Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Suzette Mayr and The Sleeping Car Porter

I wish I could predict awards better. It would be so nice if as the major awards were announced - the Booker Prize, The National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize - I could say, "I already read that!" But that isn't going to happen too often. But it happened with this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize winner, The Sleeping Car Porter. Buy it here from Books & Company. Register for January 10 event.

It all started with our commission rep John Mesjak. He was in the store visiting and I asked him to pick one or two of his fall books to read. Not something that was the highest priority, but something that I would like. He's served me well in the past, most notably in turning me on to Antoine Laurain's The President's Hat. If John hadn't convinced me, there almost definitely wouldn't be a character from Milwaukee in Laurain's novel Vintage 1954. 

I'm so glad John directed me to The Sleeping Car Porter, the sixth novel from Calgary-based writer Suzette Mayr. My affair with Canadian fiction has been longstanding. It's so underappreciated in the United States - so close and yet so far. For a few years, publishers were doing Canadian border tours for their authors - Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Buffalo - but I haven't seen that of late. It's served us well in the past - I don't think I would have read Miriam Toews's All My Puny Sorrows otherwise. We've sold over 200 copies of that wonderful novel and I still have folks coming in to talk about how much they loved it. The Toews novel Women Talking is also making an impact as a film adaptation. Allegra Goodman (the author - watch her event here) recommends you read the book Women Talking first. 

I read The Sleeping Car Porter and couldn't stop talking about it. First I picked it for our Lit Group book club. Then I recommended it to Lisa Baudoin and Books and Company, and we wrote a proposal to talk to author Suzette Mayr for our Readings from Oconomowaukee series. We set up the event and then The Sleeping Car Porter received the Giller Prize, one of the most prestigious awards given to Canadian writers. So exciting!

Here's my recommendation for The Sleeping Car Porter: "While many readers know about the American porters of George Pullman, Suzette Mayr’s eloquent new novel, shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, chronicles the life of an attendant on the trans-Canadian railway. One thing not different was the job was filled almost exclusively by Black men, who were subject to the whims of riders and faced much racism on the job. In the case of Baxter, he carries an extra burden, as he is also closeted, and burns with the memories of past encounters and the constant fear that any wrong move could lead to losing his job. His dream is to be a dentist, and if there is levity in the story, it is in Baxter’s propensity to focus on the teeth of the folks around him. Through these details, George and his plight are brought to vibrant life. And how can I not love a story where one of the referenced works is an Eaton’s Department Store catalog?" 

From my colleague Tim McCarthy: "This is intensely researched historical fiction that doesn’t feel like history. It feels like heart."

I liked The Sleeping Car Porter so much that I went back and read Mayr's fifth novel, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall. I should note that I didn't mention Baxter's hallucinations because I thought it might scare people off. They are a bit over the top, and our book club had a vigorous discussion over whether they were real or the result of extreme fatigue. But reading the previous novel, about a newly tenure professor fighting for her university position amidst some very bad behavior, I realized that Mayr's tendency towards the bizarre was reined in in the new novel! I can't wait to ask her about this.

Suzette Mayr talks to Lisa Baudoin and me tonight at 7 pm Central. Register here and if you can't attend, we'll send you a link to the recording.

Photo credits
Suzette Mayr by Tonya Callaghan

Addendum - here are the Giller Prize winners I have read in addition to The Sleeping Car Porter.
1996 - Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
1999 - A Good House, by Bonnie Burnard
2004 - Runaway, by Alice Munro
2018- Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

In several cases, I have read multiple books from Giller winners Mordecai Richler, David Adams Richards, and Michael Ondaatje, but not their Giller winers. All the winners here.

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