Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Reading Log: Book club discusses Shuggie Bain

Last night our book club discussed Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stewart. Responses varied from "this is the best book we have discussed in years" to "sad and long." I didn't find it too long at all, and read it in less than two days. Of course one of them was a reading day where I didn't do anything else. I also think I have read a lot of fiction about addiction, and this theme of the endless struggle, which can make a book seem longer because reading about relapses can lead to dashed hopes, and that can sometimes have you asking, "Why did I go through this just for everything to come crashing down again?"

What was nice was that readers weren't confounded by the Scottish slang, and neither was I. It helped that I had just read Big Girl, Small Town, which though set in Northern Ireland, had overlapping words. One of our attendees has wanted to read more about the Troubles since we tackled Say Nothing. I suggested trying Michelle Gallen's novel, which is set after The Troubles, but not so much that the protagonist is struggling with all her relatives who were either murdered or disappeared. It's funny too, but Gallen said not so much in Northern Ireland. The further away the reader is, the more they seem to see the humor. It was meant to be funny. But sometimes people are just too close to a subject to laugh. One of the folks who didn't like Shuggie Bain admitted that they she had dealt with a lot of addiction in her family. Sometimes a novel's impact can lessen if you as a reader have too much background on the subject. 

Another connection between Shuggie Bain and Big Girl Small Town - an obsession with the television show Dallas. 

One of the realizations I had about Shuggie Bain was that Glasgow also had a lot of animosity between Catholics and Protestants. Several attendees had more sympathy for Shuggie's brother Leek than for Shuggie himself; I was surprised by this. On another note, my friend John complained that for a book referred to as about a young gay man, there was no sense of self-awareness by Shuggie, only that he was a target of verbal abuse and sexual assault. But having read interviews, I know that Stewart focuses more on this in the next novel. 

My ridiculously inappropriate observation was that the cover did not seem to match the novel. That woman on the cover in no way resembles Elizabeth Taylor and that bedroom setting is far too pristine for the Bain family.  This reminds me of when I complained that Hannah Rothschild's The Improbability of Love featured a heroine who was dressed completely unlike the novel's protagonist, and the size of the painting was way too large. Speaking of Rothschild, what could be worse for a publisher than a sparkling review for a novel the week after Christmas that was published months and months earlier? That's the case for The House of Trelawney in The Wall Street Journal. Coincidentally, I had just given up trying to read it and passed it to my sister Merrill, who loved it. Maybe not as much as Writers and Lovers (which might have been her favorite novel of 2020 - paperback is out February 16), but a lot. 

When the group started complaining too much about how sad Stewart's novel was, I brought up Leonard and Hungry Paul, my new cause. It's Irish, but unlike the placiness of Shuggie Bain, and Big Girl, Small Town, it is not grounded in place or time. At least the characters have names! We sort of missed the boat on Rónán Hession's debut, being that it came out in August.  This is the novel that my friend John talked up, so I bought it, and then Rebecca S. recommended, so I read it. And I thought, "Rats, I could have sold 50 of these at Christmas." But it's never too late, and I'm working on a winter or spring virtual event. It's a lovely story that is sweet but not cloying. We sold more last week than we did in its first 4 months of publication. And one was sold to our buyer Jason, who loves the narrator's voice. So do I. 

As several folks I was interacting with recently were proclaiming their favorite book or books of the year, I had to contemplate this as well. Jason has us announce our top fives, but I struggled to get my favorites to ten. I wound up reading 101 books in 2020, which was about the same as 2019, but that year was a substantial jump over the previous ten. Some people thought my nine favorite books were the ones on the cover of our holiday newsletter, but no, these were just books I liked that I wanted to promote but hadn't been chosen by Jason or Chris for the gift guide. Were they all in my top 20? Certainly. But Homeland Elegies and The Cold Millions also made my top ten, with Akhtar on the inside of the newsletter and Jess Walter not featured at all. I don't know why - I grew to like it more the longer it sat with me. 

I decided in the end that my #1 book was The Coyotes of Carthage, by Steven Wright. Paperback is out January 12. I didn't think it got the attention it deserved (we had the best sales on Edelweiss), and I liked that I could sell it as a thriller, a satire, and a book about race, a book for someone who likes Elmore Leonard or . I love the hardcover jacket, but not so much the paperback, which is getting The Sellout treatment.  What were they exactly positioning the book for in hardcover? I guess I'd say literary fiction, but mostly, I just liked the cover and continued to obsess over how similar it was to the late Randall Kenan's If I Had Two Wings. I had hoped to reread Carthage before I made my final pronouncement, but sometimes you have to go with it. 

Back to Shuggie Bain? Would I recommend it to book clubs? Absolutely, unless they told me they were only reading happy books for now. But as I and at least one other attendee noted, the book really is about love and survival, two not completely unhappy things. I also liked learning that Shug or Shuggie is the Scottish nickname for Hugh or Hugo. 

If you like reading about Scotland, there's a very interesting chapter about Scotland's communal ownership program in Land, the new book coming from Simon Winchester on January 19. Our event with Winchester, in conversation with Marcy Bidney of UWM Libraries, is January 28. Tickets include the book - purchase here.

I've got our next three book club selections picked out for the not-in-store In-Store Lit Group, which I've been referring to as Daniel's Lit Group for obvious reasons. February is Myla Goldberg's Feast Your Eyes (National Book Award finalist 2019), March is Charles Yu's Interior Chinatown (National Book Award winner 2020) and March (just picked) is Sara Collins's The Confessions of Frannie Langton (Costa First Novel Prize 2019). It's another book that, judging from Edelweiss, didn't seem to reach its potential. I thought, "I can get Boswell to #1 on this book." And so I shall now try. Each discussion is the first Monday of the month at 7 pm. Here's our list of Boswell-run book club selections.

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