Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What did The Book Club Think About Meg Wolitzer's "The Interestings"?

One of the crazy things about writing up a book club discussion when we've hosted the author, is that I've already been writing and writing and writing about the book. Whereas normally the book and author seem really fresh to me, even when it's a book we sold in hardcover, in this case I'm thinking, does anyone really want me to talk more about Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings?

Of course you do! For one thing, I need to say that Wolitzer was as wonderful a reader and speaker as I promised. One of our FOBs (Friends of Boswell) came up afterwards and said to me, "Do you think I could call her up and go to lunch? I want to be her best friend." I suspect there is a long waiting list for that position.

Now I already know from the reviews that The Interestings had amazingly good reviews, but they were not unanimously so, amd so I almost didn't know what to expect when our small group met before Wolitzer's appearance. It was smaller than normal because I had to adjust the meeting time because we're now hosting Garrison Keillor at the normal book club event time. But it turned out everyone attending was quite positive about The Interestings, and that was without Wolitzer dropping in to answer questions, and thus, forcing us to be on our best behavior.

L. loved the book. She said it might have been the best thing she's read since she joined the group. The characters were so human.

C. had bought it and read it in hardcover. She'd expected it to be more lightweight than it actually was. At first she thought she'd do a little skimming, and then wound up rereading the whole book. She particularly liked the way Wolitzer wove social issues into the story.

J. had read The Ten Year Nap back when she had friends going through the same issue. She noted that Wolitzer really has great insights into people--the idea that friends on equal footing can diverge in terms of social and financial success, and how that can create a low-level envy seemed really true to life. My sister's husband is a screen writer and his close friend developed ***. (I'm not going to say the show because that more clearly points to who we're talking about, but I'll just say it was a huge hit that is very heavily syndicated.

One thing S. observed is that even though the characters had faults aplenty, there was nobody in The Interestings that she really disliked. She understood them. She also liked the way Wolitzer wove mental health issues into the story, form the low-level despress, to the child on the Spectrum, to the (spoiler, of a sort) undiagnosed ADD.

We talked a bit about some of the characters. What was Jonah's purpose in the novel? Why did Cathy make a reappearance all those years later? How does guilt play a role in the story? And yes, we dared to approach it, though I kept my distance--what actually happened between Goodman and Cathy. I stayed out of that.

In addition to having a discussion about envy, we also talked about artistic potential and achievement. How did money drive artistic success? And how has technology changed the way people think about art and artists (and by this I mean all creatives, not just visual artists).

One attendee brought up how 9-11 always has a presence in New York novels, but in this story, it's less of a major player than it has been in novels written closer to the event. We talked about how both time and geography function to change a tragic event's importance. This was one of several points where The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud, was discussed.

And finally, we discussed the unfinished business of childhood love. This led to stories of high school reunions and rekindled love affairs.

So at Gabrielle Zevin's appearance on Monday, I ran into one of our other regulars, who was planning to come, only to have her friend get sick, changing plans.

So the amusing thing was that I asked her what she thought of Wolitzer's book and she had a completely different take than any of us did, helping my theory that a book discussion can swerve in different directions with just a small change in participants.

Here's a (UK) Guardian profile by Emma Brockes that I haven't yet before linked to. It's interesting in that it's looking at America from the outside. An excerpt: "The Interestings, Wolitzer's ninth novel, is more ambitious than any she has written so far, tracking a group of friends from the moment they meet, at summer camp, up through the decades of their lives. It has done very well in the US, so that at 54, Wolitzer has become, as a friend joked to her recently, 'a 30-year overnight success.' The novel deserves acclaim, but it is a surprising hit, perhaps, given its subject matter and the downbeat nature of the heroine. It is a novel about envy, but not in the grand sense. Rather, it unpicks the insidious resentment that grows between friends who start out in the same place and whose fortunes diverge. 'Nobody tells you how long you should keep doing something,' she writes of the least successful in the circle, 'before you give up forever.'"

Oh, and this is a fascinating piece in The New Yorker. I was fascinated how she was inspired a bit by Michael Apted's Seven Up film series. You must see the writer doodle!

Monday, June 2, 7 pm: a discussion of Bill Cheng's Southern Cross the Dog, a first novel that got a lot of buzz last year, for being an authentically written Mississippi novel written by a first generation Chinese immigrant living in Queens.

Monday, July 7, 7 pm: a discussion of Dara Horn's A Guide for the Perplexed, a novel that entwines "stories from Genesis, medieval philosophy, and the digital frontier."

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

New and Noteworthy Books from Our Paperback Table--Rake, The Boy in His Winter, The Last Time I Saw You, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, and During the Reign of the Queen of Persia.

One of the reasons I like to browse the new paperbacks is to see what kind of changes publishers made to their hardcover books. But the other reason is that most independent publishers stick with paperback originals. It's not that I don't love the hard-soft process. As Gabrielle Zevin noted last night, when talking about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, a hardcover that goes into paperback allows publishers a second try at the market. When you're paperback original, you usually only have one shot, but I should note that there are exceptions.

So the first book I came across is Rake (Counterpoint), by Scott Phillips, who is author of The Ice Harvest. It is a reprint from last year and in this case, the cover stayed the same. It's Paris Noir and all the elements are there--an Eiffel Tower, a glamorous embrace, discordant coloring. I couldn't find any acknowledgements in the book, which is where I figure out the editor and agent, but if someone jumps from Ballantine to Counterpoint, they are probably edited by Dan Smetanka, and sure enough, that was the case, as I learned from this interview. Phillips is a literary/mystery hybrid guy, with the Los Angeles Review of Books comparing him to Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, old Black Lizard-y titles. A Megan Abbott quote also sort of sets the tone by calling Phillips "the unparalleled master of the noir anti-hero."

The Boy in His Winter (Bellevue Literary Press) has the subtitle "an American novel", and I think that's because it looks like a modern play on Huck Finn. What else would a raft mean? And sure enough, it's about what happens when Finn steps off his raft into Hurricane Katrina. Publishers Weekly writes that "(Norman) Lock plays profound tricks with language--his is crystalline and underline worthy--and with time, the perfect metaphor for which is the mighty Mississippi itself. This is another perfect example of how public domain works spur creativity. you can write whatever you want about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but don't you touch Gone with the Wind or The Great Gatsby or well, Steamboat Willie.

Our buyer Jason was in today and so I asked him what he'd put on a paperback round up. I played the distribution card and asked him about The Last Time I Saw You (Quercus), by Eleanor Moran, the story of a friendship cut short when one woman's friend dies in a car crash. Well, actually it was cut short first by a devastating betrayal. The cover says it all, two friends in the grass separated by a black band, both with missing heads. Actually they probably weren't trying to say decapitation--I'm just reading that into the artwork. Jason noted that the book has gotten really good reads at several New England indies, and that led him to suggest that his accounts buy the book in face out quantity, and this has led to a good number of reorders. Quercus's parent company was recently bought by Little, Brown's parent company (Hachette's Hodder division), so we'll see how that shakes things up.

The Man Booker prize is big deal, but there's always a finalist who, when the book finally comes out, sneaks a bit under the radar. I think that we have a number of customers who would be interested in Eve Harris's The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Black Cat), which is finally out here as a paperback original. It's set in London's ultra-Orthodox community, shortly before the protagonist's wedding to Baruch Levy, a man she has only met four times. The Financial Times calls this "a sympathetic window on a way of life little glimpsed in contemporary fiction." Little glimpsed? I guess I'm drawn to the Nathan Englanders and Allegra Goodmans, so perhaps I read more in this area than the reviewer.

I mentioned early on that not many books get a second paperback publication. You've got to really break out, the way Meg Wolitzer did with The Interestings, leading to the republication of her first and third adult novels, or you might be lucky enough to be picked up by the NYRB Classics line. While their books are often enough titles that my friend John read (I think he's a secret editor there) and tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to read, sometimes a release comes out that I did read the first time around. That's the case with Joan Chase's During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, a book that had massive bookseller love a generation ago, but fell out of favor, perhaps because Joan Chase published little else. It's about three generations of women on an Ohio farm, and Chase's book has been compared to Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson, and the quotes are from Margaret Atwood, Russell Banks, and Rita Mae Brown. It looks like the original typesetting--I might have requested a resetting, but at least the type size and margins are decent.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Monday Event Post--Timothy Corrigan, Gabrielle Zevin, John Corey Whaley, Jason Reynolds, Brendan Kiely, Christopher Moore, and next week, Garrison Keillor.

Monday, April 28 7 pm, at Villa Terrace, 2220 N. Terrace Ave.:
Timothy Corrigan, author of An Invitation to Chateau Du Grand-Luce: Decorating a Great French Country House

If decorating your house leaves you flustered, imagine what restoring a chateau in France might be like. Acclaimed designer Timothy Corrigan does this in An Invitation to Chateau Do Grand-Luce, and his work is nothing short of majestic (as is the book). Per the Los Angeles Times: "The 250-year-old chateau is a national landmark, and Corrigan's renovation was strictly overseen by the preservation-minded historical agency Les Architectes des Batiments de France. What's striking about the book isn't just the fantasy-come-true of owning a French chateau, but also the way the designer channeled his childhood in Los Angeles and made certain that, for the interiors, California casual trumped European grandeur."

Timothy Corrigan’s work is showcased in some of the world’s most extraordinary properties with clients including European and Middle Eastern royalty, Hollywood celebrities and corporate leaders. With offices in both Los Angeles and Paris, his distinctive design philosophy of comfortable elegance in architecture, restoration and interiors has been featured on television and in such prestigious publications as: Elle Decor, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. Corrigan has been named one of the world’s top 100 architects and designers by Architectural Digest for the past nine years, and one of the World’s Top 40 Interior Designers by The Robb Report.

What better place to host Corrigan than the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, located near Boswell at 2220 N. Terrace Avenue. Admission to the event is $5 and of course, Hannah will be there with books for purchase.

also on Monday, April 28, 7 pm, at Boswell:
Gabrielle Zevin, author of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Join us for a talk and reading with Gabrielle Zevin, whose novel encapsulates what makes a fifth anniversary worth celebrating. I feel silly writing this up yet again, so I will just show you a pile of books waiting to be signed.

Tuesday, April 29, 7 pm, at Boswell:
Floyd Skloot, author of Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir

One March morning, writer Floyd Skloot was inexplicably struck by an attack of unrelenting vertigo that ended 138 days later as suddenly as it had begun. With body and world askew, everything familiar had transformed. Nothing was ever still. Revertigo is Skloot’s account of that unceasingly vertiginous period, told in an inspired and appropriately off-kilter form. This intimate memoir—tenuous, shifting, sometimes humorous—demonstrates Skloot’s considerable literary skill honed as an award-winning essayist, memoirist, novelist, and poet.

Named by Poets and Writers as one of “50 of the Most Inspiring Authors in the World,” award-winning essayist, memoirist, novelist, and poet Floyd Skloot shares in his latest, Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir what author Ron Slate calls: “A sophisticated yet highly entertaining example of how memoir should serve us.”

From The Washington Post column from Floyd Skloot: "Vertigo — the feeling that you or your surroundings are spinning — is a symptom, not a disease. You don’t get a diagnosis of vertigo; instead, you present with vertigo, a hallmark of balance dysfunction. Or with dizziness, a more generalized term referring to a range of off-kilter sensations including wooziness, faintness, unsteadiness, spatial disorientation, a feeling akin to swooning. It happens to almost everyone: too much to drink or standing too close to the edge of a roof or working out too hard or getting up too fast." Read the rest of the story here.

Wednesday, April 30, 7 pm, at Boswell:
The Gentleman's Tour, featuring John Corey Whaley, author of Noggin, Jason Reynolds, author of When I Was the Greatest, and Brendan Kiely, author of The Gospel of Winter.
Boswell Book Company is proud to present a pizza party event for kids ages 14 to 84 with The Gentleman’s Tour featuring authors Jason Reynolds, John Corey Whaley, and Brendan Kiely. Sharing themes of teenagers facing difficult decisions as they find their footing in a challenging world, these three authors will each read from and sign copies of their latest novels and field questions from the audience.

Bowellian Mel Morrow just finished reading Jason Reynolds and had this to say: "The block is kind of boring for fifteen-year-old Allen 'Ali' Brooks until two brothers move in next door: suddenly his stoop in Bed-Stuy is full of freestyle rap, comic book art, and really loud curse words. See, Needles-—the oldest of the brothers—has Tourette's syndrome. Embarrassed of his brother, Noodles learns the hard way what it means to have someone’s back after the three boys find themselves in a heap of trouble with the local heavies. Ali’s Mom, Doris, and his little sister, Jazz, can’t bail them out. The only person they can turn to is Ali’s estranged father, but Ali doesn’t want to ruin his father’s chances to move back in with the family. Faced with difficult decisions, Ali has to think fast and grow up faster if he wants to keep himself, his family, and his friends intact. With tones of House Party, Jason Reynolds’s debut novel, When I Was the Greatest, is a well-written and easy to read slice of life novel that is tense and tender."

More on our Facebook event page. If you are planning to come, please register for this event!

Thursday, May 1, 7 pm, at Boswell:
A ticketed event with Christopher Moore, author of The Serpent of Venice. $28 includes the book, taxes, and all fees. Visit Brown Paper Tickets for details.

Get ready for a night of raucous hilarity with one of the most entertaining authors you'll ever meet as Christopher Moore returns to Milwaukee to present The Serpent of Venice, his latest novel and the sequel to Fool. The Serpent of Venice is another satirical take on the Bard of Avon starring everybody's favorite fool, Pocket of Dog Snogging, in a glorious and farcical mashup of William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe.

I've been writing a lot about Christopher Moore's event. Is the book hilarious? Yes. Is there a commemorative bookmark? You know it! Will Theatre Gigante be doing an adapted reading of chapter one before the main attraction? Absolutely.

Theatre Gigante's upcoming production of Midsummer in Midwinter opens May 7.

Monday, May 5, 7 pm, at the UWM Union Ballroom, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd.:
A ticketed event for Garrison Keillor, author of The Keillor Reader. $30 gets you admission and a signed copy of The Keillor Reader. Presented by UWM Bookstore and Boswell Book Company with media sponsors Wisconsin Public Radio and 89.7 WUWM, Milwaukee Public Radio.Visit Brown Paper Tickets for event details.

Kevin Nance just talked to Keillor in the Chicago Tribune. Here's a short excerpt.

Q: Whose idea was it to have a "reader" anthology of your work? I think of that as something that comes out posthumously, or in some cases when a writer's reputation is in a bit of a trough and needs resurrecting. Neither of those conditions applies to you, obviously.

A: Mmm-hmm. Well, it's an old tradition, and Viking, my publisher, I think did some of the early readers, which I loved when I was in high school. They were called The Portable Steinbeck, The Portable Faulkner, The Portable Hemingway. I particularly loved The Portable Steinbeck. There it was in one volume, and it gave you a little bit of all of his stuff —The Red Pony, The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat and this and that. I found it to be a great introduction to Steinbeck, who I liked a lot back then. So the reader anthology may have slipped into the "posthumous" cemetery, but I don't think it belongs there. It's a way for a writer to sort of rearrange his stuff, and to take a corrective look back, which is not easy to do. It's not as much fun as you think it will be when they ask you to do it, because you find that a lot of stuff just doesn't, you know, survive. Humor has a shorter shelf life, I guess."

Hope to see you at one of our events!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Is Interest in Thomas Piketty Driving Interest in Other Political Books? Are People Getting Confused by "Pick-ety" and "Fick-ery" and the Red and Tan Color Scheme and Buying "Storied Life?" These Questions and Others on Today's Bestseller Post.

Hardcover Fiction:
1. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
2. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
3. The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd
4. The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat, by Edward Kelsey Moore
5. The Cold Nowhere, by Brian Freeman

It's a complete win for definite articles this week, right? I've already been getting lovely notes and in-person responses and at least one phone message about how much customers are liking The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. You may have heard that the book is #15 on The New York Times bestseller list for next Sunday, so congratulation to Algonquin for that. Being that the book has been our #1 hardcover fiction bestseller for three weeks in a row, you'd think it would be a shoe in for next week, but Zevin is up against Christopher Moore's The Serpent of Venice event so I think she'll have to settle for #2.

Did you notice that The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and Capital in the Twenty-First Century have a similar red and tan color scheme? Have you ever contemplated that Pick-etty and Fick-ery sound kind of similar if you pronounce both of them incorrectly? Do you think folks walk in the door, disappointed, and walk out with a similar look and sound instead of a book of either waiting or buying a different contemporary book of economics and politics? It could happen.

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren
2. Everybody's Got Something, by Robin Roberts
3. The Divide, by Matt Taibbi
4. Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor
5. Milwaukee Then and Now, by Sandra Ackerman

Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance tells of the various setbacks she had on the way to becoming a senator from Massachusetts. And Matt Taibbi's The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, is said to be a look at the two sides of the justice system--"the untouchably wealthy and the criminalized poor." We haven't had two liberal political books pop on the same week in a while; perhaps it's folks coming in for Capital in the Twenty-First Century who don't want to go away empty-handed. Harvard's Belknap Press is being very cautious about reprinting, as they don't want to see a whole bunch of books come back at the end of the run, and I'm totally on board with that. Please have us call you when a free copy comes in.

Paperback Fiction:
1. The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat, by Edward Kelsey Moore
2. The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
3. Saving Kandinsky, by Mary Basson (event May 9)
4. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
5. Southern Cross the Dog, by Bill Cheng (book club discussion June 2)

Yesterday's blog (which, alas, was finished this morning) posted event photos with Edward Kelsey Moore and Meg Wolitzer, so instead I've pictured the French edition, which is also the treatment for the UK paperback. We have been selling Mary "Peetie" Basson's book in advance very well--I need to get more! And we're back on track with our book club discussion for Southern Cross the Dog, which will be Monday, June 2. For those who missed our moved discussion for Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, we're suggesting you attend on May 5, though I won't be there. It's the night of Garrison Keillor.

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. All God's Dangers, by Theodore Rosengarten
2. My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman
3. The Third Coast, by Thomas Dyja
4. The Plantagenets, by Dan Jones
5. Detroit, by Charlie LeDuff

A quiet sales week allows several new releases from our paperback table, such as The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens who Made England, and My Bright Abyss, a book about the consolations and disappointments of religion and poetry. What an interesting customer base we have! Thomas Dyja's The Third Coast was likely helped by his appearance for the book in hardcover, while All God's Dangers is an older book that is a reading group selection.

Books for Kids:
1. Poached, by Stuart Gibbs
2. Belly Up, by Stuart Gibbs
3. Spy Camp, by Stuart Gibbs
4. Boys of Steel, by Marc Tyler Nobleman
5. Spy School, by Stuart Gibbs

Needless to say, it's a Stuart Gibbs week. Mr. Gibbs, the author of three series, visited two schools and the Oak Creek library on Wednesday. We tag-teamed driving him around. I picked him up in the morning and got him to Shorewood, Jannis brought him to his second school, and Hannah accompanied him to Oak Creek. There are two great author escort options in Milwaukee, but sometimes, this is what we need to do to make it work! Coming this fall is a new series set on Moon Base Alpha. The first in the series is Space Case. And for those of you wondering about the Superman-themed sales, The Milwaukee Rep's The History of Invulnerability runs through May 4.

Before I get to the Journal Sentinel's Sunday reviews, I have to recap the Thursday reviews. First of all there was a piece on Christopher Moore's, The Serpent of Venice, originally published in the Tampa Bay Times. I'm going to quote the review a bit, just because Colette Bancroft really explains exactly what's going on.

"Pocket is in Venice as the emissary of his queen and concert, Lear's daughter, Cordelia, now Egland's ruler. She sends him there to dissuade the city's politicians and merchants from stirring up a new Crusade to line their own pockets (Hard to imagine such a thing these days, eh?)

"Why send a fool, he asks, and she responds: 'No letter, dispatch, or herald can be even remotely as annoying as you...Only you, my darling fool, canvey just how ridiculous and bloody inconvenient I find their call to battle.'"

Yes, on top of everything else, The Serpent of Venice is a satire of contemporary war politics. Bancroft calls Shakespeare "golden material" and notes the newest continues in the spirit of his other "outrageously runny comic fantasy novels." Dareth I say tickets available here?

In addition, Thursday featured Carol Leifer's newest, How to Succeed in Business without Really Crying, a funny book with real advice from a woman who's been in show business for close to forty years.

And now Sunday! First of all, Jim Higgins reports on Shauna Singh Baldwin as the featured speaker at the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library Literary Lunch. It's not too late to get your tickets by calling 414-286-8720 or email

Moving to page 6E of the Journal Sentinel's Cue section, Chris Foran reviews Francine Prose's Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,  by Francine Prose. It's inspired by the Brassai photograph, "Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932" and Foran says the book is at its best when it focuses on figures in the background.  He calls the book, a multi-dimensional portrait of Lou Villars, a fictionalized verion of a French athlete and race card driver who later spied for German and worked with the Nazis. He calls it "a rich portrait of a difficult age."

From Mike Fischer (yes, also in the Journal Sentinel) is a review of The Last Kind Words Saloon, by Larry McMurtry, who has now moved to the Liveright, a part of W.W. Norton. McMurtry takes the Wyatt Earp myth and deconstructs it. Fischer notes that the resulting stories "bear no relationship to our cherished fables." This is apparently a tricky thing, and the review details when it works and when it does not. This book is not out until May 7. Let us call you when it comes in!

And finally, from Sarah Bryan Miller comes a review of American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton, by Joan Barthel, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Using Seton's own words, Barthel has created an intriguing portrait of a strong woman with a strong faith who made a lasting difference for good" but I should also note that Miller is not happy about the book's many factual errors.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Saturday Slide Show--More Exciting Than Your Aunt Minnie's Trip to Mexico!

1. Edward Kelsey Moore, author of one of my favorite novels of last year, The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can Eat, was this featured speaker of the Delta Memorial Fund. This national sorority has hosted an annual literary luncheon since 1977, and this year provided scholarships to eight high schools students. In addition to speaking, he also played the cello. It was a wonderful afternoon and a great opportunity to talk up upcoming attendees such as Jayson Reynolds and Roxane Gay. Signed copies available.

2. Speaking of events, Meg Wolitzer wowed the audience on Thursday with a inspired reading and entertaining question period. Wolitzer's sales had not been insignificant before The Interestings, but as I noted on our bestseller recaps last year, they exploded with this book, and that left a lot of fans crying out for more. It was nice to have those new editions from Riverhead. I guess if I wasn't reading piles of upcoming event books, I might try The Ten Year Nap next, though I remember Nancy also liking The Wife, which is also the bestselling paperback backlist title, according to Ingram demand. Signed copies of The Interestings available, including a couple of hardcovers.
3. One of the toughest things to handle in programming events is crowd prediction. Needless to say, there is nothing worse than a much smaller crowd than you expected, except maybe knowing that you're going to have a smaller crowd than you want, because that feeling lasts longer. But in the last several weeks, we've had several crowds that have gone above expectations. We didn't have a track record with Brian Freeman, for example, and were sharing him with several other stores for The Cold Nowhere tour. That said, we had a good showing from Homestead High School students (the kids in several classes come to an author event as part of their program) and that led us to cram 36 people into our smaller event space.

Now we had Lois Ehlert in the larger space, and we knew that there was something special about The Scraps Book, but we were still pleasant surprised to get 85 people, which is more than twice what we had for our last two Ehlert presentations. We had a good assortment of signed books from Ehlert, and should have more signed copies of The Scraps Book soon. That's a hint that we ran out!
4. Yes, I know the two crowd photos look alike. Honestly, they rarely look different, but I'm so happy to have a crowd that when I remember, I take the photo anyway. Speaking of event photos, we're still working on getting crowds to our upcoming events. With the Easter display down, Garrison Keillor expanded to fill the whole front table.  Tickets available at Brown Paper Tickets.

5. Our Milwaukee Magazine ad came out and while it's odd to put an April ad in the May issue, I was told that the issue gets to subscribers about a week before our event with Timothy Corrigan for An Invitation to Chateau du Grand-Lucé: Decorating a Great French Country House on Monday, April 28, 7 pm, at Villa Terrace. It just seemed like the perfect book to advertise in the magazine. Other events are for Christopher Moore, Garrison Keillor, and two events coming up later--Rachel Kapelke Dale and Jessica Pan for Graduates in Wonderland, in conversation with Milwaukee Magazine's Claire Hanan (no brainer) on May 28, and our ticketed event with Daniel James Brown for The Boys on the Boat for June 12. In retrospect, the ad should have gone in the April issue, but I'm not sure we had the Keillor event confirmed when the April ad space reservation was due. I am very happy with the page 45 placement!

6. And finally, a photo that doesn't have anything to do with any past or future events. Last weekend my nephew Adam visited with his wife Peng and almong other things, we spent time walking around downtown. I forgot how much I always enjoy the Usinger's sausage windows. Here's there likely annual spring window celebrating pothole repair. Their other Milwaukee Bucks themed window was also timely, what with the recent sale of the team.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Christopher Moore's New Novel, "The Serpent of Venice" is a Lush Temptress, at Least On the Outside,

Needless to say, with Christopher Moore's newest novel, The Serpent of Venice, coming out this week, we've been obsessing over the new book and Christopher Moore in general, particularly as he is returning to Boswell on May 1. The last novel, Sacré Bleu, reached new levels of lusciousness with its packaging. Printed with the magic blue ink of the French Impressionists, it was also filled with full-color art plates. But I should note, the paperback edition is an ordinary paperback.

The new novel, The Serpent of Venice, is equally lush, even without the color plates. This time William Morrow did Venetian endpapers and a full blue stain around the edges; the black text is accompanied by red highlights for chapter headings, serpent decoration, and the words of the chorus. I can imagine a sticker on the cover of the book saying "words of the chorus in red" the way you sometimes see on Bibles. A number of folks said to me, "I wasn't going to buy a copy of the new book but that book's packaging changed my mind. Why aren't more publishers doing this? The publishers tell us that if the book is reprinted, it won't come with all the bells and whistles.

Moore's latest is just as much fun on the inside. Most of the Moore groupies I know went back and read (or in several cases, reread) Fool, Moore's first book that featured Pocket of Dog Snogging, the "fool" of the title. In that book, Fool was a bystander to the King Lear story. This time Pocket comes to Venice, and the story winds up being a mashup of The Merchant of Venice and Othello, with a bit of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" thrown in for good measure. No matter that it's not quite the right century for those tales--it's all fiction anyway.

While I did my typical "don't have time to read Fool dance so I'm just going to jump into the new book blindly" dance, the folks who read both say that while Fool is all jokes, there's more plot to The Serpent of Venice. One doesn't always think of a writer of such ribaldry as maturing, but Jason was mentioning that Moore's later work really has evolved. There's surely a lot more research too.

You see, Jeff and Drool have been imprisoned, and Pocket has to free them, but he becomes entwined in the various Shakespearean plots, a bit jumbled of course. There's the plan to steal Shylock's money. There's the plan to discredit Othello. And yes, there's also Viv, the sea serpent, who may have been brought back to Venice by none other than Marco Polo, who of course (how could he not be?) is another player in the story.

We did a little Facebook advertising, so if you see a pitch to buy tickets for our event with a lot of exclamation points, but with the exclamation points used in a dry pitchman kind of way, that's us. Several Moore readers got together and tried to come up with writers whose fan bases overlapped. I did my old standby, Terry Pratchett. Mel suggested Chuck Palahniuk.  We argued out Tom Robbins. I always thought Coyote Blue was Moore's most Robbins-esque, but there was disagreement. William Morrow put a Carl Hiaasen quote on the jacket, so we went with him. And then we let our online competitor suggest one--it came up with Tim Dorsey, whom we never would have done on our own.

Who would you have suggested? Or is Christopher Moore in a class by himself?

This time our event is ticketed, mostly because we started getting close to capacity levels last time, and I noticed that a lot of folks have been ticketing his events. Barnes and Noble does a wristband, so you can get in, but you must buy a book from B&N to get in line. We've got $20 a gift card option, for those who have the book already. We certainly don't ticket every event, even the big ones, such as Deborah Harkness, who is coming on August 4. In that case, you'll want to come at least an hour early. The nice thing about ticketed events is that we put out seats for everyone who pre-buys. For free events, there are less tickets, more standing room. It's a trade off.

Our ticket is $28, which includes not just sales tax, but our ticketing service fee as well. We have priced the ticket to be 51 cents cheaper than the book would cost itself at our event. And yes, you can still bring your backlist from home, though we should have all his books available, at least if you come early and we haven't sold out. Feel free to call or email and put what you need on hold. 

One thing I know for sure is that when a half-decent adaption (I think the limited-edition cable run is probably the perfect format, and advances in CGI have made the books far more adaptable on a reasonable budget) gets made of any of Christopher Moore's books, the question of ticketing or free in store will be academic. We'll either have to have a ticketed event offsite, or a signing in the store, with the line stretching Donald Driver-like around the block. Or even more likely, he won't have time to do second-string cities like Milwaukee. So don't take Moore's continued appearances (this is his third at Boswell, his fifth in Milwaukee for granted. One day you'll have to wait five hours for him at a comic convention and you'll remember this intimate gathering of 300-some souls with fondness.

Don't live in Milwaukee? The Kopps custard flavor forecast* isn't tempting enough reason to plan a last-minute trip? Here's the rest of his tour.

But really, you should come to Milwaukee. The snow has melted. And yes, right now we have a mini-play to be performed beforehand by Theatre Gigante. It turns out that one of their upcoming productions is a new take on Othello.

 *You laugh, but our pitch for the Tom Robbins memoir involved getting Kopps, if not another custard stand, to come up with a Tibetan Peach Pie flavor for the event. It didn't happen, even though Robbins supposedly loves Kopps.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Is it Better to Have a Book's Experiences be Alien to You or Feel Like You Might Have Lived Them? and Other Ponderings as We Ready Ourselves for Tonight's Event with Meg Wolitzer, Author of "The Interestings."

Tonight (April 24) we are hosting Meg Wolitzer for her first visit to Boswell. I've got lots of links to both reviews and interviews at the bottom of this post.  We're also discussing The Interestings for our current in-store lit group selection. It was originally scheduled for Monday, May 5, 7 pm, but now we're hosting Garrison Keillor at the same time at the UWM Ballroom (tickets available here) so I cannot attend. I'm offering the group two options--a short meeting at 6 pm (sans author this time) tonight or by all means, meet up at the store on May 5.

My other concern is that I hoped to do my "what did the book club think?" post before the event, but now I realize that logistically this did not work out exactly right. Next time I might do what we did with Geraldine Brooks, where the book club read an earlier title. But for this time, we'll have too posts, this one a pre-event, and another that is the traditional post-discussion post.

I should note there are some minor spoilers in the middle section of this post.  If you want to avoid them, skip to the next break. It's nothing you wouldn't have read in a review, but still. And then there are some of you that read the end of the book first. For you, you should have no fear at all.


One of the highest compliments you can pay to an author is to say that after you finished their novel, you really felt like you knew the characters. In this case, I really identify. I was born two years after the characters in the new novel, The Interestings, though being on the tail end of New York City's grade-skipping program, many of my friends were a year older in high school.

I flirted with various art forms. I tried out for several of our high school theater productions, sometimes winning bit parts. I played flute in the orchestra. I took various studio art courses, though I always thought my best work was an oil painting of Wilma Flintstone. I might have made all-borough orchestra, but I knew I wasn't that good. And by third year of the theater productions, I not only wasn't a featured player, I wasn't any player of all. I was in charge of sound effects.

The sad truth was, I didn't really have enough talent or drive to go far, so I stuck to my studies. Now some might say that my academic achievements didn't take me anywhere in particular either, though you'd have to admit that at least it was a longer ride. I knew kids who had that drive; we rode the same feeder bus on summer mornings to camp. I went off to the Y(MHA) for a day of sports and crafts, while the artsy kids went to Usdan, the day-only version of Spirit in the Woods, the sleepaway arts camp that figures large in  the story.

But I had friends with enough talent to keep trying. They tried out for shows, and got parts. They toured their bands. They wrote books. Interestingly enough, some people I knew made it, but they were never the people I kept in touch with. Most of the ones who stayed my friends wound up taking more traditional career paths. Was that coincidence, my doing, or theirs?

One of my closest friends had close parallels to Jules Jacobson of the novel. She continued to try out for shows thorugh her twenties. I even saw her in a few stage productions. But she wound up in the school system, first teaching and then coaching and advising. She is one of two of my friends who live on the Upper West Side with their families, part of the diminishing middle class of Manhattan, surrounded by untold wealth. I sometimes wonder how they can handle the disparity. What do you do when your kids ask you why you don't have a summer house?

If there was an Ethan or Ash in my crowd, I long lost touch with them.

So that was one reason why I particularly enjoyed reading The Interestings, but certainly wasn't the only reason I got lost in this broad canvas, absorbing novel. Wolitzer captures the barriers that come between both couples and friends, the truths we withold, the envy that builds up. There are two successes, the most organic being Ethan Figman's "Figland", a hit cartoon series that seems like a cross between The Simpsons and Adventure Time. And then there is his wife's Ash's nonprofit theater company. Her success is more traditional, less pop culture-y, but it's clear that without the family's money, she never would have been able to hold out through the money-bleeding years.

There's also a mental health subtheme going on through The Interestings. Jules' husband Dennis struggles with depression, while Ash's son is on the spectrum. And Goodman? There's clearly something wrong with him, though it's undiagnosed, in an old-school way.

There's lots more to talk about, but I'll wait till after our event. I'm also excited to hear what the group says. No matter how many reviews and interviews I ponder, our discussions always lead to ideas about the discussed title that weren't raised elsewhere.


I've been reading Meg Wolitzer on and off for a long time. She's had great reviews before, but I don't think anything has matched the impact of her newest. I read This is Your Life back when it was called This is My Life. They changed the book's name for a movie (with Julie Kavner, speaking of The Simpsons) and though the film has not really endured, the new title stuck.

I think Wolitzer set the ground rules for contmplating her new novel in her New York Times essay, The Second Shelf. It was an essay that really got people talking, and I still look at a book wondering what the cover treatment would be the genders were reversed.

Beth Kephart in the Chicago Tribune calls the book a "a supremely engrossing, deeply knowing, genius-level enterprise."

Here's the Liesl Schillinger review in The New York Times Book Review.

Suzanne Koven reviews Wolitzer in The Boston Globe.

Here's Terry Gross interviewing Meg Wolitzer on Fresh Air.

The novel gets an A from Entertainment Weekly, as reviewed by Melissa Maerz.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Guest Post From Gabrielle Zevin, author of "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry"

In celebration of our fifth year anniversary, we are hosting Gabrielle Zevin, author of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, on Monday, April 28. I asked Zevin for the story behind the book, especially as several folks mentioned that the book was partly inspired by Mark Gates, our longtime sales rep. Amusingly enough, our posts overlap a bit, but I hadn't read this when I wrote my own blog.

"When I sold my first book in 2004, I had no idea that publisher sales reps existed. My understanding of publishing and bookselling largely came from books I’d read about the writing life. I think of John Irving’s A Widow for One Year or Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Neither had mentioned that there was such a character as a sales rep and that, in fact, this person was rather important, if you wanted your book to actually end up in a bookstore.

The first of these book rep characters I ever knew personally was Mark Gates. Mark picked me up at O’Hare at 10 AM. His car smelled like cigarettes, and his voice reminded me of Harvey Fierstein. He threw my suitcase in the trunk of his compact car and started chatting with me as if he’d known me forever. I was on book tour for my second YA novel, but at the time, I was in the middle of writing my second adult novel, The Hole We’re In. Mark listened politely as I described the book I was working on: Female soldier comes back from Iraq to major financial and personal problems. Mark became uncharacteristically silent. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see his eyebrows had ever so slightly furrowed. “I just wonder who at FSG will edit it,” he said finally. And then a second later, “So, what are you planning to do for money?” Mark had known me about a half hour and he was already worried about whether I’d end up on the streets because of my foolish decision to write a deeply un-commercial, political novel. (Aside: Daniel Goldin is one of about three people in the country who seemed to like The Hole We’re In when it was published in 2010 by Grove Atlantic. I appreciate symmetry in life, and it’s a rather nice symmetry that he also wrote the blurb that accompanied The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry’s selection as the #1 IndieNext title this past April.)

Our first stop that day was Lake Forest Bookstore and Sue Boucher. I signed stock and then I listened to Mark as he ran through that year’s catalog. Much of what I know about sales calls comes from that meeting. Mark took out a paper catalog that represented the publisher’s wares for the season, and he proceeded to pitch the books within its pages. He was surprisingly candid, considering his job was to sell all of them, and the pace was fast, gossipy, a little ruthless. “This one’s not for you. This one’s heartbreaking, but it’s gonna be tough for your clientele--maybe try a box? Wait for paperback for this one. I’ll tell you, this one’s my passion! I promise you’ll sell as many as you take. This one’s… Well, you’ve done pretty well with the author’s previous work so perhaps start with a box. Between you and me, not his best work.” The book he seemed most excited about was Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader*, the novella about the Queen of England taking up reading, which was already out in hardcover. He’d flip past some pages in the catalog without even a comment. I remember being filled with a strong desire not to be an author with a book on one of Mark’s or any rep’s “flip past” pages. (I am certain I have been though.)

When I think back to that scene, it’s easy for me to imagine that the seed for The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was planted right then. I liked watching Mark’s friendship with Sue Boucher. I liked the idea that sales reps and booksellers checked in with each other only a couple of times a year, but they had these peculiarly intimate relationships. And over books! As my character A.J. Fikry ruminates, “What, in this life, is more personal than books?”

Mark drove me all over Chicagoland--three days of modestly-to-poorly attended bookstore events and rowdy school visits and stock signings at Barnes and Nobles. He told me stories about people who were great at readings (Alice McDermott) and the one time an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show hadn’t helped book sales at all. He was certain a character in the novel I was touring was based on my editor’s husband. I remember laughing the whole time. When he dropped me off at the airport, it was suddenly so much quieter! I missed Mark and thought to myself, That guy might make a good character for a book some day.

Because he was an inspiration for the Harvey Rhodes character in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, people have the idea that I knew Mark Gates well. I didn’t. A year or so after my book tour, I read his obituary either in Publisher’s Weekly or on the American Bookseller Association’s website. No one told me, because it wasn’t as if Mark and I were good friends or even friends. I was just one in a long line of authors Mark had driven around the Midwest, one in a long line of authors whose books he’d sold with all his considerable intellect and heart"

How crazy that the bookstore visit that Zevin accompanied Mark on was the one where he sold The Uncommon Reader! But it's not that crazy that the buyer/owner he sat down with was Sue Boucher, one of my favorite people in the business. She's no longer owns Lake Forest Book Store, but she's on to her next chapter in Michigan, and not surprisingly, it involves a bookstore, specifically The Cottage Bookshop in Glen Arbor. 

Thanks, Gabrielle. See you Monday! 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

New and Noteworthy Tuesday--Nonfiction Titles For Moms and Daughters, Scientists and Black Holes, Beer and Beer Drinkers

Having recapped Mother's Day cards with Jen on Saturday, it's got me keeping an eye out on Mother-themed books too. The obvious candidate is Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers (FSG). The editors are Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon, with Henderson best known for her novel Ten Thousand Saints (my nephew and I were just talking about that book this past weekend) and Solomon the author of The Little Bride. I could just list the contributors whose books I read and that would fill up the paragraph: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Lan Samantha Chang, Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Danzey Senna, Dani Shapiro and so forth. A lot of the supportive quotes in the front (Molly Ringwald, Mayim Bialik) say this is a great collection for the mother to be, so I'll go with that.

We had mentioned earlier that Kelly Corrigan's Glitter and Glue would like have a Mother's Day pop, so I it's no wonder that other memoirs about mother-daughter relationships come out in April. Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When a Mother Knows Best, What's a Daughter to Do?, a Memoir (Sort of), by Elain Lui (Amy Einhorn/Putnam) is about a girl growing up in Hong Kong whose mom raised her using elements of Chinese fortune telling, feng shui, blackmail, ghost stories, and shame. The publisher notes that while friends received financial support from their parents, her Mom would demand, "Where's my money?" My friend from Singapore had a similar relationship with her mom. Lui is the voice behind the Lainey Gossip blog.

A variation on the mommy memoir is the menopause memoir, and that's how they are positioning The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones (Norton), by Sandra Tsing Loh. I read her first collection, Depth Takes a Holiday and thought it was quite funny. I believe I was obsessed on reading Southern California books and the subtitle was "Essays from Lesser Los Angeles." Cheryl Strayed, who has a selection in Labor Day, called this "blazingly vulnerable, socrchingly smart, and funny as hell." And while the story veers into the end of her marriage, it is also, per the publisher, a tale of her life as "a mother, a daughter, and an artist." See? We're still on topic.

After all that drama, I think at least some of my moms might want The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter (Princeton), by Katherine Freese, only to find out it's a science book about the hunt for dark matter, no less. Freese is the George E. Uhlenbeck Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan. Of her new book, Brian Schmidt, 2011 Nobel Laureate in physics says: "Freese tells her trailblazing and very personal story of how the worlds of particle physics and astronomy have come together to unveil the mysterious ingredients of the cosmic cocktail that we call our universe." This snappy looking volume still makes a smart gift for a geeky mom with its glossy blue-black jacket, hefty weight (signaling high quality paper) and would be remiss if I didn't mention that her author photo that offers a modern, science-savvy Zsa Zsa Gabor. Yes, that's a feather boa. One day when Freese writes her trade book (this is definitely hard core), she'll be running with the Tysons and Kakus.

Since we knowingly teased you in that last entry about the false presence of alcohol in that last book, perhaps The Craft Beer Revolution: How a Band of Microbrewers is Transforming the World's Favorite Drink (Palgrave Macmillan), by Steve Hindy will revive your spirits. Using the old adage, it ain't a trend till it happens in New York, Hind is the cofounder of Brooklyn Brewery, and his story is that of how new business like New Belgium and Dogfish Head have challenged the beer giants. If you're wondering if Wisconsin has a seat at the table in this story, my first pass through says nay, except as former home of many of the evil giants.  Though they are not in the index, Jason told me the story behind Minhas, who operate the former Joseph Huber brewery in Monroe