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.

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