Love for sale

Yesterday, leading tear manufacturer and reigning king of YA John Green delivered the keynote address at the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute 10 conference in Asheville, NC. Green used his talk to booksellers attending in person and via the live webcast to praise independent bookstores and their employees. “We’d [authors would] suck without you,” said Green. He then zeroed in on something special about indie booksellers: “Part of what you’re selling is your passion and expertise. You cannot buy that and you cannot replicate that. We’re not in the widget business; we’re in the stories business.”

Recently, I’ve been in an ongoing a conversation via email with Booksellers’ representative from Harper Collins about a new book they’re publishing that we both adore: The Country of Ice ice cream starCream Star, by Sandra Newman (see review below).  Despite technically being in the ever-swelling “post-apocalyptic” literary fiction sub-genre, what makes the book so remarkable…so affecting and so memorable…is what makes it a difficult hand-sell to customers.

Many novels, especially those that become best-sellers, come with an easy-to-grasp hook. Current hot seller, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, came with buzz and comparisons to Gone Girl. Despite it not really being anything thematically like Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train is twisty and thrilling and scratches a very similar reading itch as Gillian Flynn’s twisty thriller.  While not a comparison I would make personally, it’s not unfair and, more importantly, it’s very effective for selling the book. It is important to note that scores of books have tried to compare themselves to Gone Girl since it became a publishing phenomenon. The Girl on the Train’s success is not because of the marketing (or not just because of it), but because the book is a brisk, harrowing, at times excruciating, page-turner. The Gone Girl analog gets people to try it. Hawkins book is a best-seller because people like it and are telling others about it.

This brings me back to The Country of Ice Cream Star, a book I loved as much as any I’ve read recently. Other books have engaged me more mentally or cut me deeper emotionally, but I can’t think of a book I’ve read recently I loved like Ice Cream Star. The further I’ve gotten away from the experience of reading it, my fondness for it has only grown.  Unlike The (Gone) Girl on the Train, Ice Cream Star lacks any easy-to-grasp button to hook a potential reader. It’s post-apocalyptic, sure, but I think after the raft of recent titles treading over that terrain it could be as much a hindrance as a selling-point. Also, the setting isn’t really what makes it so special. The writing—its lyricism, its originality, its thrilling audacity—is what sets Ice Cream Star apart.

This is challenging for a bookseller. Without any pre-existing short-hand comparison, how do I do it justice when talking about it to customers? How does one explain what delight smells like or how wonder sounds or the feeling of taking a defibrillator to long-dormant pleasure centers in the mind? Words can prove inadequate or too imprecise to do it justice with economy or accuracy.

When discussing this with our Harper Collins rep, I suggested that, in many ways, love for Ice Cream Star will be its main selling point. What makes it special has to be experienced. In many ways, its magic has to be earned. My passion for the book—as well as the passion of my coworkers who have or will read it—and my reading experience will mostly be what convinces Booksellers customers to try The Country of Ice Cream Star. For the right readers, I couldn’t recommend it more. I love this book.

John Green is so right: we’re not in the widget business. We’re in the business of stories. Sometimes, when we come across that special book, we even have love for sale.

* * *

Review: The Country of Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman

One of my absolutely favorite books of recent years is finally hitting the streets and lovers of language and literary fiction should be excited. The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman is nothing short of epic, both in narrative scope and literary achievement.

So much of the the joy of Ice Cream Star lies in the act of discovery: of the completely foreign, but not-too-distant future in which it takes place and of the language in which Ice Cream Star, the 15 year old young woman who’s the book’s narrator, sets down her story. The world Newman creates is original, richly detailed, and compellingly realized, down to the Pidgen English patois that the story is told in.

From the get-go, Newman drops us into Ice Cream Star’s world in media res. This is Ice Cream Star’s reality and Newman, to her credit, trusts her readers enough not to contort her story to hold our hands. She deftly brings readers along, threading details into the story so we slowly begin to piece together what happened and establish an operational framework for this world. Then, just when you think you have a handle on the book’s human and social landscape, the world opens up in surprising, delightful ways.

While the world-building that Newman does here is remarkable, Margaret Atwood-caliber stuff, what elevates and separates Ice Cream Star from other post-apocalyptic literary fiction is the language.

The strange and deceptively simple language Newman created makes the book a bit of a challenge to get immediately immersed in. But it is entirely worth the effort. The story grabs you from the start and the plot moves swiftly, carrying you along until you get adjusted. Once accustomed to the language, I found it a slyly effective way to incisively and humorously (and often beautifully) take a sideways angle to cut through absurdities of human relations, American institutions and societal norms. By the end, I’d grown to love the language and voice and character of Ice Cream Star: a hickory stick with a poet’s radiant heart.

At turns violent, romantic, funny and touching, The Country of Ice Cream Star wraps an exploration of power, American institutions, race and human nature into a ripping, twisting, turning epic.

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