Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Book Club Summa! 24 Titles Recommended by Boswell Booksellers.

It's time for our summer book club recommendation list. While these books are good for anyone, we think they have a bit of extra discussability. Our rule of thumb is that for the most part, we also try to have at least one read on the book, which we can't say for other lists, like Boswell Best, Nowadays, it's almost impossible for us to have read the Boswell Best ahead of time, as we see advance copies for less than half the books that Jason has chosen.

We have a few carryover books from the last list, but only a few:
--The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
--Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler
--Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald

As usual, we have six nonfiction titles:
--I am Malala, by Malala Moustafzai
--The Psychopath Whisperer, by Kent Kiehl
--How to Be a Heroine, by Samantha Ellis
--The Tastemakers, by David Sax
--The Mockingbird Next Door, by Marja Mills
--Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan

Jane brought Corrigan and Ellis to the table, while Anne's pick is Mills. While even I know that The Psychopath Whisperer is going to be tough going (I always have one of these, but really, it will be quite rewarding and discussable), I really think that a book club could really have a great time with The Tastemakers. It's Sax's journey through the world of food trends, looking at every aspect of what takes something like kale from obscurity to testing on McDonald's menus (in Southern California only, for now). He follows Peruvian chefs, apple marketing boards (there's a variety that you've never heard of that completely dominates the shelves of Canadian stores, due to different marketing strategies), conventions, and the holy grail of most food merchants for trending - I'll leave you to guess what it is.

The superstars:
--Euphoria, by Lily King
--Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
--Nora Webster, by Colm Toíbín
--Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
--The Vacationers, by Emma Straub
--We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

All these books were top ten bestsellers on The New York Times, either in hardcover or now in paperback. As we know, it's always a bit of a tougher push to get very long hardcovers* into the hands of book clubs, which is partly why I think that We Are Not Ourselves didn't have the same pop that some of the other shorter works did, despite a nice run on the hardcover list; so far, it's had a week at #20. But I love a long book or two on the list. Just about every group has either a summer or winter break and why not pick a long book for that period, to discuss when you reconvene?

The Contenders
--The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henríquez
--To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris
--Almost Crimson, by Dasha Kelly
--The Red Notebook, by Antoine Laurain
--Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald
--Dry Bones in the Valley, by Tom Bouman
--Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper
--Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
--Redeployment, by Phil Klay

This catch-all list has books that we are passionate about, many of which are selling elsewhere, but aren't necessarily at book club superstar status. We've certainly had books on this list before, like Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which went on to have huge book club success nationally.

In some cases, like with Almost Crimson and The Red Notebook, the hurdle is that the books are from independent publishers. Having read them both, I wouldn't say they have too much in common except that while not comedies, both authors have a good sense of humor. I guess Kelly's novel might have more in common with The Book of Unknown Americans, as both are coming-of-age stories, the first from an African American perspective, and the second from a Latino angle. Reading these books along with Everything I Never Told You (about a biracial Chinese-American family) would jump-start a book club that wants a little more diversity in the offerings.

I should also note that The Red Notebook is my pick for book clubs that just want to make sure that everyone reads the book. It's short, funny, romantic, and Parisian to boot. It's great for that month when everyone complains that they didn't have time enough to get to the selection, like in January.

It's always nice to have an older book in the lineup, and Jane is still plugging the work of Penelope Fitzgerald. I thought we might switch to The Bookshop on its release, but she has stuck with Offshore, a novel inspired by the author's own experiences living on a houseboat in the Thames. would love to see a year of book club selections where all the books use the trope of a

We also try to have at least one mystery on our recommendation list, but this can be tricky. It's hard to pick the middle of a series unless the book really stands alone, and many series improve and don't start coming into their own until, say, book three or four. Dry Bones in the Valley is an exception. Anne has been pushing Tom Bouman's book set in northeastern Pennnsylvania since its release, and now she's validated with its capturing of the Edgar Award for best first novel.

A few books on the list have hurdles that require a little extra convincing. It takes a special book club to tackle Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. It's the kind of book many clubs will only gravitate to if it wins a major award, the way a good number of groups are reading Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It's dark and funny and discussable, but the lack of a plot (I'm pretty much quoting the author here) holds some groups back. But heck, it was one of the first two American novels to shortlist for the Man Booker (along with the aforementioned Karen Joy Fowler) and won the Dylan Thomas Prize, so I'll keep pushing it.

I don't know what the groups would think of Ferris, but I have test-marketed Dept. of Speculation and even though it's structure (stream of consciousness fragments) throws some people off, it actually has resonated well with groups and many have been glad to tackle something different. But that's part of the reason why, despite a pretty similar level of critical love, Euphoria, which is more of a straight-forward fictionalized historical, exploded while Dept. of Speculation simmered.

I started with Redployment in the superstar category, but then moved it to sleeper. While it won the National Book Award, (and had a bestseller pop) Phil Klay's Redeployment of course has the short story hurdle. I think it is wonderfully discussable, and while there are a few stories that are, for some reason, extra difficult for some folks to surmount (an unlikable narrator, a story filled with acronyms), together the stories come together nicely in a middle ground between disparate and novel-in-stories.

While the trend was definitely in the camp of historical novels with real people, I notice that at least for literary novels, the winds are pushing towards fictionalizing the characters' identities. This year alone I've read Euphoria, Jim Shepard's The Book of Aron, and Judith Claire Mitchell's A Reunion of Ghosts, all of home clearly did research on real people and events but in the end chose to change the names, allowing the authors to go where there novels needed to go, instead of being forced to hew close to history's storyline. The good news is that the history is still there, and we have had more than one book club participant read Coming of Age in Samoa in readiness for a Euphoria book club presentation.

If a blog post doesn't do the trick, we have very nice fliers recommending our 24 picks, as well as six more hardcovers that are coming out shortly, including three that will be fall events - Richard Ford, Marlon James, and Nina Revoyr. And of course if you're book club is picking books for the year, we'll do a presentation to five or more of you, as long as you promise to buy a good amount of books from us. Due to scheduling, we can generally only do these on weekday afternoons, but because we have less author events in the summer, July and August evenings are also possible.

That's one good reason to do a year at a time instead of month-by-month picking. But if you do month-by-month picking, here's a suggestion that will help both your participants and your local bookstore - pick two months ahead. Give us a month to get the book in, and give some of your group extra time to read the book. We find it makes for a happier book club that is more likely to have read the book.

*That is not really affecting sales of The Goldfinch in paper, but that has really transcended size to be a must read.

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