Friday, August 30, 2019

A visit to the Newberry Library in Chicago, with a side trip to Unabridged Bookstore

It started with an anniversary party. Lisa from Books & Company and I went down to our sales rep Jenny's 20th anniversary party. Before she sold us HarperCollins Books for Young Readers out of New York, she'd worked at several of the great bookstores in Chicago. And so we got to see a few of Chicago book people, and that sort of inspired me for a day with my sister Merrill* when she visited earlier in August.

I spent time chatting with Jenny's friend Melinda, who works at the Newberry Library book store. As these things go, I spoke to her more in Chicago than when she lived in Milwaukee. The last time I had visited the Newberry, it was being run by Seminary Coop, and I had said hello to another former old friend, Laura. Now the library is running the store directly.

I was intrigued. So when our Chicago walk began and took us within blocks of the library, I realized that I had never seen anything other than the bookstore and the first floor exhibit space. We arrived and the tour was just beginning (and that was providence, as there are only two per week). We were encouraged to jump in and we did. Stephanie was our charming and knowledgeable guide, who offered a compact history as we toured the floors.

While I would have loved to see the restoration rooms up close and was itching to explore the ten-story stacks, those spaces are reserved for trained professionals. Still, they have a non-updated-but-still-functioning card catalog, perfect if I want to go back to my never-started department store book. Unlike most private libraries, anyone can join and the membership is free. It's not a circulating library, but Newberry Fellows can hold books at their research desks.

I'm sure the internet has changed the way the library is used, but I think it's so important to have these books available, especially with most other libraries purging their physical books for digital equivalents. It brought back memories of my research papers, and all the libraries I used. My mother and I would browse about eight different branches of the Queens (then Queensboro) system, but for research, Jamaica was best.  I still have this weird memory of tagging along with my other sister Claudia while she researched a paper on Isadora Duncan.  In high school, the program I was in gave us access to the library at St. John's University - I think the neighborhood is called Hillcrest, but more importantly, it was on the Q75 bus that started near our house.

The Newberry has a lot of specialty collections, containing works that are not digitized, including maps, indigenous studies, and performing arts. It's very popular for genealogy work. Our group had a lot of questions, but I kept my mouth shut when one attendee connected the library to the esteemed Newbery Medal, as that Newbery was some relative of theirs. Alas, that Newbery is spelled differently from the Library, so their enthusiasm for the tour from a genetic-relation viewpoint was a bit misplaced.

In the bookstore, I was taken by a shelf labeled Curios. I like that. It was a bit of a potpourri category - not dried flowers, but the Jeopardy connotation, a nice one for a miscellany-lover like myself. As a last note about the Newberry, Stephanie highly recommends their annual book sale in July.

The bookstore got me hungry for more book shopping, so I brought Merrill over to Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview and we did a whole mess of browsing. I did some research for my book-club discussion of Call Me Zebra (Ed's shelf-talker was, as they often are there, packed with detail) and bought The Incendiaries**, our November title. I suggested we visit their basement for the best travel section in Chicago (and probably better than many other cities), which she bought a guide for Melbourne.

One last thing for book lovers. On the way down while waiting for the Hiawatha, Merrill and I ran into one of our regulars, Mary Beth, who was visiting family. We discussed bookstores, and what do you know, we ran into her again at Unabridged, along with her daughter.

What a great and bookish day we had in Chicago***! And since you asked, I was reading the appropriately Chicago-ish Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright (register for our event on October 21 here) while Merrill read J. Ryan Stradal's The Lager Queen of Minnesota. Back at the store, I asked Merrill to try to hand-sell a copy of Vintage 1954 (which we both loved) while I was working. But that's for a different post.

*Famous for calling the novels of Anita Brookner "breezy." She's currently rereading all of them.

**Particularly appropriate because our PRH Penguin rep formerly worked at Unabridged.

***It was about an eight mile walk, including detours. We took the brown line back to the Loop.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

What did the book club think of Call Me Zebra?

We had an interesting discussion of Azareen Van der Vliet's Call Me Zebra. I had picked the book because of the phenomenal reviews and author recommendations, as well as its status as the PEN Faulkner prize winner for 2018. But then I hit a speed bump when one of our regulars warned the other attendees that it was very difficult to read. And so we were kind of offered a challenge.

The story is about Bibi, a refugee from Iran. Her family was for many generations part of the intelligentsia who helped overthrow the government of the Shah, only to have the Ayatollah turn on them after he came to power. I don't think this is an unusual narrative.

Bibi, who has renamed herself Zebra, escapes with her family, losing her mother on the journey and her father after they settle in Manhattan. So she decides to go on a pilgrimage, packing up her worldly goods, including a lot of books and possibly her father's body, and setting off, first for Barcelona and then the small town of Girona. At the apartment where she's staying, she decides to take the resident bird. Many have called the bird their favorite character in the novel.

In Barcelona, Zebra hooks up with Ludo Bembo, which not enough reviewers have noted is a fine typeface. For those delicate flowers among us, I should note that there are a number of sex scenes, including some unusual descriptions. She's able to gather up a ragtag following to head off on her pilgrimages, each one referencing a different writer. Not an easy person to be with, Zebra breaks off for the group and heads off on her own.

But nobody would ever say that this is a plot-driven novel. It is a story of ideas, with references to philosophers and great minds in literary theory. It is about a person in exile, who holds onto these ideas as a way to give herself stability in what must be PTSD. The problem is that if you are not well versed in the theory, it's likely harder to enjoy the book than if you were more knowledgeable.

What appears to be a book about books is not quite that. While Zebra carts books around with her through the entire story, she never does read, and very few book titles stand out among the philosopher-authors. In fact I counted - two Don Quixotes, de Cervantes and Kathy Acker*, and Dickens's Bleak House. The Wall Street Journal's fiction critic Sam Sacks notes the connection: "Zebra’s metaphysical quest, like that of Don Quixote, is marked by ridiculous hauteur and deeply buried sorrow."

Instead of reading, she is fixated on transcribing and orating. For her, literature has become a belief system, as substitute for the religion which she renounces when she reminds us that she is from a tradition of Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists. It's also a defense, as Nathan Scott McNamara noted in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

One thing I noticed in reading about the book is that while many reviewers called the book funny and absurd, I wasn't always sure what they were referring to, as at the same time they took Zebra's obsessions at face value. I had come to see Zebra as a kin to the protagonist in Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Sometimes I wondered whether critics were conflating Zebra and Azareeen. That might be why Oloomi noted in one interview that she did not come from a family of readers.

I kind of feel like the Kirkus reviewer got it, calling the book demented and bizarro. And I should note, that's enthusiastic. In The Millions, Nur Nasreen Ibrahim noted that we see all ourselves in Zebra's self-absorption. But this was another tricky part of the book - it's hard to see yourself when the character tries so hard to be unlikable.

Once again, themes overlapped between two books, because isn't Washington Black also a story of exile? For those who complained, however, that Wash's travels didn't seem to have a financial logic to them, Oloomi has an answer - Zebra's mentor gives her $10,000 to travel out of his academic budget? Why? We don't know.

Have I made it clear that while Call Me Zebra is not for everyone (alas, including several folks in last night's meeting)? Still, it's a worthy investment for an adventurous reader and a great fiction alternative to all those folks browsing our philosophy case. I can think of a bunch of those readers for whom this book might be a great recommendation, including one fellow Boswellian. I'm giving my copy to him now. And I recommended it to another potential fan (he was buying Doxology) on my way back from lunch. He noted that he's done well by the PEN/Faulkner in the past.

My sister Merrill and I happened to spend Saturday in Chicago, where we went to Unabridged Bookstore. Ed had one of his legendary shelf-talkers, dense and full of quotes, which in this case, seemed perfect for the book. He named it one of his ten favorite books of 2018, calling it "an astonishing novel, inventive and exhilarating."

Up next we read The Overstory on Monday, October 14 (note another special date) at 7 pm, at Boswell. Here's the rest of the Boswell-run book clubs:

*And Don Quixote as inspiration never ends. Up next is Salman Rushdie's latest, Quichotte, available September 3.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Two great events this week - a great book for educators from Bianca Baldridge on after school programs and public policy, and a lush historical set in Brazil from Frances de Pontes Peebles at the Lynden Sculpture Garden

Events this week!

Tuesday, August 27, 7 pm, at Boswell:
Bianca J Baldridge, author of Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work

Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Baldridge explores the impact of individualism, market competition, and privatization on community-based after school programs. Cosponsored by Marquette’s Department of Education Policy and Leadership.

Approximately 2.4 million Black youth participate in after-school programs, which offer a range of support, including academic tutoring, college preparation, political identity development, and even a space to develop strategies and tools for organizing and activism. Baldridge tells the story of one such community-based program, Educational Excellence, shining a light on both the invaluable role youth workers play and the precarious context in which such programs now exist.

Drawing on rich ethnographic data, Baldridge argues that the story of EE is representative of a much larger and understudied phenomenon. She captures the stories of loss and resistance within this context of immense external political pressure and illustrates examples of the damage caused by structural violence that Black youth experience in school when it starts to occur in the places they go to escape it.

Bianca J Baldridge is Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her scholarship examines the political and social context of community-based educational spaces and after-school education. She earned her PhD from Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Wednesday, August 28, 7 pm reception, 7:30 pm talk, at the Lynden Sculpture Garden:
Frances de Pontes Peebles, author of The Air You Breathe

Lynden Sculpture Garden's Women's Speaker Series, produced by Milwaukee Reads, and Boswell Book Company welcome Frances de Pontes Peebles, author of The Seamstress, winner of the Elle Grand Prix for fiction, with her new novel of female friendship between an orphan working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation and the spoiled daughter of a wealthy sugar baron.

With “echoes of Elena Ferrante resound in this sumptuous saga,” (O, The Oprah Magazine) De Pontes Peebles tells the story of an intense female friendship fueled by affection, envy, pride, and each woman’s fear that she would be nothing without the other.

Traveling from Brazil’s inland sugar plantations to the rowdy streets of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Lapa neighborhood, from Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood back to the irresistible drumbeat of home, The Air You Breathe unfurls a moving portrait of a lifelong friendship, its unparalleled rewards and lasting losses, and considers what we owe to the relationships that shape our lives.

Tickets are $23, $18 for Lynden members, and include admission, light refreshments, and an autographed paperback of The Air You Breathe. Online registration for this events closes in advance, but you can still sign up at (414) 446-8794. The Lynden Sculpture Garden is located at 2145 W Brown Deer Rd in River Hills.

Visit our Upcoming Events page for more great programs.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Boswell bestsellers for the week ending August 24, 2019 - two classics get updated treatment - here's how The Turn of the Screw and For Whom the Bell Tolls look on Boswell's bestseller list

Boswell bestsellers for the week ending August 24, 2019

Hardcover Fiction:
1. The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
2. Inland, by Téa Obreht
3. Chances Are, by Richard Russo
4. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
5. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong
6. Death by the Bay V5, by Patricia Skalka
7. Circe, by Madeline Miller
8. A Dangerous Man V18, by Robert Crais
9. The Chain, by Adrian McKinty
10. The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware might have a regular publishing schedule, but her reviews are as strong as those for writers who take two or three times as long. I looked at Book Marks, the review compiler, and her latest, The Turn of the Key, had ten raves and two positives. Here's Maureen Corrigan who tackled this thriller for The Washington Post: "What kind of suspense writer would be so reckless as to invoke Henry James’s masterpiece of terror and ambiguity and expect to see her own work do anything but suffer in the comparison? Happily, the answer is: a superb suspense writer who is dead set on making her own distinctive mark on the governess-alone-with-weird-children-in-an-isolated-house formula. The Turn of the Key pays scrupulous homage to James’s The Turn of the Screw and also slyly updates it."

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. On Spice, by Caitlin PenzeyMoog
2. For the Good of the Game, by Bud Selig
3. How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi
4. Educated, by Tara Westover
5. Gods of the Upper Air, by Charles King
6. The Second Mountain, by David Brooks
7. Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo
8. The Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino
9. Becoming, by Michelle Obama
10. Milwaukee: A City Built on Water, by John Gurda

A major nonfiction work that got the jump on the post-Labor-Day release rush is Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century, a biography of David Boas and his circle: Jennifer Szali in The New York Times writes: "Boas is at the center of Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air, a group portrait of the anthropologist and his circle, who collectively attempted to chip away at entrenched notions of “us” and “them.” “This book is about women and men who found themselves on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time,” King writes, “the struggle to prove that — despite differences of skin color, gender, ability or custom — humanity is one undivided thing.”

Paperback Fiction:
1. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
2. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
3. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
4. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
5. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
6. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
7. The Only Woman in the Room, by Marie Benedict
8. Death Stalks Door County V1, by Patricia Skalka
9. There There, by Tommy Orange
10. Down the River Unto the Sea V1, by Walter Mosley

If I weren't running our book club discussion for Call Me Zebra tomorrow, I'd be attending Anne's Mystery Book Club discussion for Down the River Unto the Sea. Walter Mosley's latest won the Edgar Award. Says Steph Cha at the Los Angeles Review of Books: "Joe King Oliver, the protagonist of his new novel Down the River Unto the Sea, is a black ex-cop who was framed for the rape of a white woman. The premise alone is enough fuel for hours of classroom discussion. Add in a wise teenage daughter, a devilish antihero partner, and a death-row inmate inspired by Mumia Abu-Jamal, and we have a wild ride that delivers hard-boiled satisfaction while toying with our prejudices and preconceptions."

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. The Ground Truth, by Mark L Hineline
2. Calypso, by David Sedaris
3. Brick Through the Window, by Steven Nodine, Eric Beaumont, Clancy Carroll, and Dave Luhrssen
4. Evicted, by Matthew Desmond
5. Anthony Bourdain: The Last Interview, with an introduction by Helen Rosner
6. Disordered Mind, by Eric R Kandel
7. Good Time Party Girl, by Helen Cromwell
8. Selma of the North, by Patrick D Jones
9. Wicked Milwaukee, by Yance Marti
10. Sapiens, by Yuval Harari Noah

Just out from Feral House is a new edition (originally from 1966) of Good Time Party Girl, the life of Helen Cromwell, who ran Milwaukee institution The Sunflower Inn. From the notes: "Dirty Helen, with the self-assurance of a defrocked debutante, takes you through her life and adventures. Demure, sweet, and wild teenage Helen flees from small-town Indiana to Cincinnati with her first of six husbands. She soon realizes that the traditional role of wife and mother isn't for her. She meets cunning millionaires, bank robbers, detectives, and gangsters as she hustles her way through life. Her friends were everyone else's enemies - Al Capone, Big Jim Colosimo, and Johnny Torrio all spend time with Helen as she bounces from adventure to adventure. It's the true-life story of a woman who never said No and carved out an independent life that transgressed every societal boundary."

Books for Kids:
1. Dog Man For Whom the Ball Rolls V7, by Dav Pilkey
2. Pigeon Has to Go to School, by Mo Willams
3. Lulu and Rocky in Milwaukee, by Barbara Joosse and Renee Graef
4. Fancy Pants, by Roger Priddy
5. Anthology of Intriguing Animals, by DK
6. Atlas Obscura Guide for the World's Most Adventurous Kid, by Dylan Thuras and Friends (event October 16 at AGSL. Register here)
7. Wilder Girls, by Rory Power
8. Lawrence in the Fall, by Matthew Farina and Doug Salai (event at Boswell Sat Sep 21, 11 am)
9. Extraordinary Birds, by Sandy Stark McGinnis
10. Specials V3: The Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld (event September 16 at UWM - Register here)

It's another big week for the latest Dog Man installment, For Whom the Ball Rolls, in which the Supa Buddies meet a brand new super villain. And on top of that, Pete the Cat has gotten out of jail and is ready to start a new life with Lil Petey. And while I haven't read it (yet), I've heard that the book does take on the Ernest Hemingway classic from which it derived it's name.
Featured on the Journal Sentinel book pages:

--From the Journal Sentinel, Jim Higgins reviews a familiar subject penned by a popular Wisconsin writer: "Would you have imagined that the late Todd Bol, who started the Little Free Library movement, was once a boy who had trouble reading? In the new book Little Libraries, Big Heroes, for children 4 to 7 years old, author Miranda Paul traces the thousands of Little Free Library bookcases around the globe back to Bol’s childhood.

--From Kendal Weaver at Associated Press: "Zach Powers’ First Cosmic Velocity is a cleverly conceived and beautifully delivered novel that looks at the struggle for space supremacy from the Soviet side of the Cold War... The darkness and gravity of the narrative is mixed with stirring prose and dialogue that make First Cosmic Velocity a novel of ideas from the Cold War era."

--From Bruce DeSilva at Associated Press: "This is the 17th Cole and Pike novel, putting it well past the point that many crime fiction series become repetitive or otherwise lose their steam. But A Dangerous Man — suspenseful, fast-paced, tightly written and peopled with compelling characters — is one of Crais’ best."

--We referred above to Charles King's Gods of the Upper Air. David Holahan in USA Today adds to the praise: "The author, a professor at Georgetown University, succeeds in bringing Mead and her fellow travelers into sharp focus as they pioneered a new field and documented mankind’s many-splendored diversity in a positive, rather than a divisive, light."

--And Matt Damsker, also from USA Today, offers this another pick: "If your summertime activity includes slapping away noisy insects while enjoying a fat beach book, you might relate to Timothy C Winegard’s entertainingly educational new opus, The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator."

Thursday, August 22, 2019

What the Book Club Thought Extra - Matt Haig's How to Stop Time at Boswell's Books and Beer Book Club

It is a rare evening when I can attend one of our other book clubs. Most Monday evenings, we either have an author talk going on in the rear in the store or at an offsite location. But it is August, and that means the schedule is a bit lighter. And so I decided to join up with Jen's Books and Beer Book Club at Cafe Hollander. Knowing the set-up of our In-Store Lit Group, I just don't think I would have been able to eat a plate of Brussels sprouts* while discussing a book. Plus I've told people time and again not to eat Brussels sprouts in the store. At least the drippy kind with sauce.

We formed the Books and Beer Book Club with a slightly concept - a mix of genres, and an entertainment component to the stories. The kind that almost always got film rights sold, though lately, it's more streaming series than films. That said, because we do like to pick selections with vetting that includes looking at reviews and interviews, but not by reading the book in advance, sometimes the books aren't as entertaining as we hoped. But that happens with all our groups - a recent science fiction book club consensus was that the book they just read was not at all what was promised. Books and Beer skews a little younger than the other clubs too, which might be a function of the books chosen, or it might be the beer.

This week's selection, How to Stop Time, has been a fixture on Boswellian Tim's rec shelf, and that encouraged Tim to attend. So that was two booksellers, plus Jen plus our other attendees, which brought us to double digits, which is a nice size for discussion. I'd attended a few meetings on start-up so I knew a bit what to expect. Every book club is run a bit differently - Jen's proceeds with a series of questions to the group and ends with us having to rate the books from zero to five stars. She well knew that rating things is tough for me, but I was game, only confessing that I give every book on Edelweiss eight stars or I don't review it all. Books I don't like are my little secret.

We'd put How to Stop Time on our recent time travel table, but truth be told, it's not a time travel novel, except in the book's structure of jumping around in time as the story is told. Our protagonist, currently named Tom Hazard, has a disorder that causes him to age at one tenth the speed of a normal human. So here he is in London, teaching history to kids, only he's lived it, having been alive since the 1400s. He lives by a few rules, one of which being he can't fall in love. And then, of course, he catches the eye of a fellow teacher, Camille.

For over a century, Tom lived by his wits, playing the lute for Shakespeare (he's a talented musician), finding and losing love (with Rose), fathering a child (Marion). And then the Albatross Society got a hold of them, a secret organization that keeps self-proclaimed Albos out of trouble, by giving them a new identity every eight years and otherwise keeping them financially solvent. Hendrich, the self-proclaimed leader, made his fortune in tulip bulbs. Their mission? To recruit other slow agers and keep them out of the hands of witch hunters (historically) and scientific experiments (more recently). And if you say no? Uh oh.

Tom really does have one mission - to find his missing daughter, who is also a slow-ager. It doesn't have to be that way. The condition, which appears to be either recessive or random, may or may not manifest in your kids, as one of the slow agers has an elderly child. Hendrich promises he's helping Tom find Marion, but it's a big world and she's stayed off the radar. And if there's another thing Tom has to come to terms with, it's feeling at fault for the death of his mother, who was drowned as a witch. Talk about guilt inducing, the townspeople make it clear that it is Tom's fault.

The problem with living almost effectively forever is that its hard to come up with a focus. You can always try to live life later. Hendrich suggests losing yourself in material indulgence, and Tom's friend Omai (who is mostly only referred to in memory) lives for the moment. And so the story becomes not just an adventure, a speculative thriller, and a romance, but a philosophical investigation as well. And that is not particularly surprising because Matt Haig's biggest seller before this was Reasons to Stay Alive, a memoir about overcoming depression.

Most of the attendees really liked How to Stop Time, far more at least, than their previous club selection. Jen asked some conversation starters, including pondering the trope of why all these time travel books wind up having the protagonists interacting with famous people in history. Is that tired? Well, having been recommending Vintage 1954 all summer, I sort of feel like this comes part and parcel with the genre. And we know that even in historical fiction, many editors are advising authors to add in real-life figures. Authors have told us this at their events. Not that every mystery has to have a murder, but it doesn't hurt.

Jen noted noted that in a lot of ways, How to Stop Time used some of the conventions of vampire** novels, as well as Deborah Harkness's The Discovery of Witches. It reminded me of the Magnus Flyte novel, City of Dark Magic, that was popular about five years ago. But the contemporary parts of the book really called to mind Nick Hornby as well - a self-doubting good egg floundering at life until he finds the people who can help him put the pieces together. And Tim? His comparison is David Mitchell. How's that for a range of influences?

This is a great book club selection for folks with groups who want a spirited discussion with a little meat, but also have attendees who need some solid action to keep them going. How to Stop Time was a New York Times Editor's Choice pick, and was shortlisted for the British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year. Neil Gaiman wrote: "Matt Haig has an empathy for the human condition, the light and the dark of it, and he uses the full palette to build his excellent stories." Here are interviews in Book Page and The Guardian. Did we mention the movie is being filmed?

One big complaint that was pretty much a consensus - the ending wraps up a little too neatly for our tastes.  So my big question, which is always something I think about when someone has problems with a book, is, if you were an editor, what would you try to change? And would that help the book or lead to more problems?

The next Books and Beer Book Club selection is The Municipalists, by Seth Fried, on Monday, September 16, 7 pm. Alas, I'll only be there in spirit; we have two author visits that evening. Here are the rest of our upcoming Boswell-run book club selections.

*The greatest Brussels-sprouts-themed novel ever is Don Lee's Wrack and Ruin.

**Matt Haig wrote at least one vampire novel, The Radleys. It's available, but it's a high-priced POD title. Oh for the days when the new publisher would repackage the backlist. But nowadays, the ebook rights don't seem to ever move, so it doesn't make sense. Thus it's much harder for an author's hit novel to breathe life into their previous works, unless they never move publishers.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Boswell alert - Mark Hineline at the Urban Ecology Center, Caitlin PenzeyMoog's spice-filled memoir, Patricia Skalka's latest David Cubiak mystery - special afternoon event

Here's what's happening with Boswell this week.

Tuesday, August 20, 7 pm, at Urban Ecology Center, Riverside Park, 1500 E Park Pl:
Mark L Hineline, author of Ground Truth: A Guide to Tracking Climate Change at Home

Mark L Hineline appears at Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center with his guide for novice scientists to get closer to nature and observe climate change in their own neighborhood. Cosponsored by Boswell. Please pay what you can for admission. Hineline is Instructor in History, Philosophy, and Sociology of science at Lyman Briggs College, Michigan State University.

We know that the Earth’s climate is changing, and that the magnitude of this change is colossal. At the same time, the world outside is still a natural world, and one we can experience on a granular level every day. Hineline’s Ground Truth is a guide to paying attention instead of turning away and gathering facts from which a fuller understanding of the natural world can emerge over time.

Writing for Slate, Rebecca Onion says, “Hineline’s wonderful new book advocates the addition of a new kind of individual action to supplement our political struggle [against climate change] - one that’s both pragmatic and emotionally resonant.” Along with detailed guidance, Hineline ponders the value of everyday observations, probes the connections between seasons and climate change, and traces the history of phenology - the study and timing of natural events - and the uses to which it can be put. Ground Truth invites readers to help lay the groundwork for a better understanding of the nature of change itself.

Wednesday, August 21, 7 pm, at Boswell:
Caitlin PenzeyMoog, author of On Spice: Advice, Wisdom, and History with a Grain of Saltiness

Caitlin PenzeyMoog, UWM alum, Deputy Managing Editor of The AV Club, and granddaughter of Milwaukee spice legends Bill and Ruth-Ann Penzey, grinds up a revealing look at the history and production of spices with modern, no-nonsense advice on using them at home.

Every home cook has thoughts on the right and wrong ways to use spices. These beliefs are passed down in family recipes and pronounced by television chefs, but where do such ideas come from? Many are little better than superstition, and most serve only to reinforce a cook’s sense of superiority or cover for their insecurities. It doesn’t have to be this way.

PenzeyMoog’s notes On Spice come from three generations of family in the spice trade and dozens upon dozens of their collected spice guides and stories. Learn where spices come from - historically, geographically, botanically, and in the modern market - and see snapshots of life in a spice shop, how the flavors and stories can infuse not just meals but life and relationships.

Thursday, August 22, 2 pm, at Boswell:
Patricia Skalka, author of Death by the Bay

You know Patricia Skalka from the Dave Cubiak mysteries. She's also President of the Sisters in Crime Chicagoland chapter. Now this sometimes Wisconsin-based author returns to Boswell for a special afternoon event with the fifth installment of her popular series.

A scream from a medical conference disrupts Sheriff Dave Cubiak’s lunch at the Green Arbor Lodge. Leaping into action, he finds the ninety-three-year-old director of the Institute for Progressive Medicine collapsed, dead of a heart attack. As Cubiak interrogates the witnesses, he’s struck by the inconsistencies in their stories - some evade questions and others offer contradictory statements. Then another scream pierces the air.

Past and present merge as long-buried secrets rise to the surface. The resourceful sheriff must rely on wits and the memories of friends and family to uncover the dark truth behind the Institute for Progressive Medicine. Dedicated and new fans alike will find themselves captivated by this intelligently plotted story as Cubiak untangles the twisted threads of this intricate mystery.

More upcoming events on the Boswell upcoming events page.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Boswell bestsellers for the week ending August 17, 2019

Here are the Boswell bestsellers for the week ending August 17, 2019

Hardcover Fiction:
1. A Dangerous Man V18, by Robert Crais
2. The Lager Queen of Minnesota, by J Ryan Stradal
3. The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
4. Inland, by Téa Obreht
5. Chances Are, by Richard Russo
6. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
7. City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert
8. Lady in the Lake, by Laura Lippman
9. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong
10. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk

In the review world, Tea Obreht's Inland was definitely the start of the new releases. Carolyn Kellogg imagines the panic of being lost in the desert without enough water in the current day: "Before hoofing it back to modern comforts, you consider what it was like to try to make it in the desert West a century ago: the relentless sun, the endless thirst, nothing between you and the elements but a scrap of determined hope. That is where Téa Obreht plops us down, in a whisper of a town in the Arizona Territory in 1893, in Inland, her first book since her 2011 bestselling debut, The Tiger’s Wife. Suffused with magical realism, “Inland” is a sweeping story of the outcasts who drift into this desolate corner of the West. There’s a huge cast, stretching back half a century, who orbit around two characters in particular."

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. Chase Darkness with Me, by Billy Jensen
2. The Art of Inventing Hope, by Howard Reich
3. Educated, by Tara Westover
4. How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi
5. On Spice, by Caitlin PenzeyMoog (event at Boswell Wed 8/21)
6. For the Good of the Game, by Bud Selig
7. The Source of Self Regard, by Toni Morrison
8. Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo
9. The Witch's Guide to Self Care, by Arin Murphy-Hiscock
10. Witcraft, by Jonathan Ree

Ibram X Kendi received the National Book Award for Stamped from the Beginning in 2016. Now his follow-up, How to Be an Antiracist, has arrived. Here's what Ericka Taylor says on the NPR website: "Despite the nature of its title, Kendi has gifted us with a book that is not only an essential instruction manual but also a memoir of the author's own path from anti-black racism to anti-white racism and, finally, to antiracism. Such critical self-reflection is, in fact, the responsibility of the antiracist. Kendi explains that, "like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination."

Paperback Fiction:
1. Ghosts of the Garfagnana, by Paul Salsini
2. Hope Rides Again V2, by Andrew Shaffer
3. Hope Never Dies V2, by Andrew Shaffer
4. Milwaukee Noir, edited by Tim Hennessy
5. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
6. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
8. Madame Bovary, by Gustav Flaubert
9. Native Tongue V1, by Suzette Haden Elgin
10. A Thread So Fine, by Susan Welch (event at Boswell, Thu Sep 5, 7 pm)

Our Science Fiction Book Club is reading Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue on Monday, September 9, 7 pm. It's got a Wikipedia entry! I don't think they thought through how the cover treatment would come off on websites. Definitely could have been on our what to read after our Handmaid's Tale table. Another book club surge has been for Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Here's Roxana Robinson's New Yorker piece on teaching Madame Bovary.

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. A Prisoner of Her Past, by Howard Reich
2. Spirit of a Dream, by David Rearick (event at Boswell, Wed Sep 4, 7 pm)
3. 111 Places in Milwaukee that You Must Not Miss, by Michelle Madden
4. I'll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara
5. Calypso, by David Sedaris
6. The Fall of Wisconsin, by Dan Kaufman
7. Locking Up Our Own, by James Forman
8. Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
9. Milwaukee Jazz, by Joey Grihalva
10. Dear Friend, by Yiyun Li

The sales pop for I'll Be Gone in the Dark is definitely connected to our visit last Friday from Billy Jensen, the author of Chase Darkness with Me. For one thing, Jensen helped finish McNamara's bestselling true crime book. Though to my knowledge, Jensen is not credited on the book itself, the Murderinos in the audience (those are folks who follow My Favorite Murder podcast) were well aware. My apologies if I missed the credit, but I thought I checked the cover, the title page, and the acknowledgements.

Books for Kids:
1. Dog Man For Whom the Ball Rolls V7, by Dav Pilkey
2. Lulu and Rock in Milwaukee, by Barbara Joosse, with illusrations by Renée Graef
3. Pigeon Has to Go to School, by Mo Willems
4. Dear Black Boy, by Ebony Lewis
5. House of Salt and Sorrows, by Erin A Craig
6. King of Kindergarten, by Derrick Barnes, with illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
7. We Don't Eat Our Classmates, by Ryan T Higgins
8. Calling the Water Drum, by Latisha Redding, with illustrations by Aaron Boyd
9. Marvel Alphablock, by Peskimo
10. Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid, by Jeff Kinney

Back to school rules! One new release is King of Kindergarten, written by Derrick Barnes with pictures from Vanessa Brantley Newton. Trade reviews are ecstatic. School Library Journal called the book "joyful and empowering," while Booklist wrote: "This upbeat picture book follows an African American boy through his first day of school, from waking up in the morning to riding the school bus home. Taking hold of his mother's words that he'll be the King of Kindergarten, the royal metaphor gives him courage throughout the day as he meets new people and situations with bravery and excitement."

Though there's no printed book reviews this week in the Journal Sentinel, you can read the very hard-working and always reading Barbara VandenBurgh's review of Inland here, where she observes that "The Serbian-American writer displays dazzling dexterity and wit with the English language, transporting the reader to a fantastical late 19th century that borders on outright fantasy, where descriptions wax decadent and ghosts are treated as a matter of fact."

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Romance in the Bookstore - The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman

Today is Bookstore Romance Day, a new promotion conceived by Billie Bloebaum. While we didn't do any programming this year, I had a good excuse - I'm off to the 20th anniversary of a former bookseller. Boswell also generates a lot of romance too - we've had three proposals, one wedding ceremony, and countless dates at the store. I've even had requests for a wedding reception, but I think that would be hard to pull off.

One of the things about romance is that like several other genres that had lost presence in bookstores (true crime comes to mind), it's really made a comeback. The new romances have diverse protagonists, and are often LGBT and disability friendly. But more than that, the women have agency. These are trends that have been ascendant for years, but it's really noticeable now.

Another thing that I think is different is a generation trend about genre snobbishness. One of the things I remember about working in a bookstore when I was young was that it was okay to turn up your nose at other people's reading tastes. I don't see that among my younger booksellers - this my be part of a bigger change about the way we think about difference.

In celebration of sorts, I read, on my colleague Jen's recommendation, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. And while the publishers didn't tag this book specifically as a romance, it does have an alternate designation as romantic fiction on our bibliographic website, and there is certainly a romance at the heart of the story. It is also published by Berkley, which is one of the imprints where we are seeing a lot of the new romance. This charming romantic comedy is also a nice bookstore novel - I got a copy, gave it to a friend, and then bought another. Can there be higher praise from a bookseller?

This is Abbi Waxman's third published novel and like the others, it's set in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Larchmont Village. It's kind of similar to our Downer Avenue neighborhood, functioning a bit like a small town, and a little out of the way, such that we often have locals come to the bookstore who were kind of surprised to find this nice shopping street. It's partly because it our main street doesn't really go anywhere.

At the center of the story is Nina Hill, a young bookseller at Knight's in Larchmont Village whose mom now lives in Australia. She has no relatives, because she was conceived in a tryst and her mom asked the gentleman involved to waive paternity. He was married and things were messy. Nina's made her family her new friends, and she is very scheduled. Each chapter beings with a page from her planner. Between work, her weekly book club meeting (a different genre every week of the month) and her champion trivia team, there's not a lot of spare time.

Three things happen.
a. She meets a guy on one of the other trivia teams who seems kind of interesting.
b. It becomes clear that her bookstore is having financial problems.
c. She gets a note saying that her birth father has died and that she's in the will

Regarding that last revelation, it turns out that she's gone from no family to lots and lots and lots of family. Some of her new relatives are happy with her discovery; many others are not. And there you have the three problems that need to be solved.

The romance is pretty straightforward, and kind of follows what I read to be the Harlequin formula, only without restrictions on which page each plot point must occur. The family drama takes a few more unexpected turns. But it's really Nina who drives the story. It's just hard not to love her. And there's no question that while she finds a few new loves (family, romantic partner), she will always love, love, love books.

Here's Boswellian Jen Steele's recommendation that convinced me to pick up the book: "I loved every bit of this delightful novel! Nina Hill has everything she could every want: a dream job working at her local independent bookstore, trivia nights with her friends, weekly book clubs, and the most observant cat, Phil. She may have every moment planned in her spectacular daily organizer. Nevertheless, there are some things you just can't plan. Nina gets a visit from a lawyer and learns that the father she never knew has died, leaving her with siblings and many questions. Overwhelmed with the sudden onslaught of new people in her life, not to mention the potential fling with the cute guy from a rival trivia team, Nina beings to realize real life is much harder than it is in books. She must learn how to navigate around her newfound family and all these new emotions. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill is a funny, wistful novel with a relatable bibliophile!"

As booksellers, we have two pieces of advice for Nina:

1) Why are you having all your author events on Saturday evenings. Monday through Friday are much easier nights to schedule, unless it's a launch party or has a strong entertainment element. But the book event we live through in Nina is hardly entertaining, nor is it a family/friends launch.

2) You had a street festival (family friendly, no less) and you closed the store? Now we do lose sales at the Downer Classic bike race, but my neighbor who like me is a shopkeeper, told me at one point that he did more than 10% of his annual sales at his neighborhood's annual street festival. 10% of the whole year's sales!

There is a real bookstore in Larchmont Village called Chevalier's. It's been open since 1940. You should go. Oh, and here's an interesting but not particularly new article on pressure to develop the neighborhood.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

the books of Karen Dukess's The Last Book Party, a novel for the end of summer

I was cleaning up our break room when I came across The Last Book Party, a July novel from Karen Dukess. As the reading hoarder I can be, I wound up setting it aside for one last perusal before moving on. It had some bookseller love when it was published. So I tried it.

I know that I’m always supposed to be reading ahead, but like any number of readers in the publishing and bookselling world (including authors) who complain that reading, the thing we love that brought us to this industry, can sometimes feel more like work than pleasure. Sometimes it’s nice to read something that isn’t under deadline. There’s no Indie Next quote desired, the author isn’t coming. That said, I’m not sure I could handle reading a book that was out of print, unless my goal was to convince someone to republish it. So of course I turned my diversion into a blog post.

Here's the set up. Eve Rosen is an editorial secretary at Hodder, Strike who has dreams of moving up in the hierarchy. They read books off the slush pile, sometimes aloud to the co-workers. The editorial folks are different from the publicity people; they are introverted and don’t have progressive parties. I should note that when I was in publishing, I don’t think there was much outside socializing between the brains (editorial) and the money (sales, marketing, publicity). But it’s also possible I just wasn’t invited. I should note that one of the recent attendees at our book club worked in editorial and her closest friend was in publicity. So every house is different.

In any case, Eve* is passed over for a promotion and jumps ship to assist Henry Grey, an old-school, Cape-Cod-based New Yorker journalist who has been working on his memoirs for years. She first meets him through his son Franny, an unbookish artist type with whom she has a dalliance, back when she was still in publishing. But it turns out the connections are web-like. Franny’s roommate at Choate is Jordan Grand, the hot young author that is Hodder, Strike’s big property. Meanwhile, Henry Grey’s memoir languishes unedited in the drawer of Malcolm his editor.

Henry lives an artistic life with his spouse Tillie the poet, who worked for years in Henry’s shadow, but now has a flourishing career. Their lives seem so exotic to Eve, whose family may live nearby, but are world’s away in terms of this insular world. And the season will all culminate in the Grey’s end-of-season book party, a costume extravaganza where everyone comes dressed as book characters.

And did I imagine that there’s a lot of secrets and withholding of information? Some things are revealed pretty early, such as Jeremy Grand is actually Jeremy Greenberg, who like Eve is just a middle-class Jewish kid, only he's from New Jersey.

Well, you can only imagine what happens. The story is a bit of a play on the innocent whose clumsy maneuverings crash down the intricate house of cards that the other players have constructed. And it’s also a play on the mentor story, calling to mind two novels from 2018, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Sigrid Nuñez’s The Friend. I have this tendency when I’m reading to call out advice to the protagonist, “Please don’t do this,” but they always do what I hope they won’t.

In a way, the awful things that happen don’t destroy Eve so much as jump-start her. When I hear authors offer advice to others, one common refrain is “Read, read, read. Write, write, write.” And the thing about Eve is that she is just having trouble with the latter, and is even called out for it. But she has no such issues with the former, and that is one of my favorite parts of The Last Book Party. I loved Eve’s voracious reading habit, and from bookstores to libraries to flea markets, there were books everywhere. Classics mix with popular fiction of the time; mixed in are a number of lost treasures. I spent more than a few moments searching for the story behind obscure titles and authors. I wouldn't mind talking books with Alva the librarian.

If there were ever a book that demanded a reading list, this is one. So hereforth are the books of The Last Book Party.

The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert Service (12)
The detective novels of Ngaio Marsh (17)
The detective novels of P.D. James (17)
The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough (17)
MyAntonia, by Willa Cather (17)
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (18)
Love in Bloomsbury: Memories, by Frances Partridge (37)
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte (37)
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson (38)
A Wreath for the Enemy, by Pamela Frankau (67)
Cape Cod, by Henry David Thoreau (73)
The Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds (Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 73)
The Encyclopedia of Ancient Battles, edited by Michael Whitby and Harry Sidebottom (73)
World’s Fair, by E.L. Doctorow (73)
Stones for Ibarra, by Harriet Doerr (73)
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (73)
The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins (73)
Rich Man, Poor Man, by Irwin Shaw (73)
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (73)
I’ll Take Manhattan, by Judith Krantz (84)
Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson (85)
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, by Eric Hodgins (89)
Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon (91)
Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw (92)
Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink (92)
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (92)
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte (92)
Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk (93)
Exodus, by Leon Uris (93)
The Secret of the Old Clock, by Carolyn Keene (94)
Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier (94)
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (94)
Sweet Savage Love, by Rosemary Rogers (94)
A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (96)
The Robert McCloskey books (103)
The novels of Dominic Dunne (113)
The novels of Bret Easton Ellis (113)
Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe (114)
Middlemarch, by George Eliot (114)
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (114)
Scoop, by Evelyn Waught (114)
Amelia Bedelia, by Peggy Parish (114)
Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm (114)
Snappy Eats of 1932, by the Temple Sisterhood of Pine Bluff, Arkansas (114)
Gentleman Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos (114)
The novels of Don Delillo (116)
The novels of Thomas Pynchon (116)
Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson (116)
Thy Neighbor’s Wife, by Gay Talese (124)
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert (139)
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (140)
Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (140)
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov (140)
Take Forty Eggs, by Basil Collier (152)
Eleanor and Franklin, by Joseph P Lash (153)
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison (153)
Dracula, by Bram Stoker (194)
The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas (194)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote (194)
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (194)
Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne (194)
The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins (196)
Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth (197)
Dangerous Liaisons, by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos (198)
Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney (205)
Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle (205)
The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (205)
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (226)
Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (226)
Tourist Season, by Carl Hiaasen (226)
The novels of Edna Ferber (226)
The novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (226)
The novels of Sidney Sheldon (226)
Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach

This book so feels like the end of summer, what with a lot of high schools already in session. Dukess's novel sort of feels like a bookend to John Glynn's Out East, a memoir about another publishing person out of his league in another summer resort community.

*I called the protagonist Eva in our email newsletter. It was a last-minute addition and we didn't proof thoroughly.