Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The virtual celebrity book clubs in the age of virtual everything - a lot of book picks and one book I fell in love with - Hidden Valley Road

I’m not really sure whether our celebrity book club sales has popped at Boswell because other options have been closed off for purchase (online website delays, libraries closed for physical book borrowing) or because with so many folks staying at home, these book clubs offer something to do. In addition, several of our customers’ book clubs went on hiatus until they worked out the kinks of converting to an online experience. But it appears their sales are rising with us.

Take Now Read This: The PBS/New York Times book club. While February’s pick of American Prison (Shane Bauer) barely registered with us, March (Inheritance, by Dani Shapiro) and April (Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips) have both had sales pops, though I should note that April’s is much closer to pub date and is also having a new-in-paper moment.

Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club’s April success has been staggering. I don’t know if you can give the club complete responsibility for the success of Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, especially considering that the February (The Scent Keeper, by Erica Bauermeister) and March (The Jetsetters, by Amanda Eyre Ward) had very minor sales for us. But then you get to January’s Such a Fun Age from Kiley Reid, and you have what is likely one of our biggest bestsellers for 2020.

Here’s another weird twist to Untamed’s success. I went back and looked at Love Warrior, Doyle’s 2016 release, and we’ve now sold five times as many copies of Untamed as we did of the three editions (two in hardcover, one paperback) of her previous book. And that book was an Oprah Book Club pick. I would never have dreamed! While we were not ever scheduled to host Doyle, we were cosponsors of a now-postponed-indefinitely UWM event with Doyle’s wife, Abby Wambach for Wolfpack.

One of the great discoveries for me is that of all the celebrity book clubs, my taste meshes best with Jenna Bush Hager. I have read and enjoyed five of her last ten book club picks, and all but one had been contenders in my to-be-read pile. I also found the Good Housekeeping site listing the books that cleanest to navigate. Hager’s last four books hit The New York Times bestseller list, with Valentine getting all the way to #2. Both Tim and I loved Valentine and we’re still hoping to do a virtual event with Elizabeth Wetmore.

With a lot of these book clubs, it’s sometimes hard to differentiate from sales that would have been there anyway. That’s why I’m particularly impressed with the Reading with Jenna picks, as I have to think that while the Barnes and Noble book club also featured Dear Edward, I can’t find another reason for The Girl with the Louding Voice’s NYT appearance. Speaking of which, I really like the April pick for B&N, Afia Atakora’s Conjure Women. I didn’t read it; I just like the idea of it, and I’m tempted to log on!

This brings is to the grand dame of book club selectors in modern times – Oprah Winfrey and Oprah's Book Club 2.0. While we don’t have phenomenal sales of her picks the way we did in the golden days of her daily television show, there is no question that spacing the picks closer together helps our sales, though like many of these clubs, she’s picked some books that didn’t need the help. But picking American Dirt helped heat up the book’s controversy. In the end, there was backlash to the backlash, and I’m guessing the book sold as well as it would have had there not been identity-based attacks.

That said, Oprah avoided a second controversy by backing out of picking My Dark Vanessa, a novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell about a teenager who has an affair with a forty-something teacher. I’m not sure exactly why she cancelled on this one, since that complaint was more focused on the publishing industry rewarding a white writer over a similar book written by an author of color more than this particular book. According to Book Marks, major reviews were either raves or positives, with only The Atlantic coming in as mixed.That’s better than most books I like. I suspect she and her team had controversy exhaustion, something she hasn't experienced much of late. Despite that withdrawal of approval, My Dark Vanessa was hardly a bomb, holding a number of weeks on national bestseller lists and a nice run at Boswell.

Like many of the contemporary book clubs, Oprah’s has a strong digital component. Read the ebook, download the audio, connect on Apple devices (a sponsor). But our book sales spiked for her latest pick, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker. While I wind up reading a number of these book club picks in advance-copy mindset, once they are picked, I tend to shy away; they don’t need my help and rarely tour. But something about this book called to me, especially since I’d picked up and put down at least five other books after finishing the play, Kim’s Convenience.*

Journalist Kolker chronicles the Galvin family, who settled in Colorado Springs with the creation of the Air Force Academy. Don and Mimi wound up having twelve kids, and six of them were eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic. The family history, often from the perspective of Lindsay, the youngest child (non-diagnosed) alternates with a history of the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia. The split between advocates of nurture and nature hypotheses continues since the break between Freud and Jung. And to call out historical sexism, nurturists really had a thing for moms, didn’t they?

No playing this down - I loved Hidden Valley Road! I can’t believe how Kolker was able to give such distinct life to the six men who presented their illnesses in such different ways. It’s a tragic story, but it’s also about survival story for the six kids who weren’t diagnosed, including one who seems to have skirted by the illness. If you are a fan of Brain on Fire or The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks, it’s worth checking out this book, though I should note that Kolker’s book does not have the racial justice angle of Rebecca Skloot’s. Boswell followers will also note that we’ve been very enthusiastic about Matt Richtel’s An Elegant Defense, which also balances memoir with science history. It’s another good comparison title.

Read this interview with Kolker by Laura Miller in Slate Magazine. Miller asks Kolker how he came to the story of the Galvins: “My friend and former editor at New York magazine, Jon Gluck, went to high school with Lindsay. One day in 2015 or 2016, Lindsay came through town and met up with Jon. She told him that she and her sister wanted their family’s story told but had decided they didn’t want to write a memoir themselves. They were ready for an independent journalist to take this wherever it was going to take them. Jon thought about me because he’d edited my magazine article about the Long Island case (editor’s note: I think this is the basis of his book Lost Girls) and understood that I wrote about people in crisis and vulnerable sources.”

I would also visit Kolker's website to learn about how many of his stories could make fascinating books. Did you know he wrote the story that became the basis of the 2020 HBO film Bad Education starring Allison Janney, who according to Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, could be grocery shopping six feet away from you if you live in Dayton, Ohio.

It’s just about time for all the book clubs to announce their May selections. We’ll see if interest keeps up at Boswell. Maybe one of them will pick The Story of a Goat!

*The play Kim’s Convenience is interesting reading for fans, mostly because you can see the origins of the characters in the television show. One detail is that the characters are all seven-to-ten years older than they are in the series.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Boswell bestsellers for the week ending April 25, 2020

Here are the Boswell bestsellers for the week ending April 25, 2020.

Hardcover Fiction:
1. The Glass Hotel, by Emily St John Mandel
2. Murder at the Mena House, by Erica Ruth Neubauer
3. The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
4. If It Bleeds, by Stephen King
5. The Book of Longings, by Sue Monk Kidd
6. Writers and Lovers, by Lily King
7. We Ride Upon Sticks, by Quan Barry
8. The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich
9. The City We Became, by NK Jemisin
10. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

Bill Sheehan in The Washington Post, on If It Bleeds: "Stephen King’s affinity for the novella form goes back to the early stages of his long, prolific career. In 1982, King published Different Seasons, a quartet of long stories that contained some of his finest work, and eventually led to some memorable film adaptations, among them The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me. Since then, at roughly 10-year intervals, King has produced three similar volumes that have allowed him to play with a wide variety of themes, scenes and settings. The latest of these, If It Bleeds, contains four new, exceptionally compelling novellas that reaffirm his mastery of the form."

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
2. The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson
3. Hell and Other Destinations, by Madeleine Albright
4. Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker
5. Front Row at the Trump Show, by Jonathan Karl
6. The Yellow House, by Sarah M Broom
7. What It's Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley
8. In Deep, by David Rohde
9. The Last Book on the Left, by Marcus Parks
10. Why Fish Don't Exist, by Lulu Miller

In Deep: The FBI, the CIA, and the Truth about America's Deep State comes from a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and executive editor of The New Yorker Website. From Fred Kaplan at The New York Times: "At times, Rohde suggests there is a deep state, though he calls it 'institutional government,' a term he chose “for its relative neutrality.' Its denizens don’t form “an organized plot,” but they do exhibit “bias, caution and turf consciousness.” And, he writes, 'the Justice Department and the F.B.I. and senior intelligence officials proved to be the most formidable resistance” the administration would encounter from within the federal government, initiating a 'struggle for power that would define Trump’s presidency.' Notice: Rohde isn’t paraphrasing Trump’s point of view here; he’s describing what he sees as an objective situation."

Paperback Fiction:
1. Circe, by Madeline Miller
2. Mostly Dead Things, by Kristen Arnett
3. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
4. City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert
5. Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
6. Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel
7. Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli
8. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman
9. Girl Woman Other, by Bernardine Evaristo
10. Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Women continue to dominate our fiction lists. Hardcover and paperback top tens have one male writer each. New this week is Mostly Dead Things, which Jason has been championing after reading it for his book club. We're also reading it for the Not-In-Store Lit Group on May 4. The novel was a surprise NYT bestseller in hardcover. From an interview with Bradley Sides in the Los Angeles Review of Books: "In Mostly Dead Things, Kristen Arnett takes us to Florida and introduces us to the Mortons, a family of taxidermists. There are plenty of dead animals around, sure, but that’s merely one of the manifestations of loss Arnett articulates in her beautiful, transcendent debut novel. As we slowly get to know the family, especially Jessa-Lynn, the young woman who narrates the novel, Arnett artfully suggests that it’s loss that teaches us what life is — it’s what grounds and guides us, and even, perhaps, what comforts us. I realized while reading the Mortons’ story and recalling my loss-filled childhood just how true this is of my own experience."

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe
2. Wow, No Thank You, by Samantha Irby
3. American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Wisconsin, by Charles Hagner
4. An Elegant Defense, by Matt Richtel
5. The Great Influenza, by John M Barry
6. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
7. Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
8. Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
9. When the Words Suddenly Stopped, by Vivian L King
10. An American Summer, by Alex Kotlowitz

We've been doing well with a local book from Vivian L King, When the Words Suddenly Stopped, and those paperback sales don't include a hardcover edition that is also getting sales. This memoir from a former TMJ4 reporter, who also did stints at Roundys and Aurora, is about having a stroke at 49, partly caused by prescription medication. "I didn't have high blood pressure, I didn't have a history of stroke in my family," but it turns out birth control pills over the age of 40 cause blood clots that can lead to this condition. Watch King on her recent Morning Blend appearance.

Books for Kids
1. Hello Neighbor, by Matthew Cordell
2. Prance Like No One's Watching, by James Breakwell
3. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo
4. Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom, by Louis Sachar
5. Invisible Spring, by Patrice Karst
6. Because of Winn Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo
7. Raymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo
8. Just Because, by Mac Barnett, with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault
9. Wolf in the Snow, by Matthew Cordell
10. Wish in the Dark, by Christina Soontornvat

Third times the charm for our virtual school visit program as Matthew Cordell's Hello Neighbor is a runaway hit with parents. Unlike in our regular school visits, where the school itself handles the sales, we're getting books to each parent individually. In the time BC (Before COVID), we were hoping to do a public event with PBS Milwaukee too - maybe it will still happen virtually! More from Elizabeth Bird, who wrote a preview feature for School Library Journal: "I’d like to zero in on this last spread (follow the link to see for yourself) for just a moment. I didn’t think this was possible, but Matthew actually managed to conjure up new memories when I looked at this picture. This is, without a doubt, the single best map and character chart of The Land of Make Believe I’ve ever seen. As someone who once wrote an entire piece on the weird subversion present in the show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, this is a subject near and dear to my heart. Amazingly, I had somehow forgotten about Cornelius and Bob Troll all these years. And do you see that purple panda?"

Over at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tod Goldberg at USA Today reviews Steven Wright's The Coyotes of Carthage: "A few years ago, my homeowners association held a contentious election over… something. No one seems to remember what was at stake, but what is easily recalled is that it was the first election in our community to include robocalls, mass disinformation mailings and the nightly pounding of doors by neighbors (and their children) who wanted to warn you that your rights were about to be trampled upon. And here’s a flyer. And a cookie. It was impossible not to remember this while reading Steven Wright’s crackerjack debut The Coyotes of Carthage, a political thriller – in the sense that it’s thrilling to observe – which boils national politics down to the local level, in all of its banality, and all of its profound human consequence."

Also from Associated Press, Hillel Italie profiles Anne Tyler for Redhead by the Side of the Road: "On life in Baltimore: “I guess it’s no secret that Baltimore is going through a hard spell. And yet it’s such a kindhearted city, paradoxical though that sounds. Just about everyone here, across all classes and cultures, behaves with grace and patience. Watch some trying episode in, say, a supermarket checkout line – a customer taking too long counting coins or a cashier who doesn’t know his produce codes. Baltimoreans stand by quietly, or they try to help out if they can. Not even an eye-roll! I think this has an influence on my writing. In such surroundings, how could I possibly invent a mean-spirited character?"

Rob Merrill offers his thoughts on Julia Alvarez's Afterlife for the Associated Press: "The acclaimed author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is back with another story grounded in her Dominican heritage. Set in Vermont, the book’s protagonist is Antonia Vega, a retired English professor. Widowed nine months ago after her husband Sam’s heart attack, Vega is now taking just “sips of sorrow, afraid the big wave might wash her away.” She misses the young people she used to teach and the words they shared, but mostly she misses Sam, talking to him often in her head, wondering about his afterlife and trying to figure out her own."

And it's a quartet of reviews this week! Bruce Da Silva for the Associated Press covers Don Winslow's latest, a collection of novellas called Broken: "They vary in tone, but each, in its own way, conveys the sense that the people and/or American institutions he portrays are broken. One yarn, 'The San Diego Zoo,' does it with a touch of humor, its first sentence, “No one knows how the chimp got the revolver,” making it virtually impossible not to read on. Another, 'The Last Ride,' does it with a dose of righteous anger as a Donald Trump supporter, horrified by the sight of a little girl in a cage, sets out to reunite her with her mother in defiance of his Border Patrol superiors."

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

What did the book club think? The Story of a Goat, by Perumal Murugan

Novels that get inside the minds of animals have a long and storied tradition. The genre is particularly strong in kids books, with Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane getting a recent boost from Ann Patchett’s enthusiastic recommendation. But adult books too - I've read Animal Farm, Watership Down, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone. Some create a fantasy world, while others try to be more realistic in their depictions. It is in the latter category that I would place The Story of a Goat, the 2016 novel by Perumal Murugan, translated by N. Kalyan Raman and in December was released in the United States under the Black Cat imprint.

The novel got rave reviews from Parul Sehgal in The New York Times, Ron Charles in The Washington Post (who gives a more extensive list of animal novels), and Eliot Schrefer in USA Today (distributed by Gannett), as well as fine profile in The New Yorker by Amitava Kumar, with an in-short review following a few weeks later. On top of that, the book has a striking cover design from Becca Fox featuring an illustration by Natalia Andreychenko. That cover sealed the deal for me. It reminded me of my days of buying, where I’d look for dog books where the dog was looking straight at the reader – if I featured them, they’d sell at double the rate of a cover where the animal was looking away.

Goats don’t capture the American heart the way dogs do, though Murugan does have an interesting reasoning between why he chose a goat, when looking at the animals he could choose from: “Dogs and cats are meant for poetry. It is forbidden to write about cows or pigs. That leaves goats and sheep. Goats are problem-free, harmless, and what’s more, energetic.” And while the novel is based in Tamil culture, I couldn’t help but think as I read the book, in the weeks before Passover, of the song “Chad Gadya” or “One Little Goat.” Or as we said growing up, “Chad Gad-yawwwww.”

The novel’s original title was Poonachi: The Story of a Black Goat, and Poonachi surely is the star of the show. She arrives as a baby to the home of an older couple, subsistence farmers, given to the husband by a mysterious giant. Black goats are frowned upon in these parts, to the extent that they have been purged from the population, but there’s a rumor that this goat might give birth to seven kids, as opposed to the one or two babies normally in the litter. The story follows the couple’s rise and fall in fortunes, as it also tells the story of this tough life, punctuated by pleasant moments. Most notably, it is a love story, of Poonachi’s love for Poonam, a goat that lives with the old couple’s daughter. But the brutality of the story is also important – the scene of Poonachi’s first breeding reads like a rape scene, and that should be enough warning to potential purchasers that this is not a book for kids.

Another thing to note is that The Story of a Goat is very different from many other Indian novels that find success in the United States. As noted by Amitava Kumar in The New Yorker, “It cannot be doubted that most of India’s population is rural. But you wouldn’t know this from reading Indian fiction written in English. Indian writers who work in English are mostly from the middle or upper classes, educated in English-medium schools, and, if not residing in one of India’s busy metropolises, then living in the West. Their characters tend to be well-heeled urban citizens of a mobile republic. In contrast, Murugan lives in a small, agricultural town in southern India, and he writes in Tamil. His characters are overwhelmingly villagers or people in remote, small towns.”

Murugan’s writing life is particularly relevant to this story. He is a Tamil writer who nonetheless has found much success in the rest of India. But his previous novel, One Part Woman, created a firestorm of controversy. It is about a couple trying to conceive a child who partake in a ritual during a festival where, well, the woman is free to find other donors. Protests resulted in an effective house arrest. At one point in the controversy, Eliot Schrefer noted this Facebook post from the author: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is not god, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone.”

But this led to a backlash. As Ron Charles notes: “Happily, authors in India and around the world rose to Murugan’s defense, and in 2016 an Indian court unequivocally confirmed his creative license. The judges’ verdict, which included a rousing survey of the history and importance of freedom of expression, concluded, ‘Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.’”

The Story of a Goat touches on the inequities of race, class, and color in Indian society. It also looks the bureaucratic extremes of government, to often comic effect. Lots and lots of paperwork. Lots and lots of rules. And the piercing of the ears reminded me of the increasing use of cell phones to track people for good (preventing COVID-19 outbreaks) and not so good (most other reasons). While the comedy is apparent for the reader, it’s hardly funny for people living through it.

The book is also contemporary in its look at the environmental devastation caused by drought. The older couple (who, unlike the animals, are nameless) have an economic rise and fall, with their fortunes changing by two incidents – the purchase of some jewelry (which, as one reader noted, might have been simply a safe investment) or the tethering of Poonachi, which in turn changes the relationship between woman and goat. But it’s definitely the drought that leads to the family’s decline, something that I suspect the author has viewed in real life.

As the American editor of The Story of a Goat said, the allegory is just one layer of the story. Yes, I got to send some questions to Peter Blackstock, who acquired this novel One Part Woman for Grove/Atlantic. I learned that in this part of India, they still use the traditional naming systems that have faded away in other parts of the world, except perhaps for Iceland. For Murugan is the name the author goes by, while Perumal is his father’s name, the equivalent of when Johnson meant “son of John.” In many cases where Indian writers use initials, the first initial stands for their father’s name and the second is for the town they are from. I hope I got this right. Also hoping Black Cat is able to publish Murugan's next novel, Pyre.

As another aside, I should note that Blackstock was also the American editor for Bernardine Evaristo's Girl Woman Other, which won the Booker Prize. They acquired the book when it was longlisted for the Booker - be assured the longlist is not a measure of future success in the United States. I asked Blackstock what I should read next of Evaristo - Blonde Roots would be suggested follow up. It was published by Riverhead just before we opened in 2009. It asks the question, "What if the world had been reversed and Africans had enslaved Europeans?"

So what did the book club think? I would say that we were about three-fourths likes to one-fourth not so much. The group met by Zoom for the first time and of course there were hiccups. At least one member was not able to hear the conversation, so we never found out how she felt. The nay-sayers found the story a little quiet for their tastes, and at least one participant noted the open-endedness of the plot and how several threads were just left hanging. Who was that giant? Who was that rich guy who was buying the litters? We are told the giant looks like Bakasuran, and one of our attendees found this reference to the Hindu God. One of our attendees had a pet goat at one point. Good to know!

I will be adding The Story of a Goat to our book club recommendation list and it will be part of my upcoming talks, if I ever get to do upcoming talks. The conversation was great, even for the folks who didn’t love the book. It looks at a part of the world we don’t often explore, and extra points for books in translation! Boswell has sold The Story of a Goat well, and I'm hoping this post will jumpstart some other stores into getting behind the book. I'm thrilled that we have the third best sales at indie bookstores reporting to Edelweiss, but we shouldn't be that high. On the other hand, I l looked at the grid and while I can't imagine we'd ever be #1, we have a shot of jumping to #2. Have you noticed I'm very competitive about these things?

Our next meeting will discuss the just-released-in-paperback Mostly Dead Things, by Kristen Arnett on May 4 at 7 pm. Please write to me if you want to join this discussion and I will invite you. We are selling the book on the Boswell website at 20% off the list price. Our June discussion book is Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli on June 1 (formerly June 8*). If you buy the order on our website for this discussion, please note in comments that you are doing so for the book club and you will get 10% off the list price when your order is processed. Please note that we know that the May meeting will be virtual, and I expect the June 1 to be so as well, but things could change. They change every day.

More Boswell book club recommendations here.

Author photo credit: Wikipedia
*June 1 no longer conflicts with a large event in the bookstore.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Boswell Bestsellers for the week ending April 18, 2020

Here's what's selling at Boswell for the week ending April 18, 2020.

Hardcover Fiction:
1. Murder at the Mena House, by Eric Ruth Neubauer
2. We Ride Upon Sticks, by Quan Barry
3. The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich
4. The Glass Hotel, by Emily St John Mandel
5. The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
6. The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel
7. The Coyotes of Carthage, by Steven Wright
8. The Last Emperox, John Scalzi
9. Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid
10. The Boy, the Horse, the Fox, and the Mole, by Charlie Mackesy

A few guys actually break into the top 10 this week. Steven Wright's The Coyotes of Carthage has a nice first week, helped along by Chris Lee's excellent interview, which you can read on The Boswellians. James Grady also raves in The Washington Post: "Ultimately, the plot of this propulsive, engaging novel is not about the corruption in South Carolina or the crisis of conscience that catches up with Andre. The plot of this novel about politics is the lives we’re living now in an America where being a heart-beating, air-breathing human is not enough to make you a fully empowered citizen." And regarding The Last Emperox, Publisher's Weekly notes that "Hugo Award-winner Scalzi knocks it out of the park with the tightly plotted, deeply satisfying conclusion to his Interdependency Sequence space opera trilogy."

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. Atomic Habits, by James Clear
2. Hidden Valley Road- Robert Kolker
3. Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
4. Hell and Other Destinations, by Madeleine Albright
5. The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson
6. What It's Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley
7. Salt Fat Acid Heat, by Samin Nosrat
8. Nature's Best Hope, by Douglas W Tallamy
9. Hiding in Plain Sight, by Sarah Kendzior
10. Last Book on the Left, by Marcus Parks

While I was delivering books, one of my customers texted back how excited she was to get What It's Like to Be a Bird, the new book from David Allen Sibley. NPR has had several features on the book - this from Barbara J King: "Sibley's main aim is to ignite appreciation of the varied North American birds we may encounter in our backyards and nearby parks. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, right now many of us yearn for greater connection to nature close to home, so the book's timing couldn't be more perfect."

Paperback Fiction:
1. The Circle, by Dave Eggers
2. Circe, by Madeline Miller
3. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
4. Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid
5. The Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips
6. It All Comes Back to You, by Beth Duke
7. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
8. Dear Mrs Bird, by AJ Pearce
9. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
10. The Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli

We were expecting to have a wonderful paperback launch for Circe with Madeline Miller as she was the featured speaker for the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library Literary Lunch. There's talk that there may be a virtual version. Stay tuned. Do a search and you'll find a whole bunch of postponed events. That said, she was still doing events for the hardcover in January and February, and got as close to Milwaukee as Vernon Hills. You have to go back two years to get the reviews - here's Annalisa Quinn reviewing the book for NPR: "Though most of Circe's fame derives from her short encounter with Odysseus in Book 10 of The Odyssey, Miller's novel covers a longer and more complex life: her lonely childhood among the gods, her first encounter with mortals, who looked weak as mushroom gills next to the vivid and glowing divinities, the awakening of her powers, and finally, the men who wash up on her shores, souring her trust with their cruelty."

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya Von Bremzen
2. Day of Honey, by Annia Ciezadlo
3. The Language of Baklava, by Diana Abu Jaber
4. Wow No Thank You, by Samantha Irby
5. An Elegant Defense, by Matt Richtel
6. Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman
7. When the Words Suddenly Stopped, by Vivian L King
8. When Words Trump Politics, by Adam Hudges
9. American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Wisconsin, by Charles Hagner
10. Pleasure Activism, by Adrienne Maree Bwon

More and more of our bestsellers are tied into streaming shows. Unorthodox just started streaming on Netflix. From The Guardian: "This Netflix miniseries is adapted from Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Feldman was raised in the Satmar sect of Williamsburg and escaped an arranged marriage at the age of 19 while pregnant with her first child, eventually resettling in Germany... What Unorthodox doesn’t really explore is the positive side to clan, community, tradition and belonging that occur in closed religious communities. Although massively restrictive, surely many Hasidic Jews must get strength and a sense of belonging from their faith and their community? Instead the story – like Esty – seems to privilege individualism, freedom and free will over the submersion of individuality into a larger, and possibly more cohesive, communal and spiritual life." Oddly enough, it also boasts a quote from the late Joan Rivers.

Books for Kids:
1. I'm New Here, by Anne Sibley O'Brien
2. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo
3. Leaves, by Janet Lawler
4. Dear Girl, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
5. City Spies, by James Ponti

Ann Patchett's essay on the joys of Kate DiCamillo became a New York Times essay and brought the book back onto the national bestseller lists. Patchett does a school visit with Kate DiCamillo. Nell Freudenberger asks Patchett to give her a message about how wonderful the book was, which led Patchett back to the bookstore: "That night I read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and, well, it changed my life. I couldn’t remember when I had read such a perfect novel. I didn’t care what age it was written for. The book defied categorization. I felt as if I had just stepped through a magic portal, and all I had to do to pass through was believe that I wasn’t too big to fit. This beautiful world had been available to me all along but I had never bothered to pick up the keys to the kingdom."

Over at the Journal Sentinel, Mark Athitakis (from USA Today) reviews How Much of These Hills Is Gold: "The Western has endured long past the days of stagecoaches and six-shooters because it’s so adaptable – it remains a superb genre for exploring (just for starters) identity, lawlessness, and home. In her debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, C Pam Zhang plainly cherishes the genre’s broad themes. Everything else that defines the Western gets run through a shredder."

From Associated Press, Molly Sprayregen covers Samantha Irby's third collection, Wow, No Thank You: "Irby, who made a name for herself with her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, has become quite the famous person, herself, these days. Now, as she says in the book, she can move a bunch of stuff off her unnamed-E-Commerce-company wish list and into the cart. Despite her rise in star status, though, her fresh, unique writing is as raunchy and relatable as ever."

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Boswell bestsellers, for the week ending April 11, 2020 - battle of the celebrity book clubs

Here are the Boswell bestsellers for the week ending April 12, 2020.

Hardcover Fiction:
1. The Glass Hotel, by Emily St John Mandel
2. Murder at the Mena House, by Erica Ruth Neubauer
3. We Ride Upon Sticks, by Quan Barry
4. Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler
5. The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
6. The City We Became, by NK Jemisin
7. American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins
8. The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich
9. The Herd, by Andrea Bartz
10. Valentine, by Elizabeth Wetmore (Jenna Bush's book club pick)
11. Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid
12. The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel
13. My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell (Oprah's rejected book club pick)
14. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
15. The Book of Lost Friends, by Lisa Wingate

Here's a fascinating fact. The last time a man was the author of a top ten fiction book on Boswell's bestseller list was March 21, when Colum McCann's Apeirogon held down a slot. For the last three weeks it's been guy free. The national indie bookstore list from last week isn't that different - James McBride's Deacon King Kong skirted our top ten for two weeks, while Harlan Coben's The Boy from the Woods hit the lower region of our reported list. The highest debut this week are Anne Tyler's Redhead by the Side of the Road, which sold out quickly. I had a nice write-up for Tyler's latest in our email newsletter, but can't take much credit - she sells well for us and is in that target market of comfort food.

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
2. The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson
3. Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker (Oprah's current book club pick)
4. Educated, by Tara Westover
5. The Office, by Andy Greene
6. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb
7. The Last Book on the Left, by Marcus Parks
8. More Myself, by Alicia Keys
9. Salt Fat Acid Heat, by Samin Nosrat
10. Nothing Fancy, by Alison Roman

Glennon Doyle's previous title, Love Warrior, was an Oprah Book Club selection. I have added up sales on the the two hardcover (Oprah and non-Oprah, publishers do this sometimes) and one paperback (but excluded second and bargain book sales) and we have now sold five times as many copies of Untamed (which is a Reese book club selection) as we did of those three combined editions. I think in this case, we've picked up some sales that might have gone to the web competitor that has delayed some book delivery. I can't fault Oprah's club right now - we sold out of her new pick (Hidden Valley Road) quite quickly.

Two more examples of how up is down right now. Two categories that are hard for us to sell outside of Christmas season are cookbooks and pop music memoirs. Well this week Alicia Keys More Myself and two cookbooks are on our top 10. I wonder if the website's hard driving campaign for Keys's new album is helping book sales in unintended markets.

Paperback Fiction:
1. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng (two editions)
2. Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid
3. City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert
4. Normal People, by Sally Rooney
5. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
6. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
7. The Story of a New Name V2, by Elena Ferrante
8. My Brilliant Friend V1, by Elena Ferrante
9. Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles
10. Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel

The big story on this list is backlist titles from hit authors. It has surely helped The Glass Hotel that everyone who hadn't read Station Eleven now wants to read the hot literary pandemic novel (at least until Lawrence Wright's The End of October comes out on April 28. Note that we are continuing to sell The Rules of Civility well, what with A Gentleman in Moscow's continued success. And why not, it is a novel about quarantine, though at least the protagonist gets to see the other folks in his hotel. And down at #18 is Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng's first novel. Now we just need a pundit to declare Richard Powers's second-best novel, so that readers know what to read next. With so many acclaimed books on his backlist, it's hard to choose.

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. Kids These Days, by Jody Carrington (bulk order - a rare thing these days)
2. Wow No Thank You, by Samantha Irby
3. When the Words Suddenly Stopped, by Vivian L King (two editions)
4. An Elegant Defense, by Mitt Richtel
5. Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
6. A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell
7. The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
8. Inspired, by Rachel Held Evans
9. The Source of Self Regard, by Toni Morrison
10. The Great Influenza, by John M Barry

Much like his Rising Tide took on greater significance and added sales after Hurricane Katrina, John M Barry's The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History has been one of the go-to nonfiction books in the age of COVID-19. On the recent reprint side, A Woman of No Importance:The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II hits our top ten for the first time in paperback. From the publisher: "In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: 'She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.' The target in their sights was Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who talked her way into Special Operations Executive, the spy organization dubbed Winston Churchill's 'Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.' She became the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines and--despite her prosthetic leg--helped to light the flame of the French Resistance, revolutionizing secret warfare as we know it."

Books for Kids:
1. Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang
2. Deathless Divide, by Justina Ireland
3. The Toll V3, by Neal Shusterman
4. Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park
5. The Good Egg Presents the Great Eggscape, by Jory John, with illustrations by Pete Oswald
6. The Conference of the Birds V5, by Ransom Riggs
7. Obsessive About Octopuses, by Owen Davey
8. Inside Outside, by Anne Margot Ramstein
9. Nesting, by Henry Cole
10. In a Jar, by Deborah Marcero

From the publisher: "The Great Eggscape is when the Good Egg and his pals escape their carton and drop into the store for a morning of fun, enjoyed by everybody. Well, almost everybody. Shel (an egg) isn't a huge fan of group activities, especially when he's made to be 'it' for a game of hide-and-seek. Nevertheless, Shel doesn't want to let his friends down, so he reluctantly plays, anyway." So my question is, is this an Easter book or not? I guess we'll find out in the coming weeks.

Over at the Journal Sentinel, here's Jim Higgins's profile of Erica Ruth Neubauer and Murder in the Mena House, the first novel featuring amateur sleuth Jane Wunderly. He notes that its appeal will go beyond mystery fans: "If you detect a touch of Austen in her heroine's first name, you would not be declared wrong. Neubauer's last cat was named Mr. Darcy."

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Boswell book focus - Elizabeth Gilbert's City of Girls, inspired by watching Kim's Convenience

For a change of pace, I'm going to obsess about a television show. I was in need of some comfort food, something that would be of excellent quality and yet still satisfy me in a primal way. I found myself rewatching some shows that hit that note - the popular Parks and Recreation and the completely undervalued Great News - but I hadn't really discovered something I loved on either Netflix or Hulu.*

And so I turned to one of my sources for discovery, my fellow bookseller Jen. She's led me to some of our favorite books, and like me, she also liked Great News (what are you waiting for? There are only two short seasons), so when she said I should try Kim's Convenience, I listened. And I fell in love. Like many of these character-driven shows - Bob's Burgers - it takes a while for the show's to find their stride. Why is it so common for a good show to get better in the second and third seasons? A character that's fully formed is easier to write. I think. And the best part of it is, Kim's Convenience is a book; the original play is available from House of Anansi Press. I just ordered it and if it's as good as the show, I'll let you know.

It's the story of a Korean Canadian family who run Kim's in Toronto - Appa and Umma and their kids, Janet, a student, and Jung, who works at a car rental agency.

I was just watching this episode where Jung has revealed himself to not be, well, bookish. Bit player Terrence is sitting at his desk reading Eat Pray Love at Handy Car Rental. Terrence and his boss Shannon bond over the book and Elizabeth Gilbert's Ted Talk. Jung tries to act like he knows what they are talking about. It's hard to not believe that Jung really thinks the story is based on the life of Julia Roberts, who played Gilbert in the film. To me, it's a pivotal moment in the series - the first time Terrence has been anything but the butt of a joke, and the first time Jung has shown any flaw besides being a reformed bad boy who still sleeps around and can't get along with his dad. Those are kind of glamorous flaws. Not knowing who Elizabeth Gilbert is is not glamorous, or at least it isn't the way Simu Liu plays it.

So that's my television watching. This quality comfort food appears to also be what I want in my reading.  I love funny, and I love a little heartfelt. I am okay with sad too. But I don't really want mean, not at the moment. Chris (another reliable recommender) has me reading The Party Upstairs, a first novel that comes out in July. I'll let you know how that goes. And three of us have already read Abbi Waxman's I Was Told It Would Get Easier. Four of us have already read that one - it comes out in June. No, it's not set in a bookstore like The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, but it's really good!

Sometimes the right book is staring me in the face, waiting for the right moment. And that brings me back to Elizabeth Gilbert. I didn't read City of Girls in hardcover. Eat Pray Love was one of those phenomena that passed me by. It's not like I've never read Gilbert, but weirdly enough, my only experience was with her first novel Stern Men, which I read as an advance copy. Nobody knew who Elizabeth Gilbert was then, but it spoke to me - my family made lobster-themed pilgrimages to Maine for years. 

It was something that Friend-of-Boswell Margaret said to me that changed my mind. I'd read some reviews of City of Girls and they were good. We were selling it very well. But the way Margaret described the story and her reaction to it sparked something in me, and since Margaret is a fellow Abbi Waxman obsessive, to say nothing of her love for Elinor Lipman and Stephen McCauley, I moved it to the top of my pile. 

City of Girls is steeped in New York history. It's the story of Vivian Morris, a Vassar dropout who is sent to live with her Aunt Peg in Manhattan. Peg runs a ramshackle theater company in Times Square. It reminds me of what Yiddish theater was like, only nobody's Jewish. In the days before television, the theater was one step ahead of vaudeville, catering to the working -lass neighborhood. The Lily Theatre chugs along until a series of events lead it to a big breakout hit, starring one of Peg's old friends. But what goes up, must come down and a terrible scandal threatens not just Vivian's reputation, but the theater's survival. And the theater will not survive. But Vivian will have a second act. It's just delightful, so smart and funny and wise. It's definitely on brand for Gilbert - Vivian is a proudly sexual being who is able to overcome a major setback and bounce back to have a satisfying life with no regrets. And she does it her own way. I know Gilbert did a lot of research for this book, but it's all in the milieu and never gets in the way of the story. A critic called it 'delicious' and I can't really think of a better adjective. 

It's a great book for the moment - a celebration of New York, escapist in its way, and a lovely story about overcoming setbacks.

Here's a little behind-the curtain story about how the event came together. When Riverheard responded to our request with an offer of an event. I almost fell out of my chair. But it was a complicated date, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, and I normally wouldn't book an event for then. But Gilbert, how could I not try? I knew I'd have trouble getting into a theater on a Saturday, and really, my first choice was collaborating with Oconomowoc's Books and Company at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. We'd done well with Saturday afternoon events in the past - so we made the pitch.

Unfortunately we hit a snag. While the venue was free, an area church contracts with the facility for Sunday service. And while that usually doesn't preclude us from Saturdays, Easter is a big deal and they needed Saturday for load in. I wound up talking to a number of folks about this, to see if there was any way we could quietly take the space for a few hours without upsetting their flow - we could work around displays and decorations - but it was just too complicated. So we pitched the store for bundled event in the evening - a ticketed event wouldn't work in the store on a weekend afternoon - and hoped for the best. 

I was excited about one partnership. By reading City of Girls (see, it helps!) I knew that the book was a celebration of the theater world. And since we have two friends at the United Performing Arts Fund (including a former Boswellian), it seemed like the perfect fit. So I did some outreach and it turned out our contact had just read City of Girls for her book club. Perfect fit - just about 48 hours to put that together. Every ticket would include a $5 donation to UPAF.

But would this Easter weekend hurt our chances for a large audience? No, it did not. We sold out quickly, even with the news that there was no signing or meet-the-author session following the talk (and that was before COVID-19). And then the Pabst Theater Group mentioned that they did have an opening at Turner Hall Ballroom. On a Saturday evening? I hadn't figured that touring artists are also cautious about the Saturday before Easter. Then started the complicated process of figuring out how to add tickets to a venue whose costs are much higher than they are for a store event. We went back and forth on this until the coronavirus started appearing on the horizon. And I realized that there was a good chance this wasn't going to happen, so we let this opportunity slip away.

Soon enough, we realized that we would not be having any events at all. It was with a heavy heart that we eventually cancelled our event with Elizabeth Gilbert. Note to attendees - Brown Paper Tickets is dealing with unprecedented backups. So while you haven't gotten your refund yet, you are still scheduled to get one. As the event is cancelled and refunds are in progress, you are not getting a copy of City of Girls from Boswell. If you want one, we're selling it, at on Boswell's Best (yes, we're discounting a few paperbacks during our physical closing) through at least April 27.

Will Elizabeth Gilbert reschedule this event? Honestly, I don't think it's likely, though we're hoping that Riverhead keeps us in mind for a future tour. But for now, I would suggest reading City of Girls if you haven't already. 

*I keep a subscription to one streaming service at a time. So I'm not watching Little Fires Everywhere at the moment.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Emily St John Mandel, The Glass Hotel, and Our Now Virtual Anniversary Celebration on April 22

Boswell has now been open for eleven years. Our soft opening was April 3, 2009, and our grand ribbon-cutting opening was 35 days later on May 8, so I have felt that we could celebrate our anniversary any time between the two dates. We’ve been lucky enough to have special April 3 celebrations several times. On 2018, we were able to help launch Liam Callanan Paris by the Book, whose pub date of April 3 was completely coincidental (though the book does contain at least one Boswell Easter Egg). And on 2019, we were lucky enough to have an offer to host Amor Towles, which led to a grand anniversary celebration at Turner Hall Ballroom for A Gentleman in Moscow in paperback, still on our bestseller list. Was that only a year ago?

Needless to say, there aren’t any in-person celebrations this year. But it’s still been 11 years! And we’re still planning to celebrate. This year’s focal event was April 22 for Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel. Despite the complications of cancelling an event and processing refunds for all the attendees (a process still in process, as our ticketing site is seriously backed up), we actually sold the third most copies of The Glass Hotel from independents in the first week of sale. Hurray for that!

Part of that success is a measure of how wonderful The Glass Hotel is. Time for Boswellian Tim McCarthy’s recommendation: “We know early on that the story is about a financial crime, a massive Ponzi scheme, but the book’s greatness is that the big money crime becomes a perfect vehicle for building extraordinary characters, settings, and themes. Vincent Smith begins and ends the novel as her life (yes, a girl named Vincent) shifts on a grand scale, at lightning speed, from 13-year-old vandal to... wow! St. John Mandel is so talented at revealing all of her characters that their personal trajectories become riveting. They somehow feel both unique and universal. In the process, we travel to the sharply contrasting and richly drawn landscapes of wealth and struggle, the spectacular hotel in a remote Canadian forest, the concrete indifference of New York City, Dubai, and desolate small towns. Yet in every mind and in every place the questions seem the same. Can we feel anchored anywhere to this world, or are we all adrift? Is anything certain or clearly real? In just 300 pages St. John Mandel has given us a penetrating, memorable look at our shared, and so often maddening, human experience.”

One of the things I loved about Station Eleven was its structure, and that’s one thing that Mandel has done here. I loved the interconnectivity of the story, the way that characters intersect in ways I didn’t expect. I’ve noticed this is something that a lot of authors are surprising us with - characters who turn out to be the same person but are referred to differently. For example, I recently read a comic novel where a character was referred to by the first name in one case and the last name in a different case. I know this has been done forever but has been stepped up of late and is no longer confined to the thriller genre. If done right, these reveals can be quite entertaining, and Mandel generally does it right.

At the center of that story is Jonathan Alkaitis's Ponzi Scheme that affects (and often destroys) the lives of the folks who come in contact with it. In a way, it plays a similar role to the pandemic in Station Eleven. As I note in my review, I love the misdirection of the reader expecting some sort of civilization collapse, and it is, but one of a different, more targeted sort. Here’s my rec: “It’s 1999, and the crowd is dancing like it’s the end of the world. And while Y2K is on everyone’s minds, this is no repeat of Station Eleven, but it has that same sense of mystery, between the morphing characters (Vincent Smith alone goes from pauper to princess and back again) and the jumps across time and place, from a remote hotel off the coast of British Columbia to the posh restaurants of New York and on to a ship in the Pacific Ocean. Yes, there is a disaster at the center of the story, a Ponzi scheme of epic proportions, but that’s just one of the betrayals and thefts that populate the tale. It’s hard not to get lost in The Glass Hotel, an ethereal and moody novel that I’m still thinking about long after I turned the last page.” (Daniel)

The Glass Hotel seems like a good novel for now. Despite not being dystopian, it has an otherworldliness that takes you out of yourself when you read it.

Here's Maureen Corrigan noting this on her Fresh Air review: "It's hard to focus right now. So recommending a book can seem, well, out-of-touch. Unless, that is, the recommendation is for a novel that's so absorbing, so fully realized that it draws you out of your own constricted situation and expands your sense of possibilities. For me, over the past 10 days or so, the novel that's performed that act of deliverance has been The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel."

I know a lot of my fellow bookstores and libraries and other cultural institutions are doing a lot of virtual programming, but up to now, Chris and I haven’t had the bandwidth to take this on. Understanding that this is not some two-week dilemma, we’ve given ourselves a deadline – and Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel event is our first project. It’s not just that we had the celebration planned. This is our fourth event with Mandel, starting with a small but not embarrassing (especially considering it was on a Saturday evening) for The Lola Quartet in 2012. Then we had a much-larger event for the hardcover of Station Eleven in 2014, a particularly memorable event due our theatrical partnership with the Soulstice Theater - pictured are Stephan Roselin and Josh Perkins from the performance. Any of the 50 or so people who saw it would tell you it was amazing. And then we partnered with the Friends of the Shorewood Public Library for their Shorewood Reads on the Station Eleven paperback. They were just one of many Wisconsin communities that featured Mandel’s novel; a Menomonee Falls event just recently had to be cancelled because of COVID-19. No comment.

Have you already read both The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven? Maybe it's time for you to go back and read one of Mandel's first three novels, two of which were #1 picks from Indie Bound - the other two are The Singer's Gun and Last Night in Montreal. We have all three in stock, as I'd already ordered the previous books to promote our Glass Hotel event.

We’re going to still hold the event on April 22, 7 pm. It will still be in conversation with Lauren Fox (at right). So the only question is, how are we going to do it? There are so many options. We’ll keep you posted with more information in a future email newsletter, updated website info, and perhaps an addendum to this blog.

Photo credits - Emily St John Mandel credit Sarah Shatz, Lauren Fox credit Amanda Schlicher