Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Anita Brookner Blog Post

It started with a work dare. Jen wrote to the Boswellians: "Is there an author that you've read practically everything by them? How many books in their collection of works have you read?" I could think of three writers where I’d read more than 20 of their books – Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman, and Anita Brookner. Since I had already written posts about my love for Tyler and Hoffman recently, I focused on Brookner. Kira took the photo for Instagram.

Anita Brookner's final novel, Strangers, was published in 2009 and is the only novel of hers I hadn't yet read. The only Anne Tyler I haven't read is Noah's Compass, also from 2009. I wonder what was going on that year that threw off my reading? I thought that Brookner’s passing in 2016 would be the impetus for me to finish reading her ouvre, but no dice. Now she seems more timely than ever - I can’t think of an author who has written about isolation and disappointment in a more vibrant way. So Strangers I read.

My review: Paul Sturgis, in his seventies, is comfortably retired. He has a nice apartment in a prestigious London neighborhood, and enough money saved for occasional trips to France and Italy. But without siblings and never having married or had children, he is wistful for some sort of closer connection. Several times he notes how his work friends have drifted away. His only regular visits are to his cousin by marriage, and that experience is not particularly warm. Then two women enter his life – an old girlfriend Sarah, who once rejected him and now is a widow with unspecified illness, and Vicky, a younger woman who is a bit of a user. As in all of Brookner’s character-driven novels, the action is inside the brain, dissecting manner and motives, with a good amount of meditation on other subjects, notably the instability of aging and the unsatisfying nature of home. The ending, such as it is, would hardly be considered storybook, but is appropriate for Paul’s character, for whom any action is a triumph. Brookner’s novels are hardly for everybody, but for some, they are irresistible.

At the start of this challenge, I checked my library and confirmed I owned 23 of her 24 novels. There are a fair number of American hardcover editions, a couple of reading copies, one fancy, one in that traditional generic white with blue Random Houses all over it. I have several paperbacks, including three Vintage editions, and while none are in that distinct Vintage Contemporary style, a collection of “color-banded spines, dot matrix accents, often surreal artwork and equally cryptic colophon," per Talking Covers, I do have a Perennial Library reprint which attempted to ape the VC vibe with pastel covers.

I also have a Brookner paperback that was reprinted in 1985 by Dutton Obelisk, which was back when Dutton was more than just a corporate imprint. Those were the days when most publishers  bought paperback reprint rights from other publishers, even when they had their own hardcover program. And Brookner was always for sale – one got the feeling that aside from the prize-winning Hotel Du Lac, her sales were probably better in the hardcover edition.

Because most of my collection is hardcovers, I notice that one of the few things cover designers agreed on was that the most appropriate image was a portrait, especially after American rights moved from Pantheon to Random House. I bet you thought Ann Patchett invented using a painting as a jacket image, but more than half of Brookner’s output featured portraiture. The Dutch House would look right at home if someone decided to stage an exhibition of Brookner-esque cover imagery. Here's The Wall Street Journal article on The Dutch House book jacket.

Almost all the books did use a standard trim of 5.75 x 8.5 until the last few books, when Random House moved to the more standard 6.5 x 9.5. For several titles, the art director chose a color palette of black and gold, but that also fell out of favor. Coherent cover design is not that important in a bookstore or website for hardcovers, because multiple hardcovers by an author are not for sale at the same time. But when you take them home and put them in your library, that consistency can be appealing. One thing I should note here was that in the age of ebooks, it’s more common for hardcover fiction to not get a paperback reprint, but Brookner always did.

Being that I wrote up reviews for books I read from 1987 on (many mailed out to friends as the Booklist), I am able to reprint excerpts here. I often ranked the books within the month (until about 2002), but I should note that some months had themes and I kept the thematic books together. It’s not a science.

A Misalliance (1987): Excellent woman is left by her husband for a floozy. She befriends a different floozy with a child that doesn’t talk. Is this woman happy or not? Find out in the many interior monologues.

A Friend from England (1988): I left it off my reading list even though I read it. I’m glad to see absentmindedness is a long-standing trait for me. Similarly, I can’t find a review for Providence, but I have a copy of the paperback in my bookcase of already-read titles. It looks read, and I almost never borrow anything.

Latecomers (1989): Two friends, Harmann and Fibich, work together. While both are survivors of the Holocaust, Hartmann is able to block out his past and live a generally content life, while Fibich continues to obsess over it. Both marry odd women and father even odd children… As usual, Brookner’s ability to create images as richly detailed as a painting is admirable and no surprise, as she teaches art history. I enjoyed Latercomers more than her last few books.

Look at Me (1983, read in 1989): A couple of my friends are Anita Brookner fanatics, and while I read each one, I never know quite what their fascination is. Now I think I know. Look at Me concerns Frances Hinton, reference librarian. Her drab life is highlighted by visits to the bitter, retired Miss Marpeth. Then lively and spirited Alex and Nick come into her life. They invite her into a new world and even provide her with a suitable beau. Somehow, though, Frances loses favor with her newfound friends and must return to solitude. Sigh. (I think this resonated with me as I went through this several times in my 20s and 30s – the friend of the moment who was then hung up to dry.)

Lewis Percy (1990): Lonely Lewis Percy marries the equally lonely Tissy the librarian, only to find that her ties to Mum are too strong to break. One day he stays late at work and that is the beginning of the end. Before he knows it, she has moved back home… Each tiny incident is dissected to the smallest particle, which can be interesting or tedious, depending on your disposition. This is certainly no breakout book for Brookner (was there ever one?), but it’s up to standards.

Brief Lives (1991): From the memoirs of Fay Dodworth Langdon comes this tale of a woman whose early minor fame is subsumed by a disappointing marriage… Brookner’s brush is so bittersweet that even the protagonists’s great affair, the love of her life, can’t be called anything but melancholy. The scenes are vivid, the recollections fresh, and I’m ready for her next one. (Note the typeface on Brief Lives and A Closed Eye is similar, but not identical. There's just no interest in hardcover consistency.)

A Closed Eye (1992): Published simultaneously in Canada and shipped to Schwartz in error - of course I bought the Canadian edition. Harriet Lytton leads a sheltered life with her parents in a dress shop. Her only exposure to the wild world outside are evenings with her friends, particularly among them Tessa Dodd. While Harriet marries a well-off, passionless army chum of her father’s, Tessa opts for a passionate and painful marriage to a reporter. Their daughters are brought together when Harriet offers to sit for Tessa’s Lizzie, and their lives are further intertwined when Harriet develops a fixation on Tessa’s husband. (Despite a more dynamic plot than many of Brookner’s novels, I still ended my positive review with the catch phrase, “many are bored, few are chosen.”)

Fraud (1993): Anna Durant disappears, but this is hardly a mystery. Brookner teases with this genre opening and then discards it. Everyone who reads my booklists by now knows what Anita Bookner novels are like. A keenly observant but rather quiet person takes stock of her life situation due to the entry of some irritant (a suitor, a younger friend, a death), deals with it, and moves on… What I found fascinating in Fraud was the way Brookner followed several characters thoughts (instead of being limited to the protagonist.) A doctor’s appointment of luncheon would ensue, and each character would carry on an appropriate interior monologue…)

Dolly (1994): Brookner continues one recurring theme of a character reflecting on another’s life as a method for analyzing her own. Jane Manning’s quiet and serious life is prodded by the recurring appearance s of her unrefined, un-British, aunt-by-marriage Dolly… Dolly received a particularly excellent Jonathan Yardley review in The Washington Post, where he celebrated the newfound passion and potential in Brookner’s writing. (Note: this was my #1 book for the month, the first time this happened. The Eastern European (Jewish) character upsetting the English apple cart of decorum is a recurring trope in Brookner novels.)

A Private View (1995): One of the occasional Brookner novels with a male protagonist. George Bland has never married. He misses his close male work associate, who has recently died. He misses his long-term girlfriend, who eventually got fed up with Bland’s lack of interest in marriage and married another. Into his life comes a brash young American, a woman very interested in human potential, spiritual healing, and other things that an older British woman like Brookner would think sounded ridiculous. (To summarize, George muses internally but does nothing to affect the action. Many similar plotpoints to Strangers! This was also my #1 book for the month out of seven titles read. Competition included Abba Gold: The Complete Story, by John Tobler, which I believe would be quite popular with the current crop of Boswellians.)

Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1996): Brookner’s protagonists often find themselves the uncomfortable outsider in life, either as the French person in the company of English as is Maud Gonier (for Brookner, a relatively young woman during the meat of this novel), or as a Jew (though generally unspoken) in others… As Maud is readied for the marriage market by her pushy mother, she meets a suitable if roguish Englishman named David Tyler… After a rather intense affair, she is cast off to one of his friend, the mild Edward Harrison. Disappointment ensues. Surely other Brookner heroines have had happier fates, and one thinks perhaps Maud would have been happier alone.

Hotel Du Lac (1985, re-read in 1996): Well here is my #1 book of the month by a longshot. I reread it to lead our (Mequon) in-store book group and what a fascinating conversation we had. Edith Hope is a writer of romance, who is holed up in a Swiss hotel, living out the infamy of a bad decision she made in London. What is that decision? (Hope observes the other occupants of the hotel and winds up finding herself in another romantic quandary. I called this novel, her fourth, one of the most accessible Brookners.)

Altered States (1997): Alan Sherwood is seduced by a temptress, Sarah Miller, but settles into marriage with her hanger-on, Angela Milson. Anyone who has read Incidents in the Rue Laugier will recognize this plot. Brookner has reversed the genders and changed the perspective from omniscient to first-person. Brookner has also replaced the resignation of Incident to anger here… Brookner captures the intensity of doomed longing as well as anyone, despite making Sarah almost humorously monstrous.

The Debut (published in 1981 as A Start in Life, read in 1997): Despite the unusual note of hope at the end of The Debut, Brookner’s novel has a rich maturity that stands up to her later works. Of course we cannot be certain that this is Brookner’s first novel at all, only her first published one. This is the one book not published in hardcover by Pantheon or Random House, but by shuttered imprint Linden Press, Simon's boutique imprint headed by Joni Evans, which is why since 2018 it a Simon and Schuster paperback. At right is a UK edition, far more livelier than any American jacket I've come across.

Visitors (1998): After two novels that swept through the years, dealing with wrong romantic choices of one’s youth, Brookner returns to the present and an elder heroine. Dorothea May, known variously as Thea and Mrs. May, is a childless woman of 70, married late and widowed early, who is convinced to take in guests for her husband’s cousin’s wedding… Her guest, Steve Best, both annoys and intrigues her, intruding on her lonely life, disrupting routing, and unnerving her reserve. This does not cause any change in Thea’s life, but is more of a springboard for contemplation.

Falling Slowly (1999): Miriam Sharpe is a translator in London, divorced, and living with her younger sister Beatrice, an accompanist. Fringe dwellers of a sophisticated set, they have forsaken love and marriage for semi-solitude… I recently saw Brookner’s novels referred to as anti-romances, and in Falling Slowly, Brookner conforms to that genre by tying up every loose end in the saddest possible way… (this dropped back to #3)

Undue Influence (2000): Some Brookner fans seem to have taken Undue Influence as one of the best, but I begged to differ. Claire Pitt, on her own after the death of her mother, is a clerk in a second-hand bookstore run by two elderly sisters. Widower Martin Gibson becomes a semi-regular customer, and Claire an he begin an affair. Despite his seeming weaknesses, she hopes to marry him. Needless to say, happiness isn’t exactly around the corner for Brookner heroines (#5 for the month)

The Bay of Angels (2001): Is life like a fairy tale? That’s what Zoe Cunningham believes, as she and her mother live quietly in Edith Grove. Then a happy ending does come into her life Simon is older, Jewish, and owns a house in France. Eventually that’s where Zoe's mother settles, but something still seems wrong... All Brookner novels are special. However, even I can understand how readers can get the one where the woman never recovered from the bad affair and died a spinster confused with the one where she married on the rebound and died after a lifeless marriage. (Back at #1 – Ah, a theme! The aftermath of love. In this book, I note that Brookner sees an alternative besides impossible happiness and a lifetime of despair).

As an aside, here’s a note from my bookseller-turned-librarian former colleague and now friend Sharon: “I was inspired by your Instagram post of all of the Anita Brookner novels that you have read. Several years ago, (more like 5 or 6) I bought a used copy of Bay of Angels in a bookstore in Chicago. I dug it out and started reading it this weekend. I'm about halfway through and am enjoying it.”

Making Things Better (2003): Anita Brookner has never been content to let a character grow old in peace.  No, her desire is to depict the last years when every regret, misstep, and unfulfilled desire can return to haunt her characters, in this case, Julius Herz, the proprietor of a music store in London. The clever ending that could be spotted about 100 pages away helped me decide that this is one of Brookner’s lesser novels. I should note that this was one of Brookner’s more lauded novels, having been long-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s also one of two novels renamed in the American publication (UK title is The Next Big Thing), despite the original British titles being perfectly good. Within a few years, the Random House would stop bothering to de-Britishize the spellings.

The Rules of Engagement (2004): This is the story of two childhood friends separated by circumstance whose lives re-intersect when their husbands die. This seems like more plot than a typical Brookner, but don’t be fooled. There is the usual amount of internal analysis, and like her more recent books, time is the fiercest enemy of all.  I liked this more than Making things Better, but to honestly say, as the Publishers Weekly reviewer did, that readership would increase with this title’s publication, is quite the stretch. 

Leaving Home (2006): I have noticed that Ms. Brookner enjoys leaving her characters anonymous upon introduction - is this perhaps a play for universality? It is not until page 36 that her latest heroine is graced with a name, Emma. Her father has died and her stern uncle expects her to be caretaker to her weak mother, but Emma has grander plans. Well, grand if you consider graduate studies in classical garden design. Soon Emma finds herself with three possible love interests. Eventually something has to give, and it does. Will Emma live happily ever after, or come to a tragic end?  Who do you think you’re reading here?  The answer, as always in a Brookner novel, is far more subtle and elegant than that, and yet somehow just as moving.

Here's a blog post called Anita Brookner reading month, which was July 2013. There are a bunch of these! The Paris Review, after Brookner's death, had an article from Emma Garman noting that the author was no latter-day Austen. But she did write one of the greatest opening lines of all time, one that my friend John can still quote on command. 

Here's a coda. I went through my collection and realized I only owned 23 of Brookner’s 24 novels. The missing book was Family and Friends that was actually the first book I read, in March of 1986, after getting a recommendation of her work from my new friend John Eklund at the Harry W Schwartz Bookshop on Water and Wisconsin. It was before I started writing reviews. I didn’t buy it, but instead had borrowed it from the North Hills Branch of the Queens (then Queensboro) Library. In 2019, John had pared down his collection and sold us his Anita Brookner duplicates. We had sold almost all of them – the only one left was the hardcover of Family and Friends. Reader, I bought it.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Boswell bestsellers for the week ending May 23, 2020 - Rodham, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and more

Boswell bestsellers for the week ending May 23, 2020

Hardcover Fiction:
1. Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld
2. The Book of Longings, by Sue Monk Kidd
3. Big Summer, by Jennifer Weiner
4. On Ocean Boulevard, by Mary Alice Monroe
5. The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
6. The End of October, by Lawrence Wright
7. All Adults Here, by Emma Straub
8. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
9. The Glass Hotel, by Emily St John Mandel

This week's clear winner in hardcover fiction (but not overall!) was Curtis Sittenfeld's Rodham, an alternative history novel that imagines a life sans marriage to Bill. Sittenfeld talked to Clemence Michallon in The Independent: "Reading the book, it’s clear that it’s the work of an author who felt compelled to make sense of an alternate narrative and to relish in the power of 'What if?' – which ends up informing our view of what actually transpired. 'I think in some ways that’s one of the special and wonderful and mysterious things about fiction, that it can be intimate in ways that an interview can’t be, or a work of nonfiction usually can’t be,' she says. 'But to be clear, this is a book of imagination and creativity, and it’s not Hillary’s memoir. It’s not a biography. I’ve never met her. I see this as an artistic experiment.'"

Hillel Italie's Associated Press review appeared today in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It's reprinted her in the US News and World Report. 

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. My Vanishing Country, by Bakari Sellers
2. Creative Care, Anne Basting
3. The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson
4. Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
5. Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker
6. Dirt, by Bill Buford
7. Milwaukee Brewers at 50, by Adam McCalvy
8. Hell and Other Destinations, by Madeleine Albright
9. The Price of Peace, by Zachary D Carter
10. Pelosi, by Molly Ball

My Vanishing Country is a memoir by a CNN analyst and former South Carolina state legislator. Kirkus calls the book "candid and affecting." Here's his C-Span interview.

Paperback Fiction:
1. Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi
2. Normal People, by Sally Rooney
3. Tradition, by Jericho Brown
4. Circe, by Madeline Miller
5. Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli
6. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson
7. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky
8. Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane
9. Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney
10. The Overstory, by Richard Powers

The Tradition, by Jericho Brown, is this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. From the Pulitzer committee: "Beauty abounds in Jericho Brown’s daring new poetry collection, despite and inside of the evil that pollutes the everyday. A National Book Award finalist, The Tradition questions why and how we’ve become accustomed to terror: in the bedroom, the classroom, the workplace, and the movie theater. From mass shootings to rape to the murder of unarmed people by police, Brown interrupts complacency by locating each emergency in the garden of the body, where living things grow and wither - or survive."

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. A Child Called It, by Dave Pelzer
2. American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Wisconsin, by Charles Hagner
3. 10 Percent Happier, by Dan Harris
4. When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron
5. The Great Influenza, by John M Barry

Books for Kids:
1. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, by Suzanne Collins
2. The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter, by Aaron Reynolds
3. Sarah Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan
4. Through My Eyes, by Tammy Wilson
5. The Outsiders, by SE Hinton
6. Welcome to Jazz, by Carolyn Sloan
7. The One and Only Bob, by Katherine Applegate
8. Clap When You Land, by Elizabeth Acevedo
9. Forge, by Laurie Halse Anderson
10. Welcome to the Symphony, by Carolyn Sloan

Now here's the true gold medalist for this week's sales - Suzanne Collins's The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a prequel to the Hunger Games series.

Over at the Journal Sentinel, it's Jim Higgins's 71 books for summer reading feature. Here are the editor's picks, which of course is the most highly coveted category:

The Angel of the Crows, by Katherine Addison
Copper Iron and Clay, by Sara Dahmen
Creative Care, by Anne Basting
Murder at the Mena House, by Erica Ruth Neubauer
Network Effect: A Murderbot novel by Martha Wells
The Night Watchman, by Lousie Erdrich
Warhol, by Blake Gopnik

Look for a virtual Boswell June 30 event for The Angel of the Crows to be announced this week, with Katherine Addison in conversation with Jim Higgins.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Boswell bestsellers, week ending May 16, 2020

Boswell bestsellers, week ending May 16, 2020

Hardcover Fiction:
1. The Book of Longings, by Sue Monk Kidd
2. Shakespeare for Squirrels, by Christopher Moore
3. The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
4. The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
5. The End of October, by Lawrence Wright
6. The Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler
7. Camino Winds, by John Grisham
8. The City We Became, by NK Jemisin
9. All Adults Here, by Emma Straub
10. Murder at the Mena House, by Erica Ruth Neubauer

John Grisham's Camino Winds is set at a Florida resort and features a crime-fighting team of a thriller writer and his bookseller sidekick. Publishers Weekly notes that "Readers will hope to return soon to this appealing vacation hot spot." This is a follow-up to the popular Camino Island, which reviewers note are not legal thrillers, but caper novels. Of the first in the series, Booklist noted that it is "filled with lively supporting characters (most of whom are writers) and with insider knowledge of the book business," and it sounds like the same is said for #2. Plus Grisham went back to doing bookstore tours for this series, though the current round are virtual.

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
2. The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson
3. Milwaukee Brewers at 50, by Adam McCalvy
4. What It's Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley
5. Pelosi, by Molly Ball
6. Hell and Other Destinations, by Madeline Albright
7. Dirt, by Bill Buford
8. Becoming, by Michelle Obama
9. Nothing Fancy, by Alison Roman
10. Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake

Happy 50th birthday, Milwaukee Brewers! This wasn't the present you were expecting. Milwaukee Brewers at 50 is one of at least two books celebrating the anniversary. With introductions by Bud Selig and Mark Attanasio, this official commemorative book by team reporter McCalvy tells the stories behind all the iconic moments, the legendary players and coaches, and so much more.

Paperback Fiction:
1. Normal People, by Sally Rooney
2. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
3. Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
4. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
5. Waste Tide, by Chen Oiufan (June Sci-Fi Book Club selection)
6. Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane
7. City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert
8. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M Miller
9. Circe, by Madeline Miller
10. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson

Mary Beth Keane had a breakout bestseller with Ask Again, Yes, which is now in paperback. We had a very nice book club event planned with the author. Sigh. The book is perfect for virtual book clubs, with this banner endorsement from Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air: "One of the most unpretentiously profound books I've read in a long time… Keane writes with deep familiarity and precision about the lives of this particular generation… As a writer, Keane reminds me a lot of Ann Patchett: Both have the magical ability to seem to be telling 'only' a closely-observed domestic tale that transforms into something else deep and, yes, universal. In Keane's case, that 'something else' is a story about forgiveness and acceptance."

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. Sister Citizen, by Melissa Harris-Perry
2. Drawing Lesson, by Mark Crilley
3. When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron
4. Grit, by Angela Duckworth
5. Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman
6. Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe
7. Wow, No Thank You, by Samantha Irby
8. Birds of Wisconsin Field Guide, by Stan Tekiela
9. Grieving with the Help of Your Catholic Faith, by Lorene Hanley Duoquin
10. Taking Flight, by Michael Edmonds

One of the many books that has made a return to the bestseller list for COVID-19-related reasons is Grit, by Angela Duckworth. From WPVI in Philadelphia, a timely interview: "We could all use a little more grit as we face the changes in our daily lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So Nydia Han chats with Angela Duckworth, a Penn professor and the Director of Character Lab, a nonprofit with a mission of helping children thrive, and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance for some advice on ways drum up the courage and resolve to cope." And here's an editorial in the Albany Times-Union. It's all Grit, all the time!

Books for Kids:
1. The One and Only Bob, by Katherine Applegate
2. The Pope's Cat, by Jon M Sweeney
3. Children Just Like Me, from DK Publishing
4. Because of Mr Terupt, by Rob Buyea
5. The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L Holm
6. Margaret and the Pope Go to Assisi, by Jon M Sweeney
7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by JK Rowling
8. City of Ember, by Jeannie Duprau
9. Summer Song, by Kevin Henkes, with illustrations by Laura Dronzek
10. Unscripted, by Nicole Kronzer

During the Christmas 2018 season when I got books signed from Kevin Henkes, Henkes Laura Dronzek showed me some artwork for Summer Song, which is now available. From Booklist: "This conclusion to the seasonal quartet from the award-winning duo celebrates summer at last, reveling in its endless delights of green songs. It highlights the natural sounds of the season - growing leaves, wind blowing through the tall grass, birds singing - as well as the man-made ones of air conditioners, fans, sprinklers, and lawn mowers...A luscious finale for a delicious foursome."

Matt McCarthy of USA Today reviews Together: "When Vivek Murthy was sworn in as the 19th surgeon general of the United States, he had certain expectations. As the nation’s doctor, Murthy expected to use his platform to address broad issues like the opioid epidemic, obesity, mental health and vaccine-preventable diseases. But during a nationwide listening tour, he kept hearing about a different scourge: loneliness. The powerful and potentially devastating desire to feel a part of something has become the focus of his fascinating new book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. It couldn’t be more timely."

Over at the Journal Sentinel, Hillel Italie of Associated Press writes about the rise of interest in Octavia Butler: "A revolutionary voice in her lifetime, Butler has only become more popular and influential since her death 14 years ago, at age 58. Her novels, including Dawn, Kindred, and Parable of the Sower, sell more than 100,000 copies each year, according to her former literary and the manager of her estate, Merrillee Heifetz. Toshi Reagon has adapted Parable of the Sower into an opera, and Viola Davis and Ava DuVernay are among those working on streaming series based on her work."

Monday, May 11, 2020

Boswell bestsellers for the week ending May 9, 2020

Here's what's selling at Bowell for the week ending May 9, 2020.

Hardcover Fiction:
1. All Adults Here, by Emma Straub
2. Murder at the Mena House, by Erica Ruth Neubauer
3. The Glass Hotel, by Emily St John Mandel
4. The Book of Longings, by Sue Monk Kidd
5. Big Summer, by Jennifer Weiner
6. American Dirt, by Jeaning Cummins
7. The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
8. The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel
9. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong
10. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

We continue to be fascinated at how certain adult fiction titles take off in a bigger way than normal while most other books where we'd sell some copies get left behind. Media (social and otherwise) has a bigger impact and virtual browsing comes up short. Our first-week sales for All Adults Here are about half of life of the book for the hardcover sales of Emma Straub's last two novels, The Vacationers (which exploded in paperback for us) and Modern Lovers. From Barbara VanDenburgh at USA Today/Arizaona Republic: "All Adults Here tackles a laundry list of big-ticket items, any one of which could have commanded its own book: transgenderism, homosexuality, abortion, bullying, artificial insemination and extramarital affairs among them. Straub juggles the weighty topics with a feather-light touch, funny without being flip, with keen insights into how we evolve through every stage of life. From adolescent Cecilia to senior citizen Astrid, everyone is figuring out every day how to live."

And Big Summer already exceeded our hardcover sales of Jennifer Weiner's last, Mrs. Everything. From Angela Haupt in The Washington Post: "The novel, Weiner’s 14th, was originally set to publish on May 19, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Simon and Schuster bumped up the release by two weeks. The sooner readers had this dose of summer fun in their hands, the better - and it delivers. Weiner takes a breezy romp through online influencer culture, leveling an 'I see you' gaze at the Instagram fake-it-till-you-make-it crowd. It’s deliciously fun: frothy entertainment with surprising depth."

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
2. The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson
3. What It's Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley
4. Hell and Other Destinations, by Madeleine Albright
5. Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker
6. Educated, by Tara Westover
7. Pelosi, by Molly Ball
8. The Last Book on the Left, by Marcus Parks
9. Dirt, by Bill Buford
10. How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi

Ah, events that might have been. We were literally talking to the publisher for two years to put together a program for Bill Buford when Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking was finally finished, but it eventually became clear that this wasn't going to happen. It's almost better that the event died in prep, as we're still cleaning our ticketing problems with Brown Paper Tickets with announced events. Here's the latest on that from the Seattle Times, with Washington Attorney General complaints. Meanwhile, here's Eleanor Beardsley on Buford's Dirt on NPR: "I've lived in Paris for 16 years and I've never read Buford. So I first feared Dirt might be yet another expat tale of moving to France en famille, with all its tedious clichés. I should have known better. Buford is a longtime fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine and author of Heat, a best-selling depiction of the city's restaurant scene. He is knowledgeable, quick and funny - and Dirt is a work of cultural, historical and gastronomical depth that reads like an action memoir."

Paperback Fiction:
1. Normal People, by Sally Rooney
2. The Heirloom Garden, by Viola Shipman (Wade Rouse)
3. City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert
4. Circe, by Madeline Miller
5. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf (the pick for a virtual season of Literary Journeys)
6. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
7. Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi
8. Girl Woman Other, by Bernardine Evaristo
9. Little Fires Everywhere (two editions), by Celeste Ng
10. Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli

It's not the same as in the store, but our In-Store Lit Group pop did have an impact. It's hard to tell with Trust Exercise (July's pick) because it did just get released and won the National Book Award, but the surge for Lost Children Archive is documentable - this is tied for the best week of sales since its February paperback release. This novel about the children of migrants was named one of the top 10 books of the year by The New York Times. From Gaiutra Bahadur: "What perhaps sets a novel apart from these other genres is the childlike pleasure it can take in pure play, in the imaginative pact of treating the artifice of the story as lived reality. And there is joy in make-believe in Lost Children Archive, which gains much of its wry charisma from the playacting of its precocious child characters - both those riding atop trains and those riding in cars. At one point in 'Elegies,' thumps and shouts from the illicit rooftop cargo of children ricochet down the length of a train, as infectious as the mooing in that former Walmart. But rather than inviting her readers to suspend disbelief, as children do, Luiselli instead encourages us to see the artifice as artifice, even to be wary of it."

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Wisconsin, by Charles Hagner
2. Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe
3. The Great Influenza, by John M Barry
4. Unorthodox (two editions), by Deborah Feldman
5. Dear Church, by Lenny Duncan
6. Wow, No Thank You, by Samantha Irby
7. Sapiens, by Yuval Noaha Harari
8. Fading Ads of Milwaukee, by Adam Levin
9. These Truths, by Jill Lepore
10. The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk

The perennial New York Times nonfiction bestsellers pop on our list and then fall back. No Braiding Sweetgrass this week, for example, but here's a rare appearance of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, which is a top ten regular nationally. It's surprising it's not doing better locally, as the city of Milwaukee and Marquette University both had a lot of focus on the effects of trauma on our urban population. I looked for local references and didn't find much - a post about artist Iris Häussler on the John Michael Kohler Arts Center website, and a local Facebook event page which either had an in-person or Skyped visit from the author in 2016. It's possible that the author's treatment (a combination of traditional and nontraditional programs like biofeedback) hasn't yet resonated with experts here. Or maybe I missed something.

Books for Kids:
1. Hello Neighbor, by Matthew Cordell
2. The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter, by Aaron Reynolds
3. Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang
4. Unscripted, by Nicole Kronzer
5. The One and Only Bob, by Katherine Applegate with illustrations by Patricia Castelao
6. City Spies, by James Ponti
7. Field Gide to Getting Lost, by Joy McCullough
8. All Boys Aren't Blue, by George M Johnson
9. Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender
10. The Tea Dragon Society, by Katie O'Neill

From the publisher on The One and Only Bob: "Bob sets out on a dangerous journey in search of his long-lost sister with the help of his two best friends, Ivan and Ruby. As a hurricane approaches and time is running out, Bob finds courage he never knew he had and learns the true meaning of friendship and family." And who is Bob? He's the friend of Ivan, star of Applegate's beloved The One and Only Ivan, soon to be a major motion picture from Disney (though it might become major streaming hit on Disney+ at this point - I have no idea). Publishers Weekly writes: "The novel's fluid meshing of loyalty, forgiveness, and trust will leave readers hoping that the author has more one-and-only stories to tell."

Over at the Journal Sentinel, Jim Higgins profiles Michele Wucker's The Gray Rhino, who has done several events with us over the years. Her book takes on new significance in 2020, looking at world-changing events that were likely to happen (like our pandemic) but were still overlooked. From the story: "She conceived the gray rhino paradigm as a deliberate contrast to the metaphor used by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan to describe rare events with powerful impact. He cites the rise of the Internet and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as two examples. Wucker's gray rhino is not an earthshaking event out of nowhere. It's something we should have seen coming. Examples in her book include the impact of Hurricane Katrina (Louisiana officials had a detailed disaster plan but ignored its recommendations) and the 2007 collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis (inspectors had deemed it 'structurally deficient' annually since 1990)."

Also covered is Loretta Lynn's new memoir. Matt Damsker in USA Today writes: "Midway through Loretta Lynn’s memoir of her friendship with another country-pop legend, Patsy Cline, the intimacy of Lynn’s recollections may seem too close for comfort. Cline, we learn, taught a youthful Lynn a lot more than how to navigate Nashville’s male-dominated music business. Lynn confesses it was Cline who showed her how to shave her legs – and, more profoundly, how to spice up her marriage. Among the many domestic details of Lynn’s lively look back in Me and Patsy Kickin’ Up Dust: My Friendship With Patsy Cline, what emerges is a heartfelt appreciation of how one great singing star lent her hard-won wisdom to another.

Rob Merrill from Associated Press reviews Stephen King's latest: "If It Bleeds consists of four stories and at least one of them may soon come to a screen near you. The eponymous tale lets readers spend some more time with private investigator Holly Gibney, the star of King’s latest novel, The Outsider. Picking up not long after the end of that book, Gibney is back at home in Pittsburgh when a bomb goes off at a local middle school, killing dozens. Without giving too much away, Holly suspects it’s the work of a new kind of Outsider and it may just be a jumping off point for season two of the popular HBO series."

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Boswell bestsellers for the week ending May 2, 2020 - Rufi Thorpe interview, pandemic fact and fiction on the list, and virtual school visits

Here are this weeks bestselling titles. In general, it's another week dominated by hardcover fiction but the titles at the top of hardcover nonfiction and kids are making an impact too.

Hardcover Fiction
1. The Book of Longings, by Sue Monk Kidd
2. The Knockout Queen, by Rufi Thorpe
3. Murder at the Mena House, by Erica Ruth Neubauer (virtual event May 6)
4. The Glass Hotel, by Emily St John Mandel
5. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
6. The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
7. The Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler
8. American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins
9. The End of October, by Lawrence Wright
10. If It Bleeds, by Stephen King
11. We Ride Upon Sticks, by Quan Bary
12. The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel
13. The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich
14. My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell
15. The Herd, by Andrea Bartz

Our big debut was Chris's pick, The Knockout Queen, by Rufi Thorpe. Here's her talking about the character of Bunny in Chris's Boswellians interview: "Bunny is a fantasy. She is a form of wish fulfillment, because she has the physical power to enforce her will, and she also fails to be one of the empty doll women, but not because she is fat. Not being one of the doll women because you are fat is more complicated and the shame is still really confusing for me. That’s a whole other book, one I hope one day to write. But in this book, Bunny is kind of a violent repudiation of the empty doll women. They pop and hiss and deflate under the pressure of her."

A higher profile release is Lawrence Wright's The End of October, a pandemic thriller that was years in the making. From Douglas Preston in The New York Times Book Review: "I received the manuscript to review in early February, before the coronavirus triggered a world panic. I am writing this review in New York City in March, under a state of emergency, as the National Guard is cordoning off parts of New Rochelle, and the city’s streets and subways are emptying of people. God only knows where the world will be when this review is published later this spring. It has been a surreal experience reading a novel about a fictional pandemic in the midst of a real one."

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. Hell and Other Destinations, by Madeleine Albright
2. Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
3. The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson
4. Madame Clairevoyant's Guide to the Stars, by Claire Comstock-Gay
5. Ottolenghi Simple, by Yotam Ottolenghi
6. Yogi, by Jon Pessah
7. Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker
8. Boys and Sex, by Peggy Orenstein
9. Educated, by Tara Westover
10. The Yellow House, by Sarah M Broom

A left-field entry onto our list is Madame Clairevoyant's Guide to the Stars - up is down when an astrology book hits our bestseller list. I don't recall noting one in our 11 years in business, despite a lot of browsing interest in the section. Zan Romanoff profiled Claire Comstock-Gay's book in the Los Angeles Times, noting how astrology can reduce stress: "None of these books attempts to predict the future, nor do they offer the cheery, easily debunked assertions that horoscopes often make. Instead they mostly focus on astrology as a tool for self-reflection, which feels appropriate for a moment in which we’re all essentially trapped with ourselves. Who are we, and who do we want to be?"

Paperback Fiction:
1. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng (three editions)
2. City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert
3. The Heirloom Garden, by Viola Shipman (virtual event May 6)
4. Normal People, by Sally Rooney
5. Mostly Dead Things, by Kristen Arnett (virtual book club May 4)
6. The Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips
7. Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi
8. Circe, by Madeline Miller
9. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
10. The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

National Book Award winner Susan Choi's Trust Exercise went on the floor this week and only now do I see it was scheduled for May 5. Or was it moved up? Apologies! In any case, we're reading Trust Exercise for our In-Store Lit Group for July, maybe virtually, maybe in person. The page is currently up to date.

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. The Great Halifax Explosion, by John U Bacon
2. American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Wisconsin, by Charles Hagner
3. An Elegant Defense, by Matt Richtel
4. Unorthodox (two editions), by Deborah Feldman
5. Just Mercy (two editions), by Bryan Stevenson
6. Wow, No Thank You, by Samantha Irby
7. An American Summer, by Alex Kotlowitz
8. The Great Influenza, by John M Barry
9. Understanding Your Mind, by Thich Nhat Hanh
10. How to Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan

The current edition of The Great Influenza, recently back to #1 on The New York Times bestseller list, included a new afterward on the 100th anniversary of the 1918 pandemic. Previous to that, it had information on the avian flu. But perhaps its Barry's prescience in covering subjects of lasting interest that's worth nothing - in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, his Rising Tide on the Missisippi River flood of 1927 hit bestseller lists. As someone wrote in The New York Times (and I'm not sure why the author is so rarely cited, "Easily our fullest, richest, most panoramic history of the subject."

Books for Kids:
1. Hello Neighbor, by Matthew Cordell
2. The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter, by Aaron Reynolds (another school event that is working)
3. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
4. Hi Fly Guy, by Tedd Arnold
5. The Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Joy McCullough
6. The Giver, by Lois Lowry
7. The Outsiders, by SE Hinton
8. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo
9. One of Us Is Next, by Karen McManus
10. The King of Scars, by Leigh Bardugo

Finally, a runaway bestseller on the kids list! Our virtual school event with Matthew Cordell for Hello Neighbor took off where the fist two did not. Some of the things that might have helped - award-winning author illustrator, picture book (anything above middle-grade generally can be tougher in schools in non-virtual situations) with a beloved subject (Mr Rogers!), and an enthusiastic district that opened it up to other districts. Plus some of our copies were signed. Of course Jenny had to completely retool how we generate sales for these events, but who isn't retooling everything? And best of all, the school discount is available to everyone right now, for a limited time. We couldn't think of another way of doing it without making mistakes.

Over at the Journal Sentinel, Jim Higgins profiles Sara Dahmen, who has last fall appeared at Boswell for one of her novels. A launch was planned for Copper, Iron, and Clay,: A Smith's Journey, but was delayed by current circumstances. From the piece: "Dahmen interviews fellow craftspeople and entrepreneurs, including tinsmith Bob Bartelme, her longtime mentor who’s become a friend and an honorary grandparent to her three children. Her book’s many striking photos are occasionally supplemented by Dahmen’s lovely small watercolor illustrations of pots and pans." And yes, we are currently discounting the book on Boswell Best.

Molly Sprayregen of Associated Press reviews Madeline L'Engle's The Moment of Tenderness, a posthumous collection of short stories: "Discovered and compiled by L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, the stories range widely in plot, from a girl being bullied at summer camp to a married woman in love with her children’s doctor to an embarrassed daughter resisting her mother’s mandate that she wear her glasses in public. While L’Engle didn’t intend these stories to unite in a single collection, they feel bound together by her unique and powerful tone, which seems to split her characters wide open to expose their raw humanity and allows one story to effortlessly flow into the next." Goodness, she looks like Alice Adams in this photo.

And Jordan Culver of USA Today looks at World War Z, a possibly prescient novel about a pandemic leading to apocalypse, but please note we're talking zombie apocalypse. But the parallels are there: "Obviously, there are key differences – COVID-19 isn’t turning people into ravenous walking corpses – but the dynamics of a pandemic are the same, Brooks said. In World War Z, Brooks also paints a picture of government officials unwilling to take on the problem. Brooks said he hasn’t been impressed with how President Donald Trump’s administration has taken on the outbreak in the U.S." Devolution is now landing June 16 - the book was delayed by problems recording the audio.