Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Why Jane and I Love Alex George's THE PARIS HOURS

With us not yet being open to browsing, hand-selling has taken on different forms. We can write up books in our newsletter, but we don't have the opportunity to one-by-one place books in people's hands. And this is particularly true when your partner in handselling in Jane Glaser. From Hannah Rothschild's The Improbability of Love to Angela Flournoy's The Turner House, we love taking titles that are a little under the radar and getting them in the hands of readers. And while I have learned to sell books that I haven't read simply because Jane liked them, it's more fun when we can like them together. Back when we used to do book talks together, there was one year when she talked up News of the World so many times at presentations that she convinced me to read Paulette Jiles's novel. She's good at this!

Jane's novel of the fall was not exactly a sleeper, but for her, The Dutch House hit new levels of wonderfulness and lots of folks concurred. I'm not privy to publisher numbers but it appeared to me that Ann Patchett's latest has had a much longer tale than her previous, Commonwealth, and with the paperback not coming until fall (Commonwealth's paperback release was about eight months after publication, something that publishers were experimenting with in the mid teens), it has even more chance to break hardcover records. One thing we're noticing is that our paperback fiction sales are really hurt by the lack of browsing - it makes me wonder whether this hardcover fiction heavy model for bestselling titles is Amazon's everyday reality.

Aside from Patchett's novel, Jane didn't find too much in 2020 that excited her, but she had two picks for 2021. One was Isabel Allende's The Long Petal to the Sea, which of course she convinced me to buy but I haven't read yet. Allende's latest was her first for Ballantine, after a couple of books at Atria, and definitely had a sales resurgence. For us, the Atria/Washington Square Press release The Japanese Lover in paperback was a perennial Boswell bestseller, as it never left the staff rec shelf of former bookseller Scott. Jane's second pick is Alex George's The Paris Hours. (Note that we have a virtual event with Alex George this evening. Sign up here.)

Here's Jane's recommendation of The Paris Hours.

"In Alex George's brilliantly conceived story, readers will be transported back to a single day walking the streets of 1927 Paris alongside four characters, each escaping the harsh reality of a past that continues to haunt their present. Armenian refugee Souren stitches his life together by creating puppets for his afternoon fairy tale theatrics in the city park, only to have the fiery genocidal horrors replay in his mind. Painter Guillaume sells his soul to an art dealer of questionable reputation in the effort to pay back a loan that otherwise threatens to destroy his life. Journalist Jean-Paul. mourning the loss of his wife killed and his daughter gone missing in a blazing church explosion, reports the stories of the war weary, yet cannot resolve his own story. Chamber maid to a deceased famous writer, Camille, when asked to burn the author's notebooks keeps one back and its mysterious disappearance, if discovered, will reveal between its pages a betrayal that will destroy all she holds dear.

"As their stories are told in alternating in short chapters, glimpses of the artistic greats of the 1920s Paris (Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust and Maurice Ravel) are seamlessly interwoven against the backdrop of Sourne, Guillaume, Jean-Paul and Camille all "...running toward something." With the preciousness of every passing hour, the four stories artfully converge in a vividly drawn ending. Beautifully written from beginning to end, readers will so connect with the characters that they will not be ready to part with them. This is one of the best books I've read this year!"

Why has this book connected with us so completely? I have some thoughts.

1. Paris. We've long said that you can more than double sales by putting an Eiffel Tower on the cover of any book. In fact, we had a long-running joke that one of our bestselling titles our first year was the paperback of Murder on the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner. We're not judging the book on its merits here - it's just that nobody was hand-selling it. People just saw this book on our new paperback table and wanted to read it. We sold 125 copies. That seemed like a lot to us! And this was all going on as everyone was also reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which broke at Schwartz Bookshops in 2008 but exploded nationally later.

And since then, we've had any number of Parisian successes, notably our love for Antoine Laurain who has visited from Paris twice and has had several huge successes at Boswell. Would you like to know his sales in order at Boswell? They go: 1) The President's Hat 2) The Red Notebook 3) French Rhapsody, 4) Vintage 1954 5) The Portrait 6) Smoking Kills. Please note that I think the older books have continued to sell as the new books have come out, giving them higher overall numbers. The last two were Laurain's early novels, that were released in the United States after the success of The Red Notebook, which I think was his bestselling novel stateside. So excited to announce that Laurain's next novel, The Readers' Room, will be out in English from Gallic Books on September 22.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Paris by the Book, which combines our love of Paris and bookstores in one simple package. We're thrilled that the book was even more successful in paperback, hitting many regional bestseller lists. And it carries on the tradition of books like the runaway bestseller, Nina George's The Little Paris Bookshop, and other hits like A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé and The Little Bookshop on the Seine, by Rebecca Raisin. Alas, one of the publication casualties of COVID-19 was the publication of The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslian Charles, which is a historical novel inspired by the American Library in Paris during World War II. Publication is now February 2, 2021. Our former colleague turned Whitefish Bay Librarian Sharon is already a fan.

2. Novels set in one day. I sometimes forget this is a thing, but it's proven to be a very popular device for novels. From classics like Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce's Ulysses to contemporary Boswell favorites like Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (Kathleen Rooney) and Girl Woman Other (Bernardine Evaristo), the 24-hour novel is something that continues to capture the imagination of writers and readers. Here is a list from Electric Literature; you can easily do a search for others. Though I never read it, I was amused to discover that One Day, the popular novel turned movie by David Nicholls, is not set in one day but over twenty years on one particular day of the year. So that would start your checklist for "same time next year" books. Jim Higgins of the Journal Sentinel has a nonfiction pick for this list - One Day, by Gene Weingarten. While The Paris Hours has a lot of backstory packed into it, the main plotline of the story is chronologically compact. Jim's editor's choice for 2019 here includes One Day.

Another aside - the next novel from Kathleen Rooney is Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey and it goes on sale August 11.

3. Novels written by bookstore proprietors. You may be aware of higher profile bookseller-novelists like Ann Patchett and Emma Straub, but Alex George also has a bookstore, Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Missouri. George, a native of the UK and longtime resident of Columbia, helped bring the Unbound Book Festival to life, and this festival, with the help of store manager Carrie Koepke, morphed into Skylark. Though I had read and enjoyed George’s first novel, A Good American, I actually got to know George more as a bookseller. Have you ever had that thing where you go to a conference and you meet someone and then for the rest of the conference you see them everywhere and yet there are all sort of other people you already know that you hardly see at all? Well that happened for me with Carrie one year at Winter Institute. That sort of connectivity really defines the show for me. Since then, Skylark has been on my list of must-see bookstores. Time to start planning (but perhaps not yet executing) my road trip.

4. The 1920s. Such an interesting time for arts and literature, as Bill Goldstein noted in The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, EM Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature. He visited us for the hardcover, and yes, Jane and I were fans. Goldstein is currently writing a biography of the recently deceased Larry Kramer, as per the Associated Press. One of the wonderful things about George's book was the way he weaves historical figures into the story. I tend to love this sort of thing. Antoine Laurain does it a lot too.

5. Connectivity. I have found myself continually drawn to novels about the way disparate characters' lives are drawn together. Two of my favorite books to sell over the years have been Day for Night, by Frederick Reiken (When will he write another book?) and The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon Van Booy; I think someone who liked these books would like The Paris Hours. George's writing style reminds me a bit of Van Booy's. I like a book that ties together characters in unexpected ways and if it emphasizes shared humanity, so much the better.

I have no problem with coincidences, as long as its important to the story, and for some reason, my tolerance varies by genre. I just read The Vanishing Half, and the novel hinges on a plot point that seems highly unlikely. Argue all you want on the odds - without it, where's the novel? I'm firmly in coincidence camp. Are there places where I'm against it? Yes, when I read a thriller and I can describe a plot point where the protagonist conveniently finds a way out of their predicament, that can strike me as laziness on the part of the author. But while there are several coincidences in The Paris Hours, and some are nothing short of spectacular, they are not lazy coincidences.

6. Our original event was cosponsored by Alliance Française de Milwaukee, which promotes French language and culture here in Southeast Wisconsin, and was to be held at Lake Park Bistro. Plans change, but AF has a lively slate of French themed programming online, including all their classes. We're thrilled that our cosponsorship could continue despite COVID-19. The point being, any kind of program that allows us to cosponsor with Alliance Française de Milwaukee is a great program.

I'll have more to say about The Paris Hours, but I'll save it for tonight, when Jane and I will talk to George via Zoom. Hoping I can update this post with a link to the recording. Here's the Zoom registration link. Oh, and we have lovely signed bookplates for anyone who purchases The Paris Hours. 

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