Sunday, February 28, 2021

Boswell bestsellers for the week ending February 27, 2021

Boswell bestsellers for the week ending February 27, 2021

Hardcover Fiction:
1. Send for Me, by Lauren Fox
2. Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell
3. Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession
4. The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett
5. The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig
6. The Invisible Life of Addie Larue, by VE Schwab
7. The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles
8. The Breaker V6, by Nick Petrie
9. The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah
10. Milk Blood Heat, by Dantiel W Moniz (Register for March 4 event here)

Nothing new this week in this category, though it's nice to see some sales for our upcoming event with short story writer Dantiel Moniz on March 4 for Milk Blood Heat. Several fall books increased sales momentum as time passed - all of them Boswell reads. The Midnight Library has broken out the biggest, but The Invisible Life of Addie Larue has also been a big success, and it's nice to see Hamnet holding its own.

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. No Hard Feelings, by Liz Fosslein
2. What It's Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley
3. Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
4. Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson
5. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, by Bill Gates
6. The Sum of Us, by Heather McGhee
7. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders
8. Tom Stoppard, by Hermione Lee
9. Four Hundred Souls, edited by Ibram X Kendi and Keisha N Blain
10. Beloved Beasts, by Michelle Nijhuis (Register for March 11 event here)

It's a second week of bestseller sales for Bill Gates's How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. From Richard Schiffman in the Christian Science Monitor: "this is a surprisingly good read. The author’s enthusiasm and curiosity about the way things work is infectious. He walks us through not just the basic science of global warming, but all the ways that our modern lives contribute to it."

Hermione Lee's award-winning biographies are always an event, at least in the UK, but we have enough theater fans at Boswell (who are not much going to theater at the moment) to be excited about her latest work, Tom Stoppard. From Boswell event regular Dan Kois at Slate, "Lee does her best to scour Stoppard’s life and 50-year career for that human fallibility, and while at 750 pages (plus notes) Tom Stoppard can feel as daunting as one of the master’s more vexing theatrical works, it never treats (as so many biographies do) the fame and accomplishment of its subject as foregone conclusions. Instead, Tom Stoppard remains alive to the unlikeliness of Tom Stoppard’s career from the very beginning."  

Paperback Fiction:
1. Oona Out of Order, by Margarita Montimore (Register for March 10 event here)
2. The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller
3. Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart
4. Circe, by Madeline Miller
5. Deacon King Kong, by James McBride
6. Writers and Lovers, by Lily King
7. In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez
8. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Tickets for March 16 event here)
9. Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson
10. Love at First, by Kate Clayborn

It shows the powerful resurgence of the romance genre that Kate Clayborn hit our bestseller list in the first week for Love at First, which Christina Lauren called "a modern romance masterpiece." Booklist on this story, set in a Chicago apartment building: "Nora and Will enter into a playful feud, which involves poetry readings, interviews with local journalists, and rogue kittens all meant to scare Will away from the found family Nora has created after her grandmother's death. Instead, all of these shenanigans endear Will to Nora, and the two slowly begin to fall for one another in spite of Nora's fears of being disloyal to her neighbors. A superb cast of characters rounds out this sweet, slow-burn romance."

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. For the Good of the Game, by Bud Selig
2. The Purposeful Hustle, by Deanna Singh
3. Healing the Human Body with God's Remedies, by Lester Carter
4. American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Wisconsin, by Charles Hagner
5. Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
6. Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
7. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
8. Evicted, by Matthew Desmond
9. Nomadland, by Jessica Bruder
10. Hood Feminism, by Mikki Kendall

At so many events, virtual and in person, one of the questions is, who is going to play so-and-so in the movie. Well, had we had an event with Jessica Bruder Nomadland (we did not!), I can't imagine that question would have been asked, I struggle to imagine the answer would be Frances McDormand, and I wouldn't have guessed that the movie rights would sell, let alone that it would be one of the films in awards contention. Someone found my staff rec card filed away. On my one for the website, I wrote: "Like all interesting subcultures, they connect both online and in gatherings. Most notably, they define themselves by who they are not, making it clear they are houseless but not homeless. Nomadland is a fascinating sociological look at a burgeoning subculture, and captures an economic crisis in the making, the hollowing out of the middle class." By the way, I'm on the search for a good recently published (upcoming or within the last year) nonfiction subculture book. Any ideas?

Books for Kids:
1. Stamped, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi
2. Elevator Bird, by Sarah Williamson
3. A Thousand No's, by DJ Corchin, with illustrations by Dan Dougherty
4. Escape Goat, by Ann Patchett, with illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser
5. The Assignment, by Liza Wiemer
6. Where Are You?, by Sarah Williamson (alas, we've sold the last of these - it's now OSI)
7. Milo Imagines the World, by Matt de la Peña with illustrations by Christian Robinson
8. Desolation of Devil's Acre V5, by Ransom Riggs
9. Concrete Rose, by Angie Thomas
10. Pippa Park Raises Her Game, by Erin Yun
We cosponsored a writing workshop with Erin Yun at the WJ Niederkorn Public Library in Port Washington, where Yun told us that Pippa Park Raises Her Game was inspired by Great Expectations. She showed kids how to re-imagine public domain works as new works. Like everybody else, except perhaps for Simon and Schuster and the Fitzgerald estate, she was very excited about The Great Gatsby going into public domain. School Library Journal wrote: "In this reimagining of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, familiar themes and predictability are offset by the depiction of Korean culture and language, which add texture and depth to the narrative. Readers will sympathize with this likable heroine as she struggles to succeed." Paperback releases on April 13.

Over at the Journal Sentinel, Chris Foran promotes the self-published book, Before the Invention of Smiling: The Incredible Journey of the Zucker Family from Horse and Buggy to Indoor Plumbing. The family lived at Fourth and Vliet and later in Shorewood. Available on Amazon only. Mr. Zucker, here is how you can place your book on Ingram Spark so that independent bookstores have access to it. 

Saturday, February 27, 2021

On Owning a Whole Mess of Books

I hope you all know that we are purchasing second-hand books again. Our system has changed, and we’re still not able to just be a drop off place for cartons of your discards, but if you follow the guidelines, some of your books in resellable condition will find a good home. Email us for more information – Here's a link to our guidelines.

Like all of you, or at least those of you that still love reading and collecting physical books (retronym alert!), my bookcases are full. There are only two options – create some more bookshelves or cull the collection. The first option isn't really an option.

To my thinking, there are three categories of books. The first is books that I haven’t read (one narrow bookcase, a shelf on a second case, and various random piles), the second is books that I have finished, but are not in the permanent collection (not a great way to store these – they are placed in piles in front of permanent collections titles of another case), and the third is the permanent collection, spread throughout the house from the kitchen (food books, a shelf of home repair, a few shelves of travel titles), the living room (most oversized books), the dining room (fiction) and our guest bedroom (most other categories of nonfiction, plus all the staging). My partner also has books, but I am not responsible for them.

If I decide to pass a book on after I read it, great! But if I think it goes in the permanent collection, it means I have to get rid of a title that I thought was in the permanent collection, but has been, as they say in museums, decommissioned. Sometimes these books are falling apart, with the newsprint-quality of paper disintegrating and the binding broken. That decision is easy. Or is it? I still have my mass market Anne Tyler novels, and most of them cannot handle much handling. Did you know Playboy had a paperback book imprint? Others are advanced copies, which by the bookseller code, shouldn’t be sold. There are only so many Little Free Libraries in the world, and I’m well aware that some of these books might just be taking up space, with the potential market for a reader being limited.

I am lucky in that I can try to sell my second books at Boswell. But I’m well aware that books I treasured might not have an audience and might go straight to the $5 cart, and if / when we’re open under normal circumstances, the cart outside where books are even cheaper. Some of these books have higher internet value, and we’ve noticed folks buying books with the obvious intent of re-selling them. At Schwartz, we did do more online second-hand sales, but we’ve not really found time to make it work at Boswell. Maybe someday.

What do I choose for my permanent collection? For a select number of authors like Barbara Pym, I have all their published work. For others, I just keep my favorites. Often there’s one title from an author. One of the rules I try to enforce unsuccessfully is that a book should be kept if you are pretty certain you will read the next book by that author. This strategy works for fiction, not so well for nonfiction, which is more subject driven. Last year I read If I Had Two Wings, the follow-up story collection (by 28 years) to the late Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury the Dead. So thrilled to see this new book as a National Book Critics Circle finalist. You can watch our interview with the late Randall Kenan here. I’m still waiting for a companion book for ZZ Packer's Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. It’s only been 17 years!

One other struggle I have is when to discard books in the staging area, the ones I haven’t read but always hoped to get to. There are some great books in here, classics in beautiful editions like Middlemarch and Moby Dick. Am I really going to read Moby Dick? And sometimes they are contemporary books where I thought I would get around to them but didn’t. I try to have a rule along the lines of you buy it, you read it (or at least gift it), but that just doesn’t always happen. I’m hoping to read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous for our book club, two-to-three months after it comes out in paperback, but that date has been delayed more than once. And here’s where I confess that I never read All the Light You Cannot See. But I own one!

Both the permanently shelved and the staged titles have one type of book I common, where I bought the book, hosted the author, and had the book signed. Sometimes it’s just a signature (that’s easy), but most of the times it’s signed to me. Every so often, I’ll consign the book to Boswell for resale, only to have someone bring the book back to me saying it’s mine. Once an author did this. So now I put a sticky-note on the signature page where I write, “Alas, even booksellers run out of shelf space.”

More bookshelf philosophy in this 2019 Journal Sentinel story.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Musing on Zak Salih's Let's Get Back to the Party

I’m really excited about a novel that’s just come out that I fear is getting lost in the cracks. The book is Let’s Get Back to the Party, by Zak Salih. It’s the story of two almost friends, Omar and Sebastian, as their lives intersect but never quite cross in a meaningful way. Instead, they wind up bonding with two somewhat inappropriate people, Omar with the a student from the high school LGBTQ group that he mentors, and Sebastian with an older, Andrew Holleran-esque writer.

Initially when I started reading this book, I was calling it When Needy Met Cheaty, thinking I was diving into a story about two lovers, one who hopes to be monogamous and the other is anything but. There’s something about the use/user relationship in the story that I recognized from my past.

And then you say, who’s Andrew Holleran? And so I must detail to the earlier wave of fiction written by gay men in the 1980s and early 1990s. The author your probably know is Edmund White, while just about everybody will be a blur to most readers. When authors and critics talk about windows and mirrors, it felt like this early wave was marketed pretty predominantly as mirrors.

The author who crossed to the mainstream first seemed to be Armistead Maupin, but he did so by surrounding his gay protagonist with folks of all sorts of sexual identities. I remember going to college in the late 1970s and seeing Tales of the City in way more dorm rooms than I expected. College is going to be great. That’s back when folks had books in dorm rooms, I guess. Other folks did it by positioning for the literati, like Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room is Empty, David Leavitt’s Family Dancing, and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library. Hollinghurst eventually won the Booker Prize, but that was in the 2000s, which I consider post-whatever I’m talking about.

To be upfront, this was a pretty White movement, though I also read the works of Larry Duplechan (Blackbird) and Jaime Manrique (a large bibliography, but my favorite was Latin Moon in Manhattan). And I had to pinch myself to believe that I read Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy in 1996. It’s been so great that Black gay men (and women and trans and nonbinary folks) are getting the chance to tell their stories now. In the past year I’ve read Real Life by Brandon Taylor, Memorial from Bryan Washington, and I’m still working on Robert Jones Jr’s The Prophets, and also enjoyed the memoir How We Fight for Our Lives from Saeed Jones. I should also mention here that Dennis Staples, who had a great pre-COVID event for This Town Sleeps, has his paperback release on March 16, a great book for folks who are interested in gay Indigenous writers.

The second part of the 1980s, no surprise, featured a lot of novels about men living and dying with AIDS, and the disease took a toll on a number of writers, whether they were writing about it or not. I remember being blown away by David Feinberg’s Eighty-Sixed, which was the first novel I read that tackled the subject with no blinders. I believe I drove down to Unabridged in Chicago to see a Feinberg appearance. I remember going with my friends to a reading of The Boys on the Rock, by John Fox, which I think was at the old A Different Light in, well, whatever that neighborhood was. Chelsea? Fox also died of AIDS complications.

Nowadays, the hottest part of the G genre in LGBTQIA fiction appears to be romance (not that non-romance books aren't sometimes romantic), and based on a bookseller session I recently attended (or at least who was participating in the chat), the market seems to have a strong audience that presents female, and in a large number of cases, the books are written by them as well. In a world dominated by #ownvoices, this seems to be an accepted exception. I don’t quite understand it, but it’s not a new trend. I recall the 1990s novel The God in Flight from Laura Argiri and on the non-romance side, both Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers and Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists made a great impact on me. Everybody knows Simon’s story was the best! Currently #2 on the paperback bestseller list is Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, which is now outselling her more recent Circe. 

I admit that I attended said virtual event to hear from Paul Rudnick. I still have my hardcover copy of I’ll Take It (not quite of the genre) but I think my favorite book of his continues to be If You Ask Me, the first book of collected columns by Libby Gelman-Waxner (even less so). And I should also note that ten years ago when Stephen McCauley appeared at Boswell, his audience was 90% women. McCauley will actually be our conversation partner for another upcoming event on April 6 with Michael Lowenthal, a fellow greater Bostonian. Lowenthal wrote two novels that I was particularly taken by – The Same Embrace, about two brothers, one gay, the other an Orthodox Jew, and Avoidance, a powerful but very uncomfortable book set at a summer camp. Lowenthal’s new collection is Sex with Strangers, which features a story based on his work as an assistant to John Preston as he was dying of AIDS complications. I read a number of Preston anthologies during this period, as well as Franny, Queen of Provincetown. McCauley’s latest is My Ex-Life and it’s a delight.

But, to quote a recent novel, Let’s Get Back to the Party. We’re cohosting the Zak Salih with Outwords, the LGBTQ bookstore in Milwaukee, with Larry Wheelock joining me for the conversation. The Outwords men’s book club is reading the book and I’m hoping we’ll be able to have a session where Salih answers some spoiler questions. Seems too early in the book’s life to subject the whole audience to that, but we’ve sometimes done this for paperback events, so maybe you’ll want to finish Oona Out of Order before you join us for the March 10 event with Margarita Montimore.

There’s a special place in my heart for novels about frenemies, and I think Let’s Get Back to the Party is one. Each participant has potential to be a friend, lover, or competitor for affections. So messy. Salih’s novel is “a moving, eloquent, and often funny novel that resonates long after its end,” to quote from myself. I read this book when it was sent to me as an advance copy and I’m planning to read it again this weekend in preparation for my talk. This book will take its place among some of my favorite books of the genre, many of which have been traveling along with me for 30+ years. And if you don’t want to try it because you want a mirror or window into one author’s vision of contemporary gay life in Washington DC, read it because you like Sally Rooney. I think it’s a fair comparison.

And because you need more convincing, here are a few pull quotes. From BookPage, Let's Get Back to the Party is "a gorgeously written meditation on being a gay man in America now." O Magazine called it "a stirring ode to the many faces of queerness." And there are blurbs from two writers whose books I enjoy, Louis Bayard and John Glynn. More here

And just to throw out more names, I've seen a number of folks compare Salih's novel to the works of Garth Greenwell. Larry Wheelock and I speak to Zak Salih about Let's Get Back to the Party on Wednesday, March 3, 7 pm Central Time. Register here. You can also buy it from Outwords here.

By the way, I still want to read that book called When Needy Met Cheaty.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Boswell bestsellers, week ending February 20, 2021

Boswell bestsellers, week ending February 20, 2021

Hardcover Fiction:
1. Send for Me, by Lauren Fox (signed copies available again soon - just ask!)
2. Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession
3. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy
4. The Kindest Lie, by Nancy Johnson (bookplates available)
5. No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood
6. The Court of Silver Flames V4, by Sarah Maas
7. Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell
8. My Year Abroad, by Chang Rae Lee
9. Anxious People, by Fredrick Backman
10. City of a Thousand Gates (bookplates available)

I am often confused by bestseller categorization, but in what world is The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse a nonfiction story? That's all I have to say about that.

Meanwhile, we've got two new releases and they are both from Riverhead. Making its debut is No One Is Talking About This, which if you watch book news, has completely dominated the hardcover fiction sphere this week. I looked at the Bookmarks report this week for the title, and I don't think I've ever seen so many blocks filled in so quickly. Here's Ron Charles in The Washington Post, who also reviewed Fake Accounts, by Lauren Oyler: "You can hear in these moments Lockwood’s experience as a poet. She’s a master of startling concision when highlighting the absurdities we’ve grown too lazy to notice. 'Every day,” she writes, “their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.'"

Adrienne Westenfeld on the Poet Laureate of the internet, in Esquire: "Never has the experience of being Extremely Online been more viscerally rendered." And so forth.

Also from Riverhead is Chang-Rae Lee's My Year Abroad, which is also getting great reviews.   

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. Vanguard, by Martha S Jones (Register for our March 29 event here)
2. What It's Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley (Register for our February 23 event here)
3. Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson
4. The Sum of Us, by Heather McGhee
5. Under a White Sky, by Elizabeth Kolbert
6. One Drop, by Yaba Blay
7. Between Two Kingdoms, by Suleika Jaouad
8. Four Hundred Souls, edited by Ibram X Kendi and Keisha N Blain
9. Think Again, by Adam Grant
10. Chatter, by Ethan Kross (bookplates available)

Not only is Ibram X Kendi represented in the anthology Four Hundred Souls, but there's also The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, about which Kendi said "This is the book I've been waiting for." McGhee, the former president of the inequality-focused thinktank Demos, has other fans, including Elizabeth Gilbert ("I am grateful for McGhee’s research, her humanity, and her never-more-important teachings") and George Saunders ("A vital, urgent, stirring, beautifully written book that offers a compassionate road map out of our present troubled moment.")

Paperback Fiction:
1. The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel
2. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
3. The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins (April Daniel's Lit Group pick- more here on our Boswell-run book clubs)
4. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
5. Oona Out of Order, by Margarita Montimore (Register for March 10 event here)
6. The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste (May Daniel's Lit Group pick)
7. The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
8. Writers and Lovers, by Lily King
9. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
10. Temporary, by Hilary Leichter

With a large book club, Ann Patchett scores double slots on this week's top 10 with Dutch House and the book club selection State of Wonder. Two releases that had strong sales in hardcover also arrived - The Glass Hotel, which in hardcover had the honor of being our first event to convert from in-store to virtual, and Writers and Lovers, which was also the subject of a virtual event, but not until December, when King spoke to Lisa and I. We hadn't started recording in April, but here's the Lily King video. Nice to see that they kept the iconic hardcover jackets on all three of these titles - I don't really understand when the publisher changes the jacket on a hit, unless maybe if the hardcover is all type. I tried to find a round-up of misleading mass market jackets of old, but all I found is this post from Tea and Ink Society, an amusing roundup of mostly ebook classics.

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
2. Know My Name, by Chanel Miller
3. Devotions, by Mary Oliver
4. How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell
5. The Body, by Bill Bryson
6. Emergent Strategy, by Adrienne Maree Brown
7. Weather for Dummies, by John D Cox
8. Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
9. Dreyer's English, by Benjamin Dreyer
10. The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

While all our focus with Melville House has been on Leonard and Hungry Paul, they have a national bestseller in Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (which I think we mentioned before, but nonfiction paperback bestsellers doesn't see a lot of new blood. I think what's vital for a bestseller in this category is a quote from Jia Tolentino. She talked up Patricia Lockwood above, and on Odell's debut, she wrote in The New Yorker, where she also reviewed Digital Minimalism: "She struck a hopeful nerve of possibility that I hadn't felt in a long time." That's the pull quote, but here's the caveat: "It is hard to grasp how individual acts of refusal would build collective momentum outside the platforms that they aim to refuse. Last year, after a former employee of the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica revealed that the firm had collected the data of millions of Facebook users and given that data to the Trump campaign, the hashtag #deletefacebook trended—on Twitter."

Books for Kids:
1. Escape Goat, by Ann Patchett, with illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser
2. Lambslide, by Ann Patchett, with illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser
3. The Assignment, by Liza Wiemer
4. Alone in the Woods, by Rebecca Behrens
5. Premeditated Myrtle V1, by Elizabeth C Bunce
6. How to Get Away with Myrtle V2, by Elizabeth C Bunce
7. Elevator Bird, by Sarah Williamson
8. Disaster Days, by Rebecca Behrens
9. Milo Imagines the World, by Matt de la Peña with illustrations by Christian Robinson
10. Bunheads, by Misty Copeland with illustrations by Setor Flagzigbey

This week's virtual school visit focus is on Elizabeth C Bunce, whose series of kids mysteries, Premeditated Myrtle and How to Get Away with Myrtle has won raves from the trade critics, with Kirkus noting that the books feature "A saucy, likable heroine shines in a mystery marked by clever, unexpected twists." In even better news, Premeditated Myrtle is shortlisted for an Edgar Award. Now I want to read it! Contact Jenny if your school would like to participate in our virtual school visits. We even have multi-school events where we run the tech.

Check out the Shepherd Express book page for reviews and info about our upcoming event with David Allen Sibley, but note that we are now out of stock on What It's Like to Be a Bird until after the event (and we'll have very nice bookplates!). And while there's nothing new local this week, the Journal Sentinel book page has profiles and reviews as they are released.

Monday, February 15, 2021

This week virtually at Boswell - Rebecca Sacks, author of City of a Thousand Gates, and Nancy Johnson, author of The Kindest Lie

Here's what's happening virtually at Boswell this week.

Tuesday, February 16, 7 pm
Rebecca Sacks, author of City of a Thousand Gates
in Conversation with Daniel Goldin and Lisa Baudoin for a Virtual Event
Register here for this event

Readings from Oconomowaukee presents a conversation with author Rebecca Sacks, who received a Canada Council for the Arts grant as well as the Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation's Henfield Prize for Fiction. Her dispatches from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were published in Paris Review Daily. And now she'll talk to Lisa Baudoin and I about her new book, a haunting novel of present-day Israel and Palestine.

Porter Shreve reviewed City of a Thousand Gates for The Washington Post, noting that Sacks: "makes a convincing case for a literature of multiplicity, polyphonic and clamorous, abuzz with challenges and contradictions, with no clear answers but a promise to stay alert to the world, in all its peril and vitality."

From Ayelet Tsabari in The New York Times: "The novel digs into the enduring wound of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and offers an unflinching, unforgiving look into the harsh realities of the occupation and its impact on people’s lives. Sacks works to dispel what Mai refers to as the “fantasy of a symmetrical conflict,” but the author’s description of the deep-seated hatred on both sides reads devastatingly true."

What's my comparison title? I might suggest Nicole Krauss's recent works (more Great House or Forest Dark than History of Love) or, for those who know their National Book Award finalists, Sunil Yapa's Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist. And look at that, Krauss actually wrote a recommendation for the book: "Probing and investigative, City of a Thousand Gates illustrates the endless reverberations of political conflict and its violence within the most intimate corners of personal life. Sacks deeply humanizes a conflict that dehumanizes on every level.""

Thursday, February 18, 7:30 pm
Nancy Johnson, author of The Kindest Lie
in Conversation with Shannon Sims for a Virtual Event
Register here for this event

Boswell presents Nancy Johnson, an Emmy Award-winning journalist who now presents her debut novel, The Kindest Lie, which Catherine Adel West called "a soul-stirring, vividly told saga that demands to be read." For this event, Johnson will be in conversation with Shannon Sims, television anchor at TMJ4. If you loved The Vanishing Half, another story of family separation, this book might be for you.

You've already read how The Kindest Lie was placed virtually in my hands in an act of kindness by another writer. If you haven't, here's the link to that Boswell and Books blog post. But lots of readers and critics are discovering this wonderful book. Paula L. Woods in the Los Angeles Times wrote: "The Kindest Lie is less concerned with solving that mystery than examining the complex forces of racial inequity and the fateful decisions that can make or break a family, or a community. On those terms, the novel is a triumph, a deeply affecting work of truth and reconciliation over what it means to live the American Dream - and not just for the winners."

And here is Anissa Gray in The Washington Post: "What is the cost of secrets and lies? That is the question at the heart of Nancy Johnson’s debut novel, The Kindest Lie. It is the story of a woman preparing to have her first child with the husband she adores; but first, she must confront the fact that she already has a son - a baby she was forced to give up when she was a teenager... It is a story about reconciliation, set against a backdrop of racism and resentments. But more than anything, it is a meditation on family and forgiveness."

Photo credits!
Nancy Johnson by Nina Subin

More on the Boswell upcoming events page

Sunday, February 14, 2021

What is on the Boswell bestseller list for the week ending February 13, 2021?

Boswell Bestsellers for the week ending February 13, 2021

Hardcover Fiction:
1. Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession
2. The Kindest Lie, by Nancy Johnson (Register for February 18 event here)
3. Send for Me, by Lauren Fox
4. The Paris Library, by Janet Skelsien Charles
5. The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah
6. The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett
7. Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell
8. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy
9. The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig
10. Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman
11. City of a Thousand Gates, by Rebecca Sacks (register for February 16 event here)

Please note, the original top 10 was in error!  

After an initial publication date of June 2020, The Paris Library was COVID-bumped to February 2021, and it seems to have paid off. The book is the #1 Indie Next Pick for the month and we had a strong first week of sales. On it being sold in the UK and US, Janet Skelsien Charles offered this to The Bookseller (UK): "This novel is a love letter to libraries and librarians, reminding us that in the digital age, our libraries - our third space, our sanctuary, our source of facts in a fake-news world - are more vital than ever. And more than ever, they are under attack. The Paris Library is a reminder that we must protect and appreciate what we have."

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. The Baddest Bitch in the Room, by Sophia Chang
2. What It's Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley (Register for February 23 event here)
3. A Promised Land, by Barack Obama
4. Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson
5. Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
6. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders
7. Chatter, by Ethan Kross
8. Just As I Am, by Cicely Tyson
9. Between Two Kingdoms, by Suleika Jaouad
10. The Copenhagen Trilogy, by Tove Ditlevsen

Suleika Jaouad's Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, chronicles the author's diagnosis of leukemia and her road trip (literally and figuratively) of illness and recovery. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote: "This is a deeply moving and passionate work of art, quite unlike anything I’ve ever read. I will remember these stories for years to come, because Suleika Jaouad has imprinted them on my heart." Chanel Miller in The New York Times writes: "Her writing restores the moon, lights the way as we learn to endure the unknown."

Paperback Fiction:
1. Bonnie, by Christina Schwarz
2. Deacon King Kong, by James McBride
3. The Coyotes of Carthage, by Steven Wright
4. The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai
5. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
6. Olive Again, by Elizabeth Strout
7. The Obelisk Gates, by NK Jamisin
8. Kink, edited by R.O. KwOn
9. Home Body, by Rupi Kaur
10. The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

I recently did a couple of private book talks, and one book that made an impression is Bonnie, the first historical fiction from Christina Schwarz, now in paperback. Lisa Baudoin and I spoke to Schwarz for the hardcover publication about her novel that re-imagines the life of Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde fame. Elizabeth Brundage wrote in The New York Times: "In her absorbing fifth novel, Christina Schwarz trains her lens on Bonnie Parker, investigating how a girl from the humdrum plains of West Texas became one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century."

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. This Land of Snow, by Anders Morley
2. The Body Is Not an Apology 2e, by Sonya Renee Taylor
3. Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
4. Healing the Human Body with God's Remedies, by Lester Carter
5. Inheritance, by Dani Shapiro
6. Furious Hours, by Casey Cep
7. Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
8. Places in Italy, by Francis Russell
9. Classic Restaurants of Milwaukee, by Jennifer Billock
10. My Grandmother's Hands, by Resmaa Menakem

Six of our top ten titles in this category were previous event books from Boswell, from the recent This Land of Snow to hardcover appearances for Furious Hours and Inheritance. But only one is actually a newly revised second edition. Sonya Renee Taylor's new edition of The Body Is Not an Apology comes with an introduction from Ijeoma Oluo (So You Want to Talk About Race and Mediocre) and has a recommendation from Brené Brown who exclaims, “This book took my breath away. It’s an unexpected and urgent embrace of truth.” The other two events were from Healing the Human Body with God's Remedies (now back in stock) and My Grandmother's Hands.

Books for Kids:
1. A Thousand No's, by DJ Corhin with illustrations by Dan Dougherty
2. Escape Goat, by Ann Patchett, with illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser
3. Jabari Jumps, by Gaia Cornwall
4. Whistle for Willie, by Ezra Jack Keats
5. Woke Baby, by Mahogany Browne
6. Bebes Del Mundo, Global Fund for Children
7. Pete the Cat and the Cool Caterpillar, by James Dean
8. Sir Pete the Brave, by James Dean
9. Super Pete, by James Dean and Kimberly Dean
10. Pete the Cat's Family Road Trip, by James Dean

School's dominate this week's top 10. Our focus school visit of the week is for Robin Preiss Glasser, who will be doing multiple virtual visits in conjunction with Escape Goat and her previous collaboration with Ann Patchett, Lambslide. The setup? The Farmer family keeps blaming the family goat for problems. Is there a message? Yes! Kirkus writes: "The lesson here, delivered with the lightest of touches, is serious and unmistakable: justice, and goat justice in particular, will prevail"

Over at the Journal Sentinel, Chris Foran profiles We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy, by Kilph Nestoroff. The comedian turned historian looks at the history of Indigenous comedy, with one of the focuses being Oneida comedian Charlie Hill, who appeared on Richard Pryor's television show in 1977, the first Native American comedian to have a standup set on network TV, per the book. Of Hill, Nesteroff writes: "It became evident as I researched the book what a huge and unsung influence he has been. He is a celebrity in every Native American community in North America." 

 Also in the Journal Sentinel, a profile of Lion's Tooth, a soon-to-be bricks-and-mortar new bookstore opening in Milwaukee in March from Sarah Hauer. From the story: "Books are the attraction, but as the pandemic subsides Lion's Tooth will have a small café with mostly vegan small plates and packaged snacks. It would like to serve beer and wine once its liquor license is approved."

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Why haven't you read Leonard and Hungry Paul?

One of the crazy things about being a bookseller is that we’re constantly recommending books to our customers, but a lot of our customers can get frustrated because we don’t always read what they recommend back to us. Sometimes they even drop the book off for me to borrow. I’m sure this has happened to a lot of booksellers. And now I apologize to every customer whose book I either didn’t read or did read and wound up not liking, so I pretended I didn’t read it because from my experience, that’s better than saying you didn’t like it.

But for every time that does happen, there’s Leonard and Hungry Paul.

On December 19, my friend John (former Schwartz coworker and longtime friend) came into Boswell and recommended Rónán Hession’s debut novel. He had bought it from us in November and was completely moved by the book and couldn’t stop talking about it. Now John, who worked with me for many years at Schwartz, obsesses over many things. Currently he’s been sending me a link to a different Therapie TAXI video each day. From my experience, you have to wait until he finishes the book to know how he truly feels; he’s susceptible to strong openings.

I took the recommendation to heart and bought the book. But did I read it? No, it went into my pile. I had a lot of event books to read. Plus our January book club book was Shuggie Bain. That That seemed like a long one. It was only when another former colleague, Rebecca, was shopping at Boswell and recommended the very same book that I really took notice. I immediately moved the book to the top of my pile and started reading.

There are books that I like and books that I don’t. There are books that I love and ones where I can’t get through 25 pages. And then there’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, where after I finished the book, I thought "I’ve got something here." It’s like when an agent or editor starts reading and starts calculating their offer. 

But I’m also a second guesser. So I wrote to the other person who’d bought Leonard and Hungry Paul from us – we’d sold three, one to me, one to John, and one to Annette in Wauwatosa – and fortunately we’d just waved to each other when I delivered books to her front door, so I felt like we were already friends, and she told me she loved the book and would pass it to Julie, who was actually in my book club. She wound up loving it too. Aha!

And so I decided to buy another copy to pass around to booksellers. And then I suggested Jason read it. And he did. And then Jenny did. And then Jane. And I’m not saying that everyone who walked into Boswell walked out with Leonard and Hungry Paul, but enough have. I set my sights on being the #1 store on Edelweiss. I looked at the numbers and I thought, we can do that. And actually we’re now just about double #2 in sales. (British edition at left)

But here’s the thing. I think just about any bookstore can sell this book in this way. I don’t know what it is, why this book resonates, why it doesn’t appear cloying to my customers who recoil at that sort of thing. Perhaps because it’s so matter of fact. Perhaps because we all are looking for a little kindness. And while I really love placey books, there’s something unplacey about the way Hession wrote this book that makes it universal. Sort of like when writers refuse to give their characters names, only not as, well, I guess it depends if you like that sort of thing. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

And now, here’s some serious selling. First up, the Boswell recommendations. (Hession's second novel at right)

Jason: “Here’s a story of two best friends who are attempting to move beyond the bubble they have kept themselves inside with the same routines ruling them. Leonard’s mother has passed away, and he is caught a bit off guard when he realizes a woman has taken an interest in him. Hungry Paul is comfortably still living with his parents, though his sister is getting married and attempting to get him to move on with his life. Through their friendship with each other (and Hungry Paul’s parents and sister) these two socially insecure men are able to move onward without changing who they are or what they believe. A heartwarming tale that will cause you to smile and laugh as you read. It did for me."

Jenny: “Honestly, there’s hardly a sentence in Leonard and Hungry Paul that isn’t a delight to read. Musician and first-time novelist Rónán Hession drew me into his novel with his mix of laugh-out-loud funny scenarios and the subtle humor of his writing, but I kept reading for the characters. Leonard and Hungry Paul are best friends and game night enthusiasts who have always found happiness in simple, quiet moments and a sweetly endearing bond with their parents (they both live at home). When the usual meanderings of everyday life intrude to shake up their steady, reliable days, the result is a gentle tempest of complications and unforeseen emotions. How they endure and even blossom makes for a charming novel that can’t help but leave you feeling happy. And after the year we’ve all just had, it’s the book we all deserve.” (the paperback jacket at left loses the Scrabble tiles)

Jane: “There are few titles I would compare to Gail Tsukiyama’s The Samurai’s Garden and Jeanette Haien’s The All of It, two highlights of my bookselling career. But Leonard and Hungry Paul generates a sense of wisdom and leaves the reader with a calmness beyond the plot, in a world overrun by uncertainty and endless noise. Irish writer Rónán Hession renders in poignantly lovely prose the story of two men whose friendship and mutual kindness, ultimately defined by at what stage does a helping hand become one that holds a hand. Hungry Paul and Leonard will endear themselves to every reader and their story will continue to inspire with each re-read.”

If you know Jane, those are two of her all time go-to books that she compares L&HP to. My rec referenced A Man Called Ove. But I could also mention The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It feels like that. Of course for every book that took off nationally after we handsold it, there are more that never quite jumped to national success, like The President’s Hat.

Remember Little Bee? Chris Cleave’s novel was a highlight of our first year in business. I worked so hard trying to sell it, and even got to appear on NPR to talk it up. At one point, I made a display of booksellers around the country raving about Little Bee. I would do something like that for L&HP, but I don’t know if that many other booksellers around the country have discovered it. Nine booksellers loved it on Edelweiss, but only one, Jason, posted a review.

Here’s a tenth. The Rebecca mentioned above is Rebecca Schwartz, President and CEO of Porchlight Book Company. She’s also the person who got me to read Leonard and Hungry Paul. And when I told her that John suggested the book to me, she noted that she told John to read the book too, which he confirmed.

Here’s Rebecca in the Porchlight blog: “As everyone around me knows because I can’t stop talking about it, I just read Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, a novel of such gentle loveliness that almost masks its honest truth about friendship and authenticity. The story surrounds two thirtyish fellows over the course of a few months, one just after the death of his mother and the other just before the wedding of his sister. And while the novel is a quiet one – no guns, no screams, no slammed doors – it resonates loudly in the way the friends evolve and reveal just what they have inside. One of the many enormous, if coincidental pleasures of reading Leonard and Hungry Paul is that it’s the perfect antidote to the times we are living in, offering subtlety over vulgarity, intelligence over boorishness, sensitivity over indifference. Published by Porchlight Friends Melville House, this is the perfect book to read now – and again.”

And now here’s John: “Sometimes it seems like our reading tastes have become so balkanized- if you liked this you'll like that- so it was refreshing to discover a novel for everybody. I've recommended L&HP to various friends of various tastes and everyone adores it.”

Nancy, another ex-Schwartz person, now with Schlitz Audubon Nature Center (and the reason we have more than 500 registrations for our David Sibley event on Feb 23 - register here), told me she also loved the book. It’s the book we read right now, and she’s selling to everyone who took her recommendation for Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Just one more ex-Schwartz person. I was corresponding with Susie, a long-time Brookfield Schwartz bookseller, who had ordered some books from us. I had done some good recommendations for her, notably Virgil Wander, and so I got cheeky and insisted she add on L&HP to her virtual pile. Here was her response:

“I am in a state of readerly bliss as I spend time with Mr. Hession's debut novel. What a balm for the soul it is. Being released at a time when we all have been confronted with sadness, illness and ugly behavior, here is a book that transports you to a state of lightness, love and appreciation for one's fellow man.

“The author packs quite a lot into a paragraph, so I am reading slowly in order to savor it all - the gentle, respectful relationships in each ordinary day, and the English terms and phrases that make me smile. For instance, what part of the body would be considered an ‘oxter?’ I have a guess, but it's more fun just musing about it. There is so much to love about Leonard and Hungry Paul. You couldn't have recommended anything any better for me. Sign me up as a Hession fan; what a talented man.”

I cannot top that. Our virtual event with Hession is Friday, February 12, 2 pm. Register here. Hardcover available here and paperback on May 11.  It's cohosted by CelticMKE. After the event, find it on our virtual event archive page.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Kindness of Author Recommendations

I am currently reading Shoulder Season (on sale July 6), the second novel from Christina Clancy, which comes out in July. It is one of the unspoken responsibilities of booksellers to read books early and cheer them on when we like them. Some people ask why I like so many of the books I’ve read. I’m a bookseller, not a critic. When I don’t like a book, I generally don’t bother finishing it, and when I do finish it, I rarely speak about it. When directly questioned, I might say, “It didn’t work for me.” A good bookseller will know enough about the book to be able to say, “but it might work for you.”

I’m enjoying Clancy’s novel a lot, the story of a young woman from East Troy who is goaded by her friend to become a Bunny at the legendary Playboy Resort in Lake Geneva. It’s full of local color of the period – I kind of spritzed when one of the characters worked at the Wooden Nickel in Southridge, a local Gap-like chain that was around in the 1970s. We had hoped to be the launch for Clancy’s event for The Second Home, and we were kind of, virtually, but I was ten pages into this book and thought, the launch has to be with our friend Kayleen at InkLink, and I think that’s the plan. Don’t worry, we’ll get to do an event to celebrate the release too. Playboy Club nothing - somebody find me a Wooden Nickel bag!

One of the things I love about working with Clancy is how she champions other writers. The last time we corresponded, she was talking up The Guncle (on sale May 25), the new novel from Steven Rowley, the author of Lily and the Octopus. It’s an Auntie Mame for a new generation! I just made up that tagline, but the author might have made that inevitable by calling the protagonist Patrick (the first name of Auntie Mame’s author). And last fall she connected us with Kirkland Hamill, the author of Filthy Beasts, and they wound up having a great conversation about the book and connection and coming out and money and addiction.

Another author Clancy introduced me to was Nancy Johnson, whose debut novel, The Kindest Lie, just released last week. When I read the book last fall, I immediately connected with the story of Ruth, a Chicago engineer in a good relationship, who leaves her comfort zone to return home to Indiana and tries to find the child she gave up for adoption when she was in high school. I convinced my colleague Jane to read it, and she loved it too. It reminded her of Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, one of her big picks from several years ago. We debated the identity of the factory town in Indiana that Ruth returns to. I thought it was Gary, because Ganton sounds like Gary, but alas, Gary is not a place where Black and White people would be interacting much. Jane thought it might be South Bend, where she went to school. I think we’ll have to ask!

The title of is, of course, a contradiction of sorts. Sometimes acts done out of kindness have unintended consequences. I was reminded a bit of Red at the Bone, the most recent novel for adults by Jacqueline Woodson, where a teenager is similarly given the opportunity to go to college when her extended family takes on the raising of the child she had as a teenager. Her response is not the same as Ruth’s, but unlike Ruth, her child is not a mystery. Instead, she’s the mystery, having escaped the family for another life.

Speaking of mystery, The Kindest Lie isn’t really structured as a mystery, but there is a mystery at the core. And there’s this moment where you put two and two together, just a little before the protagonist, which is just how it should be, and you have this satisfaction of thinking, “Ah, I see how things fit together.” Your brain likes when that happens!

Here’s my recommendation for the book: “Ruth has made it as an engineer in Chicago. She’s got a great husband in Xavier, and nice condo in Bronzeville. But when Xavier starts talking about children, she can’t put out of her mind the child she gave up as a teenager so she could go to university. Desperate to unlock her past, Ruth abruptly leaves her husband and heads to Ganton, Indiana to get some answers from the grandmother who raised her. But she winds up getting involved with her Mama’s White friend Lena and her troubled grandson Midnight, and she finds herself caught in the town’s racial tensions. Told from alternating perspectives of Ruth and Midnight, it becomes clear that a lie, however kind, is not what is going to set Ruth free. You can’t help but root for Ruth in this provocative and engaging debut.” 

The Kindest Lie is getting some great reviews. Anissa Gray in The Washington Post wrote: “It is a tale of how lies and omissions can shape and warp us. It is a story about reconciliation, set against a backdrop of racism and resentments. But more than anything, it is a meditation on family and forgiveness." And I’m excited to note that Nancy Johnson will be in conversation with TMJ4’s Shannon Sims on February 18, 7:30 pm. You can register here for the event.

Every choice we make has consequences. Ruth left behind a close friend in Ganton, and now has to deal with it. Ruth put off telling her boyfriend Xavier about her past, but that secret is not going to stay buried forever. In this way, I was reminded a bit of The Vanishing Half, so I’m shouting out to the million or so of you who bought that book that maybe you want to check out this one. And Ruth’s family thought they were doing the right thing, but in retrospect, what you might think is right might not be right from another person’s perspective. Who’s been there? I have.

This idea of authors recommending books to booksellers is not new. How many events over the years have had that question, “What are you reading?” Jeers to those authors that are at a loss to answer this question or only name classics. I have found that virtual events have led to better recommendations, partly because they can scan their desk and bookshelves. Megan Giddings (Lakewood) convinced me to read Milk Blood Heat (Dantiel W Moniz). And Nancy Johnson herself led me to Catherine Adel West (Saving Ruby King), which led to another wonderful event. Quan Barry (We Ride Upon Sticks – out next week in paperback!) suggested Steven Wright (The Coyotes of Carthage). And while that book was on my radar, I hadn’t read it yet, and it wound up being what I called my #1 book of 2020. And on and on, the way it should be.

If I were an author, I think I’d approach outreaching to booksellers from a sideways direction – instead of contacting them through my publicist, I’d have other authors friends who liked the book contact them. I can hear moans! Don’t worry, I’m not writing anything. But there’s something authentic about this approach, and it's been surprisingly effective.

In closing, I have the excerpt of one more review of The Kindest Lie to share, from Christina Clancy (remember her? see above) on Goodreads: “This is the kind of book you wish everyone would read, and it's sure to generate lots of discussion, which makes it perfect for book clubs. Johnson unflinchingly addresses some of the biggest and most urgent societal issues we face with nuance and compassion, while telling a story that had me completely hooked. Would Midnight and Corey be safe? Would Ruth be able to save her marriage when she confronts her past? I recommend this novel with enthusiasm. I'm very glad I read it, and I'll encourage my friends to read it, too.”

Register here for our event with Nancy Johnson, in conversation with Shannon Sims on February 18, 7:30 pm CST.  

Up next (I hope): Customers recommend books too.