Book of the Week: The Art of Memoir – Mary Karr

Memoir is now such a ubiquitous genre that it’s sometimes hard to believe its current popularity is a relatively recent development. You can pretty clearly trace it back to the 1995 publication of Karr’s The Liar’s Club (and shortly after, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.)

The Liar’s Club spent more than a year on the bestseller lists. At the time, Jonathan Yardley at The Washington Post introduced his review of the book by trying to put memoir’s then new popularity into context:

It’s difficult to get much perspective on large events when they’re happening right around you, but even from this vantage point it seems safe to say that literary historians of the future will look back to our times and remark upon two significant developments. One is the withering away of American literary fiction, a victim in part of forces beyond its control and in part of its own willful withdrawal from society. The other is the diversion of the confessional urge upon which literary fiction has fed into nonfiction, most specifically the memoir. Indeed, if matters continue at their present pace, the memoir may well be our most important literary form by the turn of the millennium.”

Twenty years later, that observation looks downright prescient. So it’s perhaps appropriate that Karr herself now weighs in on the role of memoir in our personal lives, contemporary culture, and our literature.

Don’t be tempted to think this is a just a craft book for aspiring writers–this is a craft book the way Stephen King’s On Writing was. By which I mean, that craft is an organizing point—but the book is so much more. It’s an erudite, generous and a wide-ranging look at memoir and how to approach it. Best of all is hearing Karr’s voice—hilarious, irreverent, and incisive. It’s an intellectual and literary pleasure.

The initial media line-up includes The NYTBR (review and feature), Fresh Air, Washington Post, WSJ, New Republic, Elle and O Magazine. It’s also an Indie Next Pick

[A]n instructive guide to the genre. Not only does Karr write exquisitely herself (and without pretense, often with raw authenticity—‘One can’t mount a stripper pole wearing a metal diving suit’), she clearly adores memoirs; the appendix of nearly 200 suggested (‘required’) memoirs is a delightful and useful bonus. The text is a must-read for memoirists, but will also appeal to memoir lovers and all who are curious about how books evolve….As if auditing her class, readers learn from her commentary on the memoirs of Vladimir Nabokov, Michael Herr, Frank McCourt, Hilary Mantel, and others. Karr lends her characteristic trueness and ‘you-ness’ to the subject of writing memoirs, wisely (and quite often humorously) guiding readers in their understanding and experience of the art.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Karr’s sassy Texas wit and her down-to-earth observations about both the memoir form and how to approach it combine to make for lively and inspiring reading. A generous and singularly insightful examination of memoir.”
   — Kirkus Reviews

“A master class on the art of the memoir. ”
   — New York Times Book Review

“Mary Karr has written another astonishingly perceptive, wildly entertaining, and profoundly honest book-funny, fascinating, necessary. The Art of Memoir will be the definitive book on reading and writing memoir for years to come.”
— Cheryl Strayed

“For both readers and writers of memoir, this book is like taking a class from your favorite professor–but from the comfort of your couch and with no assignments! (Woo hoo!) I learned that in memoir, voice is one of the most important parts to get right, and this is something Karr has clearly mastered. Once you finish, you’ll want to start in one of Karr’s three previously published memoirs right away.”
— Ingrid Goatson, Boulder Book Store, Boulder CO

The Art of Memoir (9780062223067) by Mary Karr. $24.99 hardcover. 9/15/15 on sale.

New Fiction: Undermajordomo Minor – Patrick deWitt

Patrick de Witt’s last book, The Sisters Brothers, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and remains favorite handsell among Indie booksellers. That book was striking for its darkly comic voice and perspective—a western as it might be told by the Coen Brothers.

Undermajordomo Minor does for the fairy tale what The Sisters Brothers did for the western. Think the Brothers Grimm by way of Bram Stoker and Italo Calvino.

Fans include Emily St. John Mandel who said it “wears a fairytale cloak, but at its wondrous and fantastical heart lies an unexpectedly moving story about love, home, and the difficulty of finding one’s place in the world. Elegant, beautifully strange, and utterly superb.” And Jess Walter called it “a wonderfully wry and wise novel, and reading it is like coming across some twisted classic–Cervantes by way of Louis C.K.”

No surprise that this is an Indie Next pick. National media kicks off with an NPR Weekend Edition interview on September 12th; first reviews are scheduled for the NYT and Esquire.

In his delightful and dark new novel, Booker nominee deWitt brings his amusingly off-kilter vision to a European folk tale. After nearly dying from an illness that claims his father, Lucy Minor, a bored and pompous young man, leaves his fairy tale–like hamlet of Bury to begin a new life as assistant to the majordomo at Castle Von Aux….DeWitt uses familiar tropes to lull the reader into a false sense of grounding, delivering with abundant good humor a fully realized, consistently surprising, and thoroughly amusing tale of longing, love, madness, and mirth.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

With Undermajordomo Minor, Patrick deWitt… [delivers] another dark but warm, farcical but human, one-of-a-kind genre entry. Undermajordomo Minor takes place in the indeterminate ‘long-ago-and-far-away’ of fairy tales and is populated by familiar characters run through deWitt’s patented funhouse mirror. Like The Sisters Brothers, though, what stands out…is deWitt’s dialogue. It’s 21st century Shakespearean comedy. It’s bonfire embers. It’s a Van der Graff generator. It’s Sinatra in a hat. It’s the Rice Krispies dudes. Snap. Crackle. Pop! DeWitt writes dialogue like a concert pianist: precise, rhythmic, thrilling. Undermajordomo Minor is an odd joy: a sideways fable about hope, a paean to the individual’s need for possibility.”
— Matt Nixon, The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis, TN

Undermajordomo Minor (9780062281203) by Patrick deWitt. $26.99 hardcover. 9/15/15 on sale.

New Fiction: A Free State – Tom Piazza

Novelist, music critic, and Treme writer Piazza finds a sweet spot for his varied talents in this textured historical novel about slavery and popular music in the 19th century America.

It’s a spare, fast-paced novel about a runaway slave. As the reader digs in, one comes to see it’s also a story about economics—about how a poor white man and black man might throw in together in adversity—a vivid look at the popular musical culture of the time, and a shocking depiction of racism’s entitlement.

“In Piazza’s well-told historical novel, 19-year-old Henry Sims, an enterprising runaway slave from a Virginia plantation, arrives in Philadelphia in 1855 with a banjo and prodigious music talent…Piazza gives a fascinatingly detailed portrayal of 19th-century minstrelsy, a ‘national sensation’ that could only legally be performed by white men wearing dark grease paint…. Henry’s white plantation master (and biological father) back in Hopewell, Va., hires Tull Burton, an odious and cruel bounty hunter, to track down and return him….Piazza’s novel vividly depicts a cultural phenomenon through Henry’s harrowing journey.”
Publishers Weekly

Tom Piazza’s new novel, A Free State, is a book to savor. On the face of it, it is a book about an escaped slave, a blackface minstrel troupe, and a slave hunter in antebellum Philadelphia, and concerns what happens when these three elements collide. However, in Piazza’s hands, what could be an oft-told tale becomes something else entirely. A Free State explores questions of masking and identity and whether or not people can choose their identities or even their destinies. Even the title takes on new meaning as the book progresses, and leaves the reader with as many questions as answers by the end.”
— Kelly Burchfield, Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis, TN

“A thoughtful examination of the intertwining of race and culture—as well as a truly scary portrait of a genuine psychopath.”
   — Kirkus Reviews

“[A] wonderful depiction of a relatively unknown (or at least misunderstood) form of by-gone entertainment, and Piazza did it justice in presenting, not only minstrelsy itself, but also the conflicting emotions it generated in many of its performers.”
–Mary Grey James, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN

A Free State (9780062284129) by Tom Piazza. $25.99 hardcover. 9/15/15 on sale.

New YA Fiction: Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy

I’m very seldom a trailblazing reader on the kids side of our list. But I pay attention to the movers and shakers among my colleagues—and I follow bookseller reactions like a hawk. I don’t often this kind of enthusiasm for a YA novel across so many constituencies—Indie reps, chain reps, mass merch reps, literary readers, commercial readers… you name it, people love this book.

It’s an in-your-face, feel good story with some of the same kind of plain-spoken, insightful truth-telling that makes Rainbow Rowell so beloved. Our hero, Willowdean Dickson, is a big girl who is ok with her life. She’s ok with her size, with mother (an ex-beauty queen who runs pageants), ok with life in general…until a cute, nice jock she works with gives her a kiss.

In a PW interview, editor Alessandra Balzer comments: “The fact that what shakes her confidence is that this really hot guy is interested in her was so interesting. That’s not the way these stories usually go.”

That’s the pleasure of this novel. It’s not about a big girl changing her body in hopes that it will change her life. It’s about a smart girl whose struggles are about understanding what will make her happy.

 I’m glad to say this is an Autumn Indie Next pick. And got two starred reviews from the advance journals. You probably won’t be surprised that it’s already been snapped up for the movies. :-)

Willowdean Dickson’s mother—a former [beauty queen]…has a hard time with the reality that Willowdean, a self-described ‘fat girl,’ will never be a beauty queen. Willowdean is okay with her size, mostly…An unexpected kiss with Bo, her handsome fast-food restaurant coworker, is thrilling, but she’s also horrified at the idea of him touching her anywhere there is extra flesh. And that very reaction horrifies her, too; she thought she was at peace with herself. Murphy successfully makes every piece of the story—Dolly Parton superfans, first love, best-friend problems, an unlikely group of pageant entrants, female solidarity, self-acceptance, and Willowdean’s complicated relationship with the mother who nicknamed her “Dumplin’ ”—count, weaving them together to create a harmonious, humorous, and thought-provoking whole.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Will’s singular voice compels readers to think about all that goes into building-and destroying-self-esteem…Splendid.”
— Booklist (starred review)

“Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’, the story of the incomparable Willowdean Dickson and her quest to enter and win the Miss Clover City beauty pageant, has a heart as big as the Texas sky. This is the book I wish I could go back in time and give to my teenaged self. If you are a person with a body, you need to read this book.”
— Stephanie Appell, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN

“Dear God this book is side splittingly, wet your pants, laugh out loud hilarious! Willowdean has a bigger personality than her wide, proud, curvy hips. The perfect emulsion of sass, humor, self-proclaimed super stardom, and Dolly Parton. LOVED IT!”
–Angelo Santini, McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, MI

Dumplin’ (9780062327185) by Julie Murphy. $17.99 hardcover. 9/15/15 on sale.

Publicity: Fast Girl – Suzy Favor Hamilton

The explosive story of a bipolar Olympic athlete whose illness later drove her to become a high end escort was picked up everywhere when it broke. Now Favor Hamilton tells her own story for the first time.

The book is embargoed in anticipation of major publicity. A joint first serial with both People and Sports Illustrated will be on the stands 9/9. Favor Hamilton will then appear on ABC’s 20/20 on Friday 9/11 and GMA and Dr. Phil on Monday, 9/14. A satellite radio tour starts later that week.

Bookstores: this book has a strict street day but please note that the on sale is Monday, 9/14 rather than the usual Tuesday laydown.

Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness (9780062346223) by Suzy Favor Hamilton. $26.99 hardcover, with photo insert. 9/14/15 one day laydown.

On Sale Date Change: Yes Please Vinyl Edition – Amy Poehler

On sale dates of books have become so fluid that I rarely mention them anymore. Butfor stores who have preorders and special promotions planned, I want to highlight this on sale change.

The special one-disk vinyl edition of Poehler’s bestseller was originally scheduled to go on sale 9/1/15. But that date has been pushed back to the middle of the holiday season and will now be 11/14/15.

Yes Please Vinyl Edition (9780062435361) by Amy Poehler. $24.99 vinyl audio disc. 11/24/15 on sale.  

Publicity: The Alchemist – Paolo Coehlo

Hard to believe that The Alchemist is enjoying its seventh year on the NYT bestseller list. To celebrate, Harper One will run a full page four-color advertisement for the book on August 26 in the NYT arts section.

In addition, the book has been selected for The Diane Rehm Show’s September Readers’ Review on Wednesday, September 23. Coehlo has been sharing the news of the anniversary with his almost four million social media followers.

The Alchemist (9780062315007) by Paulo Coehlo. $16.99 trade paperback. Available.