Saturday, March 3, 2012

February's Apple-a-Month Club selection, or, the trouble with fiction

As our Apple-a-Month subscription service enters its fifth month, we've started to get a few more questions about what our criteria for an Apple-a-Month Club book is. Luckily, there's the vaguely composed something like a mission statement from the website behind which to dodge the question.

Our Apple-a-Month Club selections have very few guidelines: new, paperback fiction is the main criteria, and we endeavor to share something you might not pick up or hear about anywhere else. Other than that, you can expect a variety of literary genres and styles.

The most important part of that, to us, being something you might not pick up or hear about anywhere else. That's both because 1. we don't want to send you something you've already got and 2. we think (and hope) that part of the trust you've placed in us to select a novel a month for you comes from a curiosity about what you might be missing from the world of literature, a desire to try something new.

That said, we thought that the biggest challenges in this new endeavor would be drumming up subscriptions (not a problem, but keep 'em coming) or staying on top of new releases. While the latter has been a by-the-seat-of-our-pants operation to be sure, surprisingly (to me, at least), it's the "fiction" part that sometimes presents a problem.

The problem with fiction, for these purposes, lies in trying to find a fictional world with something approaching universality. While most novels deal with the same Big Stuff, many of the popular contemporary variety tend to anchor themselves in realities -- like "college", "war", or "Iowa" -- that a reader simply likes and relates to or does not. It is, perhaps, for this reason that our small list of past Apple-a-Month club books has so far tended towards the inner life, a subject matter that is just so vague and strange as to almost require a less than linear approach.

In Red concerned itself with the magical humming beneath the surface of a mythical Polish town. Leaving the Atocha Station's primary drama lies in a poet's struggle to find his voice and sense of place. And Invitation to a Voyage peeked into the delicate inner workings of the human search for a home and a purpose, timeless themes in fiction, in a manner both intimate and specific. All of these have been at least somewhat non-traditional, storytelling wise, but in each case that seems to be a response to the very problem we have in selecting recommendations: that fiction must simultaneously conjure a novel world and touch on something true. Trying to come up with books that do this for a few dozen people I've never met has been an unexpected and interesting challenge, one that has made me think about what makes fiction good and relevant in a way that I perhaps never would have otherwise.

February's book, then, epitomized and answered this challenge. It's a genre the author herself would describe as autofiction -- a term that is gaining some literary popularity in its original French to describe a sort of melding of the genres of memoir and fiction. In the case of trying to find a fiction book with a sense of universality to it, this is something of a dream -- because what is it about another's deepest personal experiences and responses that prompts a reader to peer into their own?

Here's our February Apple-a-Month pick: Gwenaelle Aubry's No One, and the accompanying shelf-talker, which more concisely explains its apt-ness and beauty than this long-winded musing I've stumbled into. Read it, buy it, subscribe, and join us in this strange experiment in how to recommend fiction to everyone.

Gwenealle Aubry's No One is a genre-straddling work of tremendous power. In attempting to come to grips with her father's descent into madness, Aubry breaks the boundaries of the traditional fiction/non-fiction divide, creating in the process a blend of memoir and novel. Constructed as a fragmented dictionary -- from Artaud to Woody Allen's Zelig -- this lyrical and heartbreaking work will challenge each reader to examine the ties that bind us to our family, to what it means to love someone who we may never understand.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

ARCs, hope, and regret

One of the joys of working at a bookstore is advance reader's copies--preview copies of forthcoming books. We get dibs. And we get about 30 dibs each week, so there are plenty from which to choose.

One of the curses of working at a bookstore is advance reader's copies. We don't let ourselves read Steinbeck or Stein or last year's hot title, because we feel an obligation to sort the forthcoming wheat from the chaff.

On the plus side, we get to read wonderful books that are soon to be great hits (like this or this), and we can eventually take some credit for evangelizing and helping them spread like wildfire.

And we can drop a book after 50 pages without guilt. We didn't buy it, so if it's no good, no hard feelings. On to the next book.

On the other hand, we get fooled sometimes. Before leaving for a (no checked luggage therefore only two books) trip to Nicaragua, I started a promising new novel set here in SF. It
made the suitcase. And it was awesome. For 225 of its 250 pages. It just didn't all come together, alas.

No big deal, right? But it displaced some other book that may be the next great thing.

Such is the anguish of the bookseller.

Shed no tears for me, though. The pile by my bed never wanes, despite regular "I'm never really going to get to this one" purges. Nor does my desire to read. And someday, maybe I won't work in a bookstore, and I can finally get to the classics I've missed.