Friday, July 31, 2015

What Did the Book Club Think of "We Are Not Ourselves"?

It's sometimes hard to write about a book club discussion after you've already written so much about a book. But based on the release schedule, I could do not host a meeting for Matthew Thomas's We Are Note Ourselves before the event, but I really thought that it would be a good discussion and I wanted to make sure I read the book. As much as I read many of our event books, I certainly can't read them all. Sometimes we're doing 25-30 things in a month and my average reading rate is five books per month. You do the math!

I can't imagine what it's like when authors appear at book club discussions, event by Skype. That's why when we do this, like on August 20 with Rebecca Makkai for The Hundred Year House (6 pm), we do most of the discussion without the author present, and bring him or her in at the end to ask questions. And that's true, event when most of the people liked the book, as in the case of We Are Not Ourselves.

So there was some discussion over the length of the book. It's unusual for a character-driven story to be over 600 pages, and considering that the majority of authors I've talked to have been asked to cut down their manuscripts, I wondered what the size of the story was originally. To my surprise, Thomas actually was asked to add additional material! Most of us felt that folks should not be intimidated by the book's size, as it beautifully written, but in a straightforward enough style that you're not tripped up in language or structure, which is what can make a long book harder to get through.

We discussed the secret twist. Like several other books out there, there was something that happened in the story that changed the way you read it. I noticed several initial reviewers did avoid revealing what happened, while others stated matter of factly, "This is what the book is about." Some folks in the book club knew about it, others did not, but many who did not could see it coming well before Eileen Leary. On the other hand, isn't that so true in real life.

In the case of Thomas's novel, our book club was divided as to whether revealing the twist affected the reading of the book. Eileen could have had any number of roadblocks in her race to the American dream that could have tripped her up. She'd still have to question her choices she'd made along the way, and she still would have had the chance to prove herself as a person. I have to decide here whether to spoiler this or not, and say that there are pros and cons of this. Had the twist been revealed, the book would have been connected to several other books that have treated the same issue, at least one of which has been very successful, but certainly others have not broken out the way it was hoped. But in paperback, this becomes the nonfiction hook for book club, which can be very important.

I thought "the great Queens novel" turned out to be a bit of hyping on the part of New York media. "Hipsters are moving in; it's time to celebrate Queens instead of making fun of it on sitcoms." Being that the family abandons the borough for suburban climes halfway through, to me it's hard to say and I'm not giving anything away that they don't exactly move back at the end of the book and say, "What a mistake! Queens is the greatest!"

I think I positioned the book to the book club, as well as our customers when talking up the event, as Alice McDermott on steroids. I said this without reading the book. Fortunately I think that particular hyperbole held up. I don't expect McDermott to publish at 600+ page book in the near future. It would be kind of funny if she were working on one.

We had an interesting conversation about character empathy. All in all, I think the attendees identified with Eileen more than I think even the author might have expected. She came through when it counted. The group was a little more divided on Connell, but I and some other attendees insisted that they needed to look at Connell's age and really wonder whether he should have dropped his just starting life to help his mother take care of their father.

Note how consistent the cover treatment has been internationally (and I should note that the US and UK versions are from different corporate entities). Every publisher picked a row of houses turned sideways. The only change has really been what color the sky is. With a little searching, I noticed the hardcover UK jacket was different, but the paperback is much closer to the other editions.

As indicated earlier, we have three in-store lit meetings coming up in August, two in addition to our regular first Monday discussion, which on August 3 is Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend.

1. Our September meeting generally falls on Labor Day. We've tried having the discussion on Labor Day afternoon, and another day that week, but the easiest thing to schedule turned out to be the previous Monday. So we've rescheduled to Monday, August 31, 7 pm. The book we are discussing is Richard Ford's Canada. And yes, Ford is coming to Boswell in October, for his ticketed appearance to discuss the paperback of Let Me Be Frank with You. Tickets should be up by August 15 for that one.

2. Plus we're hosting a bonus in-store lit group meeting. On Thursday, August 20, Rebecca Makkai is coming to Boswell to read from her new collection of short stories, Music for Wartime. She's appearing with Aleksandar Hemon, coming for his recent novel The Making of Zombie Wars. With that kind of schedule, how are we going to discuss The Hundred-Year House, let alone make sure folks don't give away the ending. So at 6 pm on August 20, we'll be having a book club discussion of The Hundred-Year House and Makkai will join us at the end to answer questions. And yes, this is The Spoiler Zone, so we ask that folks who come to that make sure they've completely read The Hundred-Year House.

3. And then we don't meet again until October! On Monday, October 5, we'll discuss Helen Oyeymi's Boy, Snow, Bird, which re-imagines Snow White in 1950s Massachusetts. The book was a notable book of the year from The New York Times Book Review and was also on The Washington Post best 50 works of fiction for 2014.

So to summarize:
Monday, August 3, 7 pm: Elena Ferrante's My Beautiful Friend
Thursday, August 20, 6 pm: Rebecca Makkai's The Hundred-Year House
Monday, August 31, 7 pm: Richard Ford's Canada
Monday, October 5, 7 pm: Helen Oyeyemi's Boy Snow Bird

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