Prospero's opened earlier this year in Uptown. Never got there! I'd have to explore the town through books.

To prepare for our visit to the City of Fountains, I read Steve Paul's anthology, Kansas City Noir. This well-regarded series from Akashic still hasn't reached Milwaukee, but I haven't stopped hoping. The Kansas City edition was a pretty somber collection, filled with lots of wronged folks down on their luck, who perpetrated a last-chance violent act. It's all set up by a loss of faith, whether that is Nancy Pickard and the local church in "Lightbulb", the movie theater collapse that Mitch Brian chronicles in "Last Night at the Rialto" or the infiltration of the mob into the barbecue business in Nadia Pflaum's "Charlie Price's Last Supper." Noir is dark, after all.

It turns out that Steve Paul interviewed Alex George, author of A Good American, the "One Conference, One Book" (paraphrased title) selection for Winter Institute. It's a tough thing to pull off, as most of the attendees are quite busy in the weeks leading up to show. There's inventory and returns and spring buying and events and maybe like me you're setting up for a construction project. That said, I decided to read George's first novel, as it was also selected as a #1 Indie Bound pick for its hardcover release.

It's the story of three generations of the Meisenheimer family of Germany, from Frederick and Jette, who came over to avoid the wrath of Jette's parents, to their children Joseph and Rosa, and then Joseph's four sons, most notably James, who narrates the story. Mr. George chronicles the American century through this family, with everything from wars to race relations to the chaining of America told in the pages. The continuing strands are the family restaurant (which starts out German and morphs from there) and good singing voices, which culminates in a barbershop quartet of the grandsons. 

The book's had some big fans (including writers Sara Gruen, Eleanor Brown, and Emily St. John Mandel), and was named a best book of the year by Library Journal and Bookpage (a review journal/marketing platform for indie bookstores), but didn't work for me, alas. As I say to folks who wonder why a book they absolutely love might not be appreciated by others, every novel sets up hoops we have to jump through to appreciate it, and sometimes we just can't make the leap. But I should also note that A Good American was centered in central Missouri, near Columbia, and I had been hoping that the story would be more local in flavor. Milwaukee's had a number of books in the last ten years or so that tried to capture the flavor of the city, so I decided that KC, a larger metro area than MKE, should surely have the same.

A blog called "My Porch" had an entry exploring this subject, but his top pick, Stoner, the fabulous novel by John Williams, is also centered on Columbia.  His other suggestions were In Cold Blood (Kansas, and not the KC suburbs) and Willia Cather's fiction (Nebraska). Good try, but I'm still searching for jazzy riffs, barbecue, and Stroud's fried chicken on the banks of the Missouri River.

But finally I found the book I wish I'd read. Browsing a list of famous Kansas Citians, I came across Evan S. Connell. Yes, it turns out that Mrs. Bridge (1959) takes place in the town of Connell's birth. I know we've got a copy at Boswell because we did a memorial display of Connell's books, as he died only recently.  I'd include the companion novel Mrs. Bridge (1969) as well, but Bev always told me the first book is better, and you know how I am about series.

But what about contemporary fiction? What books have been set in and around this city?  Was there a nostalgic taste of the past in some book like Lesley Kagen's Whistling in the Dark? Did an outsider find inspiration amidst your fountains and come up with something like Pauls Tougtonghi's Red Weather? Was there someone who made a puzzle out of figuring out just where the settings were like Lauren Fox did in Friends like Us? And you had your local controversy with a book like Colleen Curran's Whores on the Hill? We all want to know!

1 comment:

Interested Passerby said...

Whitney Terrell wrote two novels set in Kansas City where -- if memory serves -- the city itself played a pretty significant role: THE HUNTSMAN (2001) and KING OF KINGS COUNTY (2005). Both are excellent and worth checking out.