Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Allegra Goodman's SAM is out today! Here's a little bit about why I am such a fan.

One of great things about virtual events is that we get to host authors who in most cases, would probably never come to Milwaukee. Now that programming has returned to mostly in person, we talked about letting our virtual programming go. But this winter, we're trying to keep it up, seeing if our interviews can move the needle. And so, the first of two blog posts about Allegra Goodman, one of my favorite writers, whose new novel Sam is out today.

During the holiday season, two books sold well off our upcoming event case that have virtual events later in January - Suzette Mayr's The Sleeping Car Porter and Tim Birkhead's Birds & Us on January 18 (More info here). But our January 5 program with Allegra Goodman was a little tougher to promote in this manner. For one thing, her new novel Sam did not release until today, January 3. And because she doesn't publish too frequently and her last novel, The Chalk Artist, did not come out in paperback, we had to go back to 2011's The Cookbook Collector to find a book for our upcoming event case. And guess what? We sold the copies we brought in. And why not? It's great book, which I speak more of below.

I have been reading Goodman since her debut collection of stories, Total Immersion, in 1989, and I was immediately hooked. I actually have what I wrote about the book! "Though it starts off slowly, Total Immersion soon becomes what it promises – a fascinating world of Hawaiian and London Jews, where life seems a paradox of religious discipline and worldly concerns. 'And Much Cattle' tells of the attempts to build an ocean-front Orthodox synagogue. As in many of the stories, the plan runs amuck as petty grievances erupt into idealistic schisms. Goodman’s characters are amusingly consistent in their ability to get along with anyone. I found this very funny – people shouting about the finer points of nursery school, using the Torah and Piaget as their sources. It is shocking that the author is only 21 – her characters are often over 50. I must note that the Hawaiian-Yiddish glossary in the back is too cute."

I actually found what I wrote about all of Allegra Goodman's adult fiction work. I never read her kids book, The Other Side of the Island, or her cowritten writing book, Speaking of Writing: A Brief Rhetoric. In the case of the latter book, I did not know it existed until this moment, and textbooks don't count, right? But I should note it's out there.

I enjoyed 1996's The Family Markowitz a lot as well. At the time, I would rank the books I read as I documented them, and would send (mail!) monthly lists to friends, usually three or four months at a time. The Family Markowitz was my top book of the month. Total Immersion was #3 of 10, and I should note that 2001's Paradise Park was #2 of 7., I'll skip over those and go directly to Kaaterskill Falls, the 1998 novel that was also my #1 book of the month. I have very distinct memories of that book because we sold it quite well at the old Schwartz Bookshops, but because of Ken and a few other booksellers, the location that sold it best was Brookfield, which shows the power of the hand-sell. 

Allow me to share my write-up on Kaaterskill Falls: "Just in time for high-holiday observance, Goodman’s first fully-realized novel of an Orthodox Rav and his followers who divide their time between Washington Heights and summers in Sullivan County arrived to spectacular acclaim, much of it from me. As in The Family Markowitz, many of the character face choices between the spiritual and the specular. My favorite, Elizabeth Shulman, would like to find time while raising her five daughters to open a summer grocery store. Raised Orthodox since birth but in culturally different England, Elizabeth is one of several characters that never questions her faith while struggling with her problems. Even the Rav, near to death, must choose between his two sons, one pious and obedient, the other filled with worldly knowledge, more interesting but defiant of ritual. Altogether Goodman juggles about a dozen characters, each sparkling with life. Kaaterskill Falls is like a 19th century English novel set in a synagogue. We drove down to Chicago to hear Goodman read at Women and Children First, and it was a genuine treat. Goodman is a great reader, did a splendid introduction, took questions graciously, and answered them informatively."

I had no memory of going to Chicago to see Allegra Goodman!

I stopped writing up my Booklists in the early aughts, as recommending books moved online. It was the rise of the Booksense (now Indie Next) nomination and at the bookstore, we could finally repurpose our staff recs beyond shelf talkers. And of course there was a time before shelf talkers too - we picked up that practice from other stores - the two I remember doing it early were Elliot Bay (Seattle) and Unabridged (Chicago) - shout out to them! But those were the days of backing up computers onto drives that held very little information, and for the life of me, I can't find my rec for 2006's Intuition. I know I wrote something. 

I know why I don't have a staff rec for 2010'sThe Cookbook Collector - I read the book late and was finally convinced to read it by Dave, my former fellow bookseller who is now our W.W. Norton rep and is also a big fan. And so I did what I did a lot more in those days - I wrote a blog post. 

The Cookbook Collector: "The first thing I realized after finishing the book is that the title is a bit misleading; the story is not quite as much a foodie novel as you'd think. Only one sister has a cookbook story arc, and it's not central to much of the story. Jess is a philosophy student at Berkeley, a vegan and would-be environmental activist, though her sister Emily would say she flits a bit from cause to cause. Yes, she does work at a second-hand bookstore, and yes, a collection of cookbooks does play into her transformation. 

You should also know that The Cookbook Collector plays off Sense and Sensibility, Jessamine is the Marianne, while the Elinor character in the book is best represented by Emily, the older sister of the family, who is running a tech start-up in the Silicon Valley. She has a boyfriend, Jonathan, who runs a similar sort of business in Cambridge, and both operations are expecting (as this is the late 1990s) to cash in big on an upcoming IPO.

"In this way, the story is much like Intuition, which uses a cancer lab as its setting, but at its core is a novel about relationships and honor. But both novels use social issues to play off personal ones, most notably power struggles in relationships. Not that Goodman leaves behind the Jewish themes she explored in her earlier fiction. Both sisters lives are touched by the Bialystocker Rabbis (and brothers-in-law) who have set up shop respectively in Berkley, and in their home town of Canaan. Coincidence yes, but if that bothers you, you should not be reading comedies. It's intrinsic to the plot, so just accept it.

"Perhaps I loved this book so much because it is more clearly a comedy. Yes, bad things happen, but it ends with a party of some sort, which is sort of in the playbook for these types of novels. It was just the kind of party I love, where you're happy and sad and happy that you read The Cookbook Collector, but sad to see it go. And because I read this book on the late side, I feel bad about missing part of the ceremony. But at least I got there before they cut the cake."

It's so unusual that so much of Goodman's work is still available in print, especially because she was at several publishers at the beginning of her career. These are the days when publishers would still pick up paperback rights from other publishers. I wish that still happened more. I can't talk about this much or I will get in a funk.

But back to happier thoughts. It's 2022 and Allegra Goodman's long-awaited novel Sam is out today! But I'll save my thoughts about that book for later. But I hope this blog explains a little more about why I am both excited and nervous for our event!

Register here for our virtual event with Allegra Goodman, in conversation with agent Julie Barer and myself on January 5, 7 pm Central. Even if you can't join us at the time, registration will make sure you get a link to the recording afterwards. Photo credit by Nina Subin.

And breaking news! Sam is the Read with Jenna pick for January. More here.

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