I recently read Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. This is a perfect book for Parnassus. After all, we are a business founded by two introverts (Karen Hayes and myself), staffed with introverts (probably everyone in the store except Niki and Lauren who run events and therefore really can’t be introverts). We feature a product mostly created at home by introverts (books), which we then sell primarily to introverts (readers). In short, it’s our kind of book. I was talking about this to Sissy Gardner, a charming and super-friendly introvert bookseller, who said she liked Quiet but thought it dragged on (I agree). She then pointed me to a similar sort of book which she considered to be superior, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain, by Nicholas Carr, and because I admire Sissy in all matters, I bought the book, took it home, and read it.
Now this is a book to shake up the world, to make us put down our iPhones and head back to the bookstore. Carr explains how the brain can be reshaped by our activities. Great news, unless your activity is playing video games all day. There was a lot in the book about how there are people who no longer actually read; instead, they scan, hit the hyperlinks, and hop around. It made me think my book reports have all been too long.
Let me try to get to the point - I’ve been reading a lot.
Let me touch one more time on the subject of Father’s Day, which I thoroughly exhausted in my last entry. Add Philippe Petit’s Why Knot? to the list of books Dad cannot do without. Petit, who made a freakishly daring and highly illegal walk between the twin towers in the 1970's and was later the subject of the Academy Award winning film, Man on Wire, has written a smart and extremely user friendly book on how to tie knots. I read the entire book aloud to my father while my sister sat there and tied all the knots with the piece of red cord that is included for just this purpose. It’s a fascinating book. When I finished reading Dad’s book I got a copy for myself. It turns out my sister has taught a knot tying course for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. The things we never knew about our own family.
I also read Caroline Kennedy’s The Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis to my father, which is a beautiful little collection, a very comforting sampler of Frost and Shakespeare and Yeats. It’s the kind of book I always mean to read, and when I did I felt my soul settle down.
While I was scouring Parnassus for potential birthday presents for my father, I found a lot of strange and appealing books in the store, books you would never imagine you would love until you picked them up and opened them. A perfect example is Maddie on Things, by Theron Humphrey, which I have bought five copies of to date. Humphrey, a professional photographer whose life was in the dumps, decided to take a year off and drive around the country to find himself. Just before he left town, he stopped by the pound to get a dog. Unbeknownst to him, the dog he got, Maddie, a red coon hound, was a genius. You must come by and flip through this book. I am thrilled to report that Maddie and Humphrey will be in the store on June 29th. I’ll be in the front row.
James Patterson, the man who needs no introduction, was in the store last week for the kick-off to World Book Night. We talked about books and reading in front of a happy Parnassus crowd and Patterson said that he would like to see World Book Night be expanded to include people giving a book they loved to someone else, just one book to start, in order to promote reading. He then proceeded to hand me a copy of Maria Semple’s, Where’d You Go, Bernadette. He said it was his favorite book of the year. I went home and devoured it. I don’t read enough fun books. This is a real shortcoming of mine. But this book was a knockout. If David Foster Wallace had written a Nancy Drew mystery, it would be something along the lines of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I highly recommend it for long plane trips or staying up all night. Smart teenaged girls would also love this book (and if that’s sexist, forgive me.)
It stands to reason I should put together a list of books for Mother’s Day now, and certainly Caroline Kennedy’s collection would be perfect, but let me also offer Flora, by Gail Godwin. I know that mothers would love it because I road tested it on my own mother. The minute I finished the book I took it straight to my mother and she read it immediately and loved it. It’s about a ten year old girl at the end of World War II who is smarter and more worldly than the twenty year-old cousin who has come to take care of her for the summer. The circumstances do not bring out the best in Helen, the child, and continually bring out the best in Flora, her caretaker. It’s a beautiful novel, full of all the grace and intelligence that have made Gail Godwin a great writer for so long.
If book reports had sound effects, and I’m glad they don’t, I’d put in a drum roll here. I read Anthony Marra’s first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, such a long time ago that I feel like I’ve been waiting forever to have copies to give to people. Finally, it will be published on May 7th, and Tony will be at the store on May 18th. I know the year isn’t half over but this is my favorite novel of 2013. Set during the war in Chechnya, he has created a miraculous book out of some of history’s more painful events, and yet I never for a minute wanted it to end. Here’s what I said on the jacket: “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is simply spectacular. Not since Everything is Illuminated have I read a first novel so ambitious and fully realized. If this is where Anthony Marra begins his career, I can't imagine how far he will go.”
And I mean it.
Alas, I tried to be shorter and I have completely failed. I’ll assume you scanned all of these recommendations on your iPhone. But maybe you didn’t. Maybe you like to read as much as we do at Parnassus. Come on in and let us know.
Somewhere back there several book reports ago I made note of the fact I was writing too much, and that I would appreciate it if readers would remember this fact in February when I wasn’t writing at all and give me a pass. At the time I hadn’t actually intended to slack off, but I did. Let’s hear it for being able to know the future!
Part of my lapse has to do with the fact that I’ve been reading some really good books that aren’t out yet, (I’ll tell you about those later) and reading some really mediocre books that have taken up a lot of my time without being good enough to recommend, (I won’t tell you about those at all.) The rest of the books I’ve been reading have struck me as perfect recommendations for Father’s Day, which, if you’re planning ahead, falls on June 16th this year. But if I wait until June 16th to talk about these books I’m going to be left with nothing at all. There are plenty of television shows that go into reruns over the summer, so I figure there’s no reason I can’t rerun this book report in June.
People often ask me if blurbs make any difference in whether or not someone buys a book. It’s a question I think about a lot since I receive an advanced copy of a book with a request to write a blurb pretty much every day that mail is delivered. As a reader, I don’t care about blurbs unless there’s a glut of AAA names spread across the back jacket, and then I think, How in the world did they get all these people to blurb this book? The next thing I know, I’m reading it. That was the case with Angela’s Ashes, a book I bought at the old Davis-Kidd in Grace’s Plaza the first week it came out, based on its great cover and the jaw-dropping collection of endorsements. It was also the reason I picked up Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, a terrific book that’s just out in paperback with a terrible new cover. A couple of months ago I bought Schroder, by Amity Gaige. It was the book with the buzz: great reviews everywhere, lots of NPR coverage, and the kind of blurbs most writers would never have the nerve to hope for. Schroder is the story of a divorced father who wanders off with his young daughter on a custody weekend. He doesn’t mean to kidnap her, he doesn’t think of it as kidnapping. The sad fact is that he doesn’t really mean to do any of the things he winds up doing (his actions range from irresponsible to harmful) but Schroder isn’t much for thinking things through. He’s impulsive, and that’s both his charm and his downfall. I often have the experience of thinking a book is great and then watching it fall apart as I go along, but this one gets off to a quiet start and then steadily builds. By the end of the novel all the pieces fit together and you can see that the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. Father’s Day? Well, yes, if your parents are divorced, or if you’re glad they’re not. At its heart, this is a book about a man who loves his daughter and his wife, he just lacks the tools for proper self-expression.
I think Elizabeth Strout’s new book, The Burgess Boys, is another great book for Father’s Day. It’s the story of two very different brothers trying to step up to the plate and be helpful uncles to the difficult son of their very difficult sister. Forcing dispirited grown-ups back into the unsettling roles of their unhappy childhoods is a great place for a novel to start, and these three adult siblings have less in common than three random strangers. I got an advanced reading copy of this book a long time ago and I tore right into it. Strout, who won the Pulitzer for her novel Olive Kitteridge, is such a strong and beautiful writer, and from the start, a quirky prologue from a character unrelated to the story that follows, you know you’re in good hands. It’s always interesting to me to see what sticks after a book is finished and what falls away. In The Burgess Boys it’s the character of Bob Burgess. Six months later I’m still thinking about this guy and how hard he tries to do the right thing, how gracefully he carries the burdens that other people heap on him (his brother and sister heap more grief on Bob than any one man should be able to bear, but bear it he does.) It’s nice to see that the man with no children emerges as the best father figure. This could be a great gift for a helpful uncle. We have signed first editions still available, so if you’re really thinking ahead you can get your Father’s Day present signed.
A small interview I read in the New York Times recently with Aleksander Hemon got me to buy his new book of nonfiction, The Book of My Lives. I’m reading more books of essays now that I’ve written one myself, and while this one is small, it packs an enormous punch. The little blue space alien on the cover has a dual role in the book, and neither role has anything to do with science fiction. If the alien is off-putting to you (it was off-putting to me) just ignore him. Hemon talks about his life in Sarajevo, his family, the war, his move to the states, and starting over again in his late twenties as an alien (see above.) The last essay about the young daughter is somehow more unbearable than the entire war, but it makes this another good choice for Father’s Day. I have long been an admirer of Hemon’s short stories, and I was glad to see the same beautiful prose applied to his own life.
While blurbs, reviews, and interviews are all good ways to find a book, my favorite way is through the author. It’s one of the many perks of my job. I was in St. Petersburg, Florida, not long ago, giving a talk at the Writers in Paradise conference, and while I was there I met Andre Dubus III. I’ve been a fan of his since I first read The House of Sand and Fog, and like most MFA students in the 80's (and before, and after) I was devoted to his father’s writing as well. I went home thinking I needed to read more of Andre’s work, so I picked up his memoir, Townie.
Now THIS is a book for Father’s Day! It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s a book about fighting - fist fighting, bar brawling, and the crazed desire to get into serious trouble. The story starts out as the tale of a skinny kid in a bad neighborhood who gets pushed around by just about everyone, and when he gets tired of it he figures out what he’s going to do about it. It takes young Andre years of weight lifting before he’s ready to throw his first punch, but once he does start punching, the thrill of avenging himself, and protecting just about anyone who may need protecting, becomes an addiction that could rival any opiate. And all of this is from a man who is the closest thing the literary world has to George Clooney. I found the whole thing fascinating, especially since the narrative is balanced out with the story of Andre taking gentle care of his own father, a tough guy of a very different stripe.
Why else do we read what we read?
Oh, yeah, Oprah.
One of the producers from Harpo, Oprah’s studios, called to say they wanted to do a small segment on Parnassus for their book club program, which, in the book business, is a little like finding out the Pope wants to come by and give you his blessing. The camera crew and director came to Nashville (sadly, without Oprah) and shot film of me walking around the bookstore and talking for SEVEN HOURS. Those hours were then boiled down to three and a half minutes of beautiful video. We were all extremely grateful to have the eyes of Oprah upon us, and I felt the least I could do was read the book club book.
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, is not a book I would have picked up on my own, but isn’t that the beauty of book clubs? We’re introduced to things we never knew we needed. While this book is at its heart the story of a young woman who passionately loves her mother, it is not a book for Mother’s Day. The very young mother dies a horrible death from cancer, and the daughter is seriously derailed by the loss. Even though it’s not a book for Mom, I think it could be a book for Dad, or at least for my dad. Strayed packs up her grief and her destroyed life and takes off to hike the Pacific Coast Trail alone. She’s tough and resilient, trudging forward through no end of challenges just because she said she would. It’s exactly the kind of stick-to-it-ness my dad admires. The book made me think about Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Bryson goes on at great length about what he would do if he ever saw a snake or a bear or was threatened by a crazy person, but none of those things happen while he’s hiking. He walks part of the Appalachian Trail with plenty of money, and a friend, and then quits. Strayed, on the other hand, is poverty stricken and alone. She manages to nearly step on half the rattlesnakes in California, chases off bears with a whistle, and fends off a guy who is scarier than all the snakes and bears combined. And she finishes what she set out to do. I wish I’d read this book in my twenties. It would have been extremely empowering. Please note that Cheryl Strayed will also be part of the Salon@615 series at the downtown public library on April 17th. We’re very excited she’s coming to Nashville.
Of course, the recommendation of books is hardly a one way street. As this on-going book report proves, recommending books is a great passion of mine. When Barbara Kingsolver was here she showed me pictures of the Icelandic sheep she raises on her farm, and in return I gave her my copy of Independent People by Halldor Laxness. It’s set in Iceland and contains a great many sheep, as well as a few isolated people who drink black coffee by the gallon. This is one of my top three favorite books of all time, but it’s a very tricky one to recommend. It is the black licorice of novels - you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it, and if you hate it you’re not going to get very far. Barbara loved it, and tells me it is now one her top three favorites. When Caroline Kennedy was in town, she asked for recommendations. It seemed to me that there aren’t a lot of books Caroline Kennedy hasn’t read, and I was pretty excited to find out that she’d never heard of Independent People. Then I read this in the “By the Book” section of the New York Times Book Review, a Q & A which last week featured Kennedy:
Q -Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
A - The last book I put down without finishing was “Independent People,” by Halldor Laxness — the Icelandic winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. It was recommended by Ann Patchett when I visited her store on a recent book tour, but she said if I wasn’t gripped by Page 50, I should put it down. It didn’t go with anything else I was doing/reading/wearing at the time, but I have a feeling I will give it another try sometime.
Will she go back and try again? Was she just being nice and trying to spare my feelings? Sigh. Well, you’re not going to hit it every time.
This was one of the coldest and most dismal Marches in recent memory. It is a month to stay home, preferably beneath a heavy blanket, and read. Surely it will get warm soon enough and there will be beautiful days to be out taking hikes, but for the time being come to Parnassus and get a stack of books, have a snuggle with one of the store dogs, talk to our brilliant staff. You have a lot of reading to get caught up by Father’s Day, and I promise you even more great recommendations.
As anyone who has spent any time in Nashville knows, weather reports, especially winter weather reports, are often a hoax. They tell us it’s going to snow. We run to the grocery store and buy up all the hot chocolate mix and frozen pizza. Children, certain that schools will be closed, refuse to do their homework. We run inside, light a fire, and wait. No snow. Pretty much 95% of the time - no snow. Yet no matter how often this happens I always seem to fall for it, which is interesting, because when they say there’s going to be a tornado, I never believe them. Surely this has to do with the fact that I don’t like tornados, and I really like snow.
When I finished reading the manuscript of my friend Katrina Kenison’s book, Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment more than a year ago, the first thing I asked her was if she would come and read at Parnassus. I loved the book, which is about looking at the second half of one’s life and finding that we want less rather than more. Katrina, like so many of us, tries to find meaning and depth in a world of consumption and expansion, and she details her search with such wisdom I knew it was a book I wanted to people to read. She agreed to come to Nashville from New Hampshire in January, and then the seven members of her book club asked if they could come too. A road trip! A traveling book party! Eight brave New Englanders coming south for three winter days, and they turned out to be the three coldest, nastiest, rainiest winter days in memory. Hours before Katrina’s reading was set to begin we were promised an ice storm. It was pouring rain, 33 degrees. The schools had closed. The banks had closed. The mall had closed. And finally, an hour before her reading, the bookstore closed too. Katrina, as her subtitle suggests, has already had an apprenticeship in contentment, so she was fine with it. Her book club was cheerful. But Karen and I, along with everyone else who was working at the store that night, felt miserable. And the ice never came. Yes, like everyone else in Nashville, we fell for the promise of winter weather and closed the store for the rain.
So I ask you, if you have any interest in living a life of contentment, please come to the store and buy a signed copy of this terrific book. It would make me feel better about things.
It turns out the weather hasn’t been the only thing I’ve been wrong about lately. Sunday before last I read Joel Lovell’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine called, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” It was such a wonderful essay, and I am a George Saunders fan, so I immediately sat down and started reading the book (I had an advanced copy at the bottom of a towering stack in my study.) And it was great, maybe the best book I’ll read this year, but it was also extremely post-modern and not so easily accessible. I doubted very many people would be up for the challenge. Boy, was I wrong. The book sold more than 20,000 copies in its first week of publication. Everyone I know wants to talk about it. It thrills me to think a slender book of short stories is capturing people’s imagination. I was in the store today and a woman came in and asked for that new book by George Eliot that everyone was talking about. Three of us said at once, “You mean George Saunders!” Of course, if George Eliot had a new book out that would be exciting too.
When Katrina and her book club were here, we all had dinner at my house and talked about books. They were such a smart group of women, so of course I was interested in what they were reading. At their last book club meeting, they had, of course, read Magical Journey, and they loved it. For their next meeting, they planned to read The Marriage Plot, by Jeff Eugenides, now out in paperback. I told them it was my favorite of his books. I asked them what they planned to read after that, and they said they were thinking very seriously of taking on Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon. I told them I had read that, too. They were impressed. If you happened to have read my last posting, you may remember I recommended Far From the Tree before I finished it. Then I went on and finished it. Really, reading Far From the Tree is what I did this winter. It took me forever. Not counting the more than 200 pages of references at the end (I did not even glance at them), the book weighed in at a very dense 700 pages. It took me two months to get through it. And while I’m very glad I read it, I frankly wish I had read it over the course of a year. I wish I’d read a chapter, put it down, read something else, and then wandered back to it later, simply because it was so much to take in. That said, I bought an additional six copies of the book while I was reading it because I kept thinking of people I wanted to give it to.
Far From the Tree is full of hope and compassion and identity, but at the end of the day it’s a pretty nerve-wracking reading experience, filled with stories that make you feel like you’re watching a car crash. The chapter on autism just about did me in. A friend of mine who listened to the book said he walked around New York with iPod buds in his ears, sobbing. (I’m doing a great job of selling this one, aren’t I?) The book is so smart, so beautifully written, so important that I had to stick it out, but at the same time I needed some straight-up literary comfort. I almost never read a book I’ve already read before because there’s never enough time, but I found myself sneaking off from Far From the Tree and picking up Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, one of my very favorites. Now this is an odd choice, cheating on a 906 page book with a 782 page book, but that’s what I did, and the balance worked perfectly. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a world all of its own, and a work of such profound imagination was just what I needed to get through so much stark and painful reality. I doubt I could talk anyone into packing these two as a boxed set, but I loved them together.
We’ve been on the hunt for the perfect novel for the February selection of our First Editions Club. If you don’t know about the First Editions Club, go back to the homepage of our website and look it up. It’s like Fruit of the Month Club, only better because nothing rots. Our December and January picks were both nonfiction, and we heard from our club members that they were ready for a novel. I put out a call to people I know in the publishing world and starting reading. After wading through some books that were not good, and some books that were not good enough, a friend recommended I get hold of an advance reading copy of a book called The Antagonist by the Canadian author, Lynn Coady. Jackpot. The entire novel is a series of emails written by the narrator to his old college friend. The book is smart and profane and funny (isn’t funny just the thing for February?) and in every way unexpected. It never went where I thought it was going. It always went someplace better. That’s the great thing about the First Editions Club - one month you get Jon Meacham or Louise Erdrich, books that could easily be called contemporary classics, then the next month you get something that you otherwise might never have found at all.
I saw in the store today that The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones is out in paperback. I know I’ve mentioned this one before but it’s so good. If you haven’t already read it, you should. It would be a great book for a book club too, lots to talk about.
I’ll close with a few thoughts on pornography - I heard on NPR that every employee at Random House got a $5,000 bonus this year thanks to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, and that the books have now sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. This makes me very happy. I’m happy to think of wildly underpaid assistants at a big New York publishing house getting to put an extra $5,000 in their pockets, and I’m happy to think that all that money means that Random House will be more willing to take risks on unknown authors because they don’t have to always bet on the sure thing. After all, the same people who brought you Fifty Shades are also bringing you the gorgeous and cerebral Tenth of December. Viva diversity! It’s also great to think of so many people reading, even if they’re reading what I have heard is very badly written porn. Bad books are the gateway drug to good books, which means that people who read a Fifty Shades book may someday reach for something better, but people who read nothing simply read nothing. So come in and get a book. We don’t care at all what book it is. Have a peppermint pattie, play with a store dog, congratulate the fabulous Andy Brennan on becoming our new floor manager. We’ll be very glad to see you.
Note: Because Lynn Coady lives in Canada, we won't have signed copies of The Antagonist in until the end of February, but it is so worth the wait!
Since last I wrote, Parnassus has turned one. I think of one as an adorable, charming, and dangerous age - lots of falling over, inconsolable weeping, giggling, sleep. It’s not been like that for us. Unlike most babies, we marvel at all the things we’ve figured out in one short year. We’ve expanded, celebrated, and proven to ourselves and to the world that a new independent bookstore can be a thriving enterprise, at least in Nashville. Our anniversary had great coverage in USA TODAY. A year later, people are still fascinated by the fact that we’re a city who supports their local bookstore. Those of us at the bookstore are very, very grateful.
Part of what’s made this first year so spectacular are all the amazing authors who’ve come to visit. Barbara Kingsolver was here last week and we had over 500 people packed into every inch of overflow space in the downtown public library. Barbara told me later that again and again people in the line said to her, “I’ve waited twenty years for you to come to Nashville.” It was her first author appearance in our city, and she came because of Parnassus. Her new novel, Flight Behavior, has deserved all of the rave reviews its received. What with these overly warm December days, a book about disturbing weather changes set in east Tennessee feels eerily prescient. Flight Behavior gives the reader plenty to think about, while at the same time being impossible to put down. And it’s a good looking book. And we have autographed copies. Just a suggestion.
The last time I made a book report (which, it occurs to me, would be a much better name for this enterprise than blog), I had just finished reading Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, a book I loved so much I’m already wondering if it isn’t time to read it again. Imagine then my enormous joy upon discovering that Old Filth had a sequel - The Man in the Wooden Hat - and that it was full of more stories about Betty and Filth and Veneering. People so often ask me if I’m ever going to write a sequel to some book I’ve already written, and I’ve never really taken the question seriously. A sequel? Of course not. I have no interest in sequels. But reading The Man in the Wooden Hat, I could see what a gift a sequel can be to the reader. I was so moved to be with these people again. Now I’ve found out these are the first two books in a trilogy, and that the third book, Last Friends, will be out in April. If you haven’t read the first two, I suggest you get to work immediately. If you know someone who loves great novels, give the two together as a present. That someone will be very impressed.
I just finished reading the new collection of Alice Munro short stories, the beautifully titled Dear Life. I wonder if Alice Munro has ever written a substandard book. If so, I can’t remember it. Every time I’ve read a book of hers, I’ve thought, well, this is it. This is her best work ever, no topping this. But here she is at 81 still clearing whatever high bar she set for herself the last time. Her stories are so subtle and perilous and unexpected, they never cease to amaze. I think she must be the most generous writer I’ve ever read because every single one of her stories has a novel’s worth of content. She is our Chekhov, our Cheever, and she’s out there writing right this minute. There are books that might be fine to read electronically, but an Alice Munro book is to have and to hold. Especially this one, because, let’s be honest, it’s her best.
Now I’m going to break my cardinal rule of book recommending and add to this list a book I haven’t finished yet, Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon. It’s well over 900 pages, and even though the last 200 pages are references and an index, it’s still a very big book and I had no intention of reading it. I’ve met the author and found him to be dazzling, but still the book was too long, and it wasn’t a topic I was naturally inclined towards - the host of things that can go terribly wrong when you have a child, and how some people discover those things not only weren’t so terrible but gave a sense of community and identity to both the children and the parents. I kept reading the reviews, and hearing Solomon’s interviews, and it was hard not to be swayed. This is the book that everyone is raving about. Then I read Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times in which he says of the book’s first chapter, “It is required reading.” Those are strong words for a reviewer, and so I thought, okay, I can read the first chapter. I suggest you follow Dwight’s directive as well. The first chapter is worth the price of the book, and now that I am several chapters in, I can tell you that Far from the Tree lives up to all the hype and expectations. It took Andrew Solomon more than ten years to write this book. I think those years will be remembered as time well spent.
While I was reading that first chapter, I thought a lot about my friend Lucy Grealy, who will be ten years dead on the 18th of December. Lucy should have read this book, not only because it deals with stories of children who didn’t turn out perfectly (Lucy had a Ewing sarcoma of the jaw at age ten and then went on to have 38 reconstructive surgeries over the course of her life), but because the writing is beautiful and Andrew Solomon clearly has an extraordinary mind. There was nothing Lucy loved more than someone who knew how to think past our expectations. I even found myself wishing that Lucy could have written this book, thinking that had she lived she might have done something as ambitious as this. And then I turned another page and there she was -- Andrew Solomon was talking about Lucy, her life and her book. In honor of that connection, and her anniversary, let me add one more book to this list - Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy.
About six years ago I started to keep a record of all the books I read. It is a great sadness to me that I didn’t think to do this 46 years ago. Now it’s December, the season of reflection and book recommendations, and I’m looking over the books I’ve read this year and I want to make a list of my own. Every book I’ve mentioned in this blog, which from here forward will be known as this book report, is a book I’ve loved, but these are the ones that have really stayed with me.
This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
Dear Life, Alice Munro
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling
At Last, by Edward St. Aubyn (assuming you have already read the Patrick Melrose Novels of Edward St. Aubyn, which you must)
Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat, by Jane Gardam
The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt
The Patrick Melrose Novels of Edward St. Aubyn (I had to say it twice)
Lean on Pete, by Willie Vlautin
Thomas Jefferson - The Art of Power, by Nashville’s own Jon Meacham. It is the current number one bestseller on the New York Times list, and Jon will be the last author in this year’s incredibly successful Salon at 615 series at the downtown public library.
Please come in and tell us what you’re reading and what we should be reading. The bookstore is all about the exchange of ideas. It’s also about visiting my dog Sparky, who is now job-sharing the store dog position with Lexington the Dachshund. Ever since Lexington had her picture in the Atlantic (December issue), she gotten too famous to hang out with us all the time.
An editor I know at the Wall Street Journal sent me this link from Underground New York Public Library, a website of photographs of people reading books on the New York subway. She sent it to me because there was a picture of someone reading my novel, State of Wonder, but that's not the point. The point is that these are utterly mesmerizing photos of people from all walks of life being mesmerized by books. I cannot stop looking at them. I go back again and again and marvel at the intimacy people have with books, the private world they manage to create when they're packed into a metal tube rumbling beneath ground. And the photographs are so beautiful, and the books people are reading are so much better than the books you might imagine people are reading in the subway. I was inspired on every level. I want to read those books! I want to write more books!
Since the New York subway system is still closed for business and full of water from what was Hurricane Sandy, I thought it would be a good time to post this. I hope you'll forward it on to people because in these days of downloading books onto phones, it seems like an act of intellectual generosity to let other people see what you're reading.
If someone took my picture on the subway reading a book, I would hope they'd catch me reading Old Filth, by Jane Gardam. Three different people I love and admire all said to me in one week, "What do you mean you've never read Old Filth?" It's not a new book so I regarded this as a coincidence that deserved attention. I bought a copy and put it at the top of my stack. It's now at the top of my stack of all-time best loved novels. I am giving it to everyone I know, because everyone who reads it thinks I'm a genius for having found such an extraordinary book. Old Filth (an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) is a very old Englishman whom everyone assumes has had a very dull life. Boy, were they wrong. This is an extraordinary novel.
Please come by the store and see our bigger and better children's section. We've got so much going on these days that Parnassus has become a whirlwind of happy activity. The part-time store dogs, Lexington and Sparky, are keeping busy showing people where the books are. They'd love to see you.
I’m sorry, I’m blogging again. Oh, how I hate that word. Isn’t there a better word? Let’s work on it. In the meantime, there are a few books I want to recommend, so even though I’m coming back too soon, please bear with me. When it’s February and I don’t seem to be coming up with anything, go back and appreciate the time in which I wrote too much.
I want to tell you the story of how I came to read The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling. She will be doing exactly one event in the U.S. to mark the publication of the novel, an onstage interview at Lincoln Center on October 16th. Her editor, the fabulous Michael Pietsch, asked me to do the interview. I was incredibly flattered but declined because I hadn’t read the Harry Potter series and wasn’t about to take on 3,000 pages of back list. But Michael said I was the right person for the job precisely because I hadn’t read the Potter books. I could read the new novel, her first written for adults, and discuss it on its own merits. Like the Potter books, this one came with a high level of security. I signed papers in which I swore not to share the manuscript (I didn’t) or talk about it with anyone (okay, I did tell my husband what it was about). The publisher wouldn’t mail me the manuscript, and they certainly wouldn’t email it. In the end they had someone from the company who works in Nashville fly it down to me. There was a hand-off at night in the bookstore. I was left with a giant box of pages wrapped in blue tape that said “Confidential” on it.
Our feelings about a book are influenced before we ever read the first page –by reviews, by flap copy, by cover art, by what our friends think, and even by bookstore blogs. To sit down and read a manuscript that is free of all of that baggage is truly a gift. I read The Casual Vacancy without preconception or prejudice, and I’m here to tell you that I loved it. It’s a big, complicated novel, with loads of characters and no main character. It’s vicious and profane. I haven’t encountered a villain like the ones in this book since I read Pete Dexter’s novel Paris Trout. But The Casual Vacancy is also incredibly funny and poignant. Many of the characters are petty and small minded, while others are genuinely trying to find their way. Rowling works the entire range of human emotions. If this book were a piano, she hit every single key over the course of 500 pages. This is an important point, because it made me think about how most novels, including my own, hit maybe twenty keys in a single register. I felt like I learned things about writing while I was reading. It made me want to stretch myself. I cried at the end. I can think of three books that have made me cry as an adult. This makes four.
So when on the morning of this fine novel’s publication I read the scorching review by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, I felt both irritated and dismayed. If this book had been written by anyone other than J.K. Rowling, it would have been heralded as a triumph, but Rowling has been too successful, too rewarded, and now people are anxious to take her down a peg. I kept getting sympathetic emails from friends saying how sorry they were that I was stuck with interviewing her on stage now that they knew how awful the book was. It was then I was driven to do something I swore I would never do in my life - I tweeted. Through the Parnassus Twitter account, I sent out a tweet imploring people to read the book for themselves. The only word I hate more than blog is tweet.
No doubt J.K. Rowling has enough passionate fans to keep this book at the top of the bestseller list for a long time, but before you hear too much more about it, come in and buy a copy. Also, my interview will be streamed live to the bookstore, and to independent bookstores all over the country, on October 16th, 7:00 p.m. central time. (Show up early and bring a chair if you’re coming to watch it at Parnassus.)
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich, is a novel I read months ago in galleys and have been dying to recommend ever since. I’m a big fan of Louise’s and this book ranks with the best of her best. It’s just stuck with me, and every day since I read it I’ve thought about the characters and the impossible circumstances they’re living in. Even though the main action is revealed in the book’s opening pages, I don’t want to spoil any of it for you. Don’t read the flap copy, just trust me. Jump in the way I jumped into it, knowing nothing, and let yourself fully experience the shock of the action as it unfolds. Erdrich is such a powerful, beautiful writer. She has written 28 books (if anyone’s Wikipedia page can be trusted) that range from fiction to poetry to nonfiction to children’s literature. She has four smart and beautiful daughters and she owns a fantastic independent bookstore, Birchbark Books, in St. Paul, Minnesota. In short, this woman is a powerful force, and she puts all of that power and all of that force into this novel. Don’t forget, she’ll be reading at the downtown public library on October 9th at 6:15 as part of the Salon at 615 series we sponsor in partnership with the library and Humanities Tennessee.
Fall is always a busy time and I’ve been running around too much lately. I desperately wanted one entire day in which I never got in the car and didn’t answer the phone and did nothing but read and write. Today was that day, and the first thing I did was finish Junot Diaz’s collection of stories, This Is How You Lose Her. I never understand it when people say they wished the book they were reading hadn’t ended, because no matter how much I love any book, I’ve always got 68 others in a stack, waiting for my attention. But today I was forlorn, because This Is How You Lose Her is so perfect, and Junot Diaz can’t stop talking about how slowly he writes, and I’ve already read his other two amazing books, Drown, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This new one goes so deep into the drug that is love, and how we are lifted up by it, and smashed apart by it, and how we find something that is perfect and then ruin it anyway. It feels so true it’s nearly unbearable, but unbearable in the best possible way, the most beautiful way. I wish it had never ended. Two things you should know about Junot Diaz: 1) he won a hugely deserved MacArthur “Genius” Award this week. 2) He will be the Southern Festival of Books on Saturday, October 13th, 4:00-5:00, in the War Memorial Auditorium.
What I do wish would end is this never-ending presidential race. It’s wearing me out, and I don’t even watch television. I would highly recommend turning away from this spectacle and going back to the gaudier, crazier spectacle that was the 2008 election. Now that was a traffic accident! Reading Game Change was the perfect way to disentangle myself from the politics at hand. I know I’m coming late to this one (it first came out in 2010) but better late than never. Everyone in my family is reading it now and everyone is loving it. It’s half Anthony Trollope and half “Days of Our Lives.” No matter what your political persuasion, you won’t be able to put it down. And if you don’t yet have a political persuasion, well, come over to Parnassus. We’d be happy to give you one of those too. No extra charge.
P.S. - There are some excellent dogs right now at the Nashville Humane Association and Metro Animal Control. I know because my husband and I just got one. His name is Sparky and he loves to work the floor at Parnassus. Come by and say hello.
When Karen and I decided to open Parnassus there were so many things I never considered, namely the wealth of fantastic authors we would be able to bring to Nashville. Giant book tours are a thing of the past for all but a handful of top-selling authors, and those authors are in high demand. So please, look at the list of the people who are coming to Nashville this fall and share our joy. Outside of New York, D.C., Boston, Portland, and Seattle, you would never see a line-up like this. Attendance really matters here, both because you wouldn’t want to miss any of these great events (the readings are going to be pretty thrilling), but also because we want to show the New York publishers we can pack a house. That’s the thing that will ensure getting more wonderful writers in the future.
While we get a lot of great writers and programs in the store, there are times we have to move the author to a larger venue. We couldn’t have Patricia Cornwell or Jon Meacham or Caroline Kennedy (Caroline Kennedy!) in our little bookstore without creating a serious fire hazard. This is how Parnassus came to be a part of the Salon@615 series, a partnership between our store, the Nashville Public Library & Foundation, and Humanities Tennessee, with each party bringing their own unique contribution to the mix. As we all know, it takes a village, and together we’re working to make Nashville an even more exciting community.
As I look over this list, I’m pleased to see that many of these authors represent the connections, returned favors, and good will of my professional life. For example, when Sherman Alexie heard we were opening a bookstore, he emailed me right away to say he would be there to support us with his next book. (And don’t miss Sherman. He is as brilliant a performer as he is a writer. This is a man who puts on a show!) Dennis Lehane said he would come to Nashville if I would agree to come and speak at his writer’s conference in Key West, (“A bit of horse trading,” he told me, “in which the two of us are the horses.”). Louise Erdrich is a fellow author/independent bookstore owner whose store I went to on the hardback tour of State of Wonder, so she very kindly said she’d come and visit us. (And I LOVE her new novel, The Round House.) There’s a story with almost everyone on this list - Emma Donoghue and I blurbed each others books, Colin Meloy is the brother of one of my best friends, the author Maile Meloy, Barbara Kingsolver and I have the same publicist, Michael Chabon and I know each other from a writers’ colony, AND I used to work for his editor when I was twenty. It just goes to show, you have to lay down the tracks for a great reading series years and years in advance.
I know this is a lot to take in but please, take it in. This is an extraordinary opportunity for all of us. Be sure to make note of the different times and locations. We’re looking forward to seeing you.
October 1st, 2012
Nashville Children’s Theater
October 2nd, 2012
NPL - Auditorium
Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy
October 9th, 2012
NPL – Grand Reading Room
**Straight signing only, no reading or author discussion.
The Round House
October 9th, 2012
NPL – Auditorium
October 18th, 2012
Montgomery Bell Academy
The Bone Bed
October 20th, 2012
University School of Nashville
Live By Night
October 23rd, 2012
NPL – Auditorium
Two Little Monkeys
November 5th, 2012
NPL – Auditorium
**Event intended for parents, educators, and children’s lit enthusiasts.
November 13th, 2012
NPL – Auditorium
November 27th, 2012
NPL – Auditorium
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
December 13th, 2012
NPL - Auditorium
I just came back from Boston, and while I was in the airport I saw a large freestanding display outside the entrance to Hudson Booksellers, the airport bookstore chain. The sign said, If you liked Fifty Shades of Grey, try these titles, and there beneath the Shades of Grey trilogy was a veritable smorgasbord of soft core porn. My first thought was, Summer’s over now. Let it go.
After a long, hot season of trashy books and blow ‘em up movies, the first yellow school bus rumbles down the street, giving us the All Clear sign that it’s safe to be smart again. With that in mind, I’d like to recommend some books that will help you get into the swing of the season of intellectual stimulation:
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Had it not won those awards, I would have surely missed it because the story of the discovery of Lucretius’ poem, “On the Nature of Things” is not one I would have naturally gravitated towards, proving yet again that prizes serve a purpose. By the time I finished I was as glad to have found The Swerve as Poggio Bracciolini was to have found Lucretius’ manuscript. This book is especially good company for an election year because it puts our petty partisan arguments into a chilling historical perspective. Now that I’ve finished, I find myself walking around thinking -- atom and void, atom and void, atom and void. I urge you to give this one a try. It will expand your understanding of the human condition, and how many books can you say that about?
In celebration of Margaret Atwood’s upcoming visit to Nashville on October 27th (she will be the recipient of the Nashville Public Library’s Literary Award), Nashville has chosen her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale for its first city-wide read. It’s a great choice, but since I’ve already read The Handmaid’s Tale (and it made me a nervous wreck), I decided to celebrate in my own way and read Cat’s Eye instead. I pulled it out on a plane and the young woman sitting next to me said it was her favorite book. It’s a perfect book for fall if you’re ready to take on a novel that is more ambitious, more unsettling, and better written than what you might have picked up over the summer. The plot isn’t one that can be easily summed up, I don’t think any of Margaret Atwood’s novels can be easily summed up, so let me just say it is an experience of total immersion. Once you go into Atwood’s world there’s nothing to do but give yourself over to it. When I finished Cat’s Eye, I went straight on to her new collection of essays, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. I probably know less about science fiction than anyone around, but I was fascinated by what she had to say about utopias, dystopias, slipstreams and fantasy. She discusses stacks of books I should have read, The Island of Dr. Moreau, War of the Worlds, Gulliver’s Travels. What a wonderful project it would be to read all the books she considers in these essays; something to think about when I finally get caught up.
So often I read books months in advance of their publication, and I worry that by the time they’re actually in the store I will have forgotten about them. Not so with Kevin Powers first novel, The Yellow Birds. I read it in manuscript back in the early spring, gave it my whole-hearted endorsement, and have thought about it every day since. I’ve been waiting to buy up stacks of this book and give it to everyone I know. Powers joined the army at seventeen and did two tours in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 as a machine gunner. Then he came home, went to college, got an MFA, and wrote one of the great war novels of our time. It will stand next to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (and if you haven’t read that one yet, well, please do). The Yellow Birds is spare, direct, and strangely beautiful. It isn’t about trying to make sense of war or glamorize or damn war, it’s about trying to survive war. In this busy fall season of big books by blockbuster authors, I think this is the book to buy first.
There is a cluster of small tables and comfortable chairs near the entrance of Nordstrom at the mall in Green Hills, and time and again I’ve seen people sitting there reading books – real books with paper pages, the kind we sell at Parnassus. For me it is one of life’s great pleasures to see what other people are reading and to strike up a conversation about the book, much like the one the girl on the plane struck up with me when I pulled out my copy of Cat’s Eye. Last week when I limped out of the crush at the Apple store after having my computer repaired, I saw a woman reading Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. I read that book five years ago when it first came out and I had forgotten about it. It’s a terrific look at farm life and hard work in which there is very little information about people and lots of information about chores. I interrupted the woman who was reading it and thanked her for reminding me about it, then we had a pleasant conversation. This whole interaction would have been lost had she been reading on an e-reader. The truth is I want to know what people are reading, even if it’s none of my business. It’s how I collect my recommendations.
Which is why we have such smart, wonderful readers working at Parnassus, so you can come in and talk to us about books. We have some great new people who’ve joined our staff, Nathan Spoon and Sissy Gardner, who both used to work at Davis Kidd, and Lauren Araujo, who will be helping Niki Castle manage the overwhelming lineup of fabulous events coming this fall (be SURE to look at the calendar on our website. There’s a lot you won’t want to miss.) Visit us often. Look around, pick the books up, sit down and read a few pages, sniff them, discuss them -- these are all the earthly delights not offered by the internet. We’ll be happy to see you.
In case you were wondering, I’m having an especially good summer. My mother, Jeanne Ray (You know her novel, Calling Invisible Women, was published in May, and that it’s very funny, right? We’ve been over this already.) had a shoulder replacement a month ago and she is doing fantastically well, but I didn’t know that she would do so well and so I had cleared my calendar for the entire summer in order to be a good and helpful daughter. What this means is that I’ve been home for a for a long stretch for the first time in I don’t know when. Even when it was 109 degrees outside, I was happy. Here’s the basic formula:
staying home + everyone thinking I’m taking care of my mother + my mother being fine = writing
I may need to insist that my mother have her other shoulder replaced, even though it’s perfectly fine, just to keep this streak going. My mother says that we can just tell everyone she had the other shoulder replaced without her actually having to do it.
I am finishing a book of essays, which I know sounds about as exciting as saying that I’m finishing up a piece of crewel work. Essays are not big ticket items, unless you’re Nora Ephron or Barbara Kingsolver or the Woman in the Washington Zoo. Still, I’m having a great time. Now that I’m nearing the end, I’m thinking this would be a fine place to mention some of the books I’ve loved that people have written about their own lives. If you’re in the market for memoir this summer, here are some to consider:
Just Kids, by Patti Smith. Patti arrives in New York at the age of 21. She is broke, hungry, homeless, and determined to be an artist even if she doesn’t know exactly what that means. The first person she meets in the city is the 21 year old Robert Mapplethorpe, who quickly becomes her best friend and sometimes lover and truest soul mate. When I was young and dreamed of going to New York to be a writer, this was exactly what my vision looked like. I read this book when it was first published, not because I was a big fan of Patti Smith (my knowledge of her did not extend past “Because the Night”) or Robert Mapplethorpe (though I like his pictures of flowers), but because the reviews were such unanimous raves. Everyone I’ve given this book to has thanked me endlessly.
Act One, by Moss Hart. The first time I heard about Act One was on my favorite radio show, “This American Life”. A young woman named Alexa Junge found a copy of the book in her grandfather’s library and became obsessed with it. In fact, she pretty much fell in love with Moss Hart, who had at that point been dead for a very long time. The radio essay was so charming (listen to it in the “This American Life” Archives) that I decided to read the book myself. My only regret is that Alexa Junge beat me to it, because now I am in love with Moss Hart as well. Along with George S. Kaufman, he wrote and directed plays like “You Can’t Take It With You.” He also married Kitty Carlisle, who I once met when I was 17, but that’s another story. Not unlike the situation with Patti Smith, I didn’t love this book because I’m a devotee of American theater, I’m not particularly. But Moss Hart writes like no one else. The charm and wit and elegance he brings to the story of his own miserable upbringing makes you feel like you’ve gone to a fabulous dinner party and been seated next to the loveliest man in the world. The book was published in 1959 and Hart died in 1961. There will never be an Act Two.
There was a time when everyone I knew had read This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff. First published in 1989, it was later a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio (back when Leo was just a cute kid). It’s worth bringing up again because it is a terrific book, second only to one of my favorite books of all time, The Duke of Deception, that was written by Toby’s older brother, Geoffrey Wolff, in 1979. If you want to impress the socks off your book club someday, suggest that you read and discuss these two books together. Geoffrey and Toby’s parents divorced when the boys were young and the father got Geoffrey and the mother got Toby. They went on to have completely separate lives. Both became astonishing writers, and both wrote books about their childhoods, one with mom (and terrible stepfather) and one with dad (and various stepmothers.) In both cases, childhood was a fairly rotten time of life, but both books are full of compassion and comedy. It is a lesson in how good people can come out of bad circumstances.
Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat. I’m a huge fan of Danticat’s fiction, (especially The Dew Breaker) as I am a fan of the Wolff brothers fiction, but this is a book I never got over. When Dandicat was two, her father left Haiti for the U.S., and two years later her mother went as well, leaving her and her brother with their paternal uncle, a fabulous, gentle man who loved his niece and nephew as if they were his own. The Danticat children were reunited with their parents in the states when Edwidge was twelve, but by then she thought of herself as having two fathers, and she had to leave her uncle behind. This book helped me understand a little bit of the political situation in Haiti, but more than that, it gave me insight into what it means to be from two places at once. The things that happen to this family are fairly jaw-dropping, and Danticat is so smart in how she reports the facts without embellishment. A lesser writer would be milking every drop of emotion out of this story, but somehow, magically, Dandicat manages to step aside and watch as it all unfolds.
I’ve got about ten other books in mind but I want to cut myself off before the list becomes overwhelming. An old college friend emailed me a couple of days ago saying it was her turn to pick the book club book and what did I recommend? She said they were open to fiction, nonfiction, hardbacks, paperbacks, classics, and anything that was smart. I sent her such a long list of books in return that I imagine she probably just deleted it and asked someone else.
Before I close, I should say that even though I’m writing nonfiction these days, I’m still a fiction writer at heart, so I want to throw in one novel for good measure – Dave Eggers, A Hologram for a King, which was lovingly reviewed by Pico Iyer on the front page of last Sunday’s book review section in the New York Times. This is a book you want to buy in hardback because, just in terms of its physical self, it’s about the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen. It’s also very good. I read it a couple of weeks ago and I’ve continued to think about the main character, Alan Clay, ever since. He’s a man who is down on his luck and has gone to Saudi Arabia in hopes of recapturing the American dream of invention, or re-invention, and ingenuity. Like Brother, I’m Dying, it is wonderfully straight-forward in its style. You know how a sommelier will talk about a wine being drinkable? Well, these books are readable.
Even in these dog days of summer we’ve had a lot going on at the store: Chris Cleave (Gold, Little Bee) was in this week, and was perhaps the nicest guy I’ve ever met. Deborah Harkness was here with her number one New York Times bestseller, Shadow of Night (people drove down from Michigan to see her). Phil Bredesen, former governor and hero of Tennessee, came in to talk about some of his favorite books for Donna Nicely’s “Let’s Talk Books” series. We’ve had “Jazz By the Book” and story hour, and, as always, free York peppermint patties. In short, we’ve got it going on at Parnassus. We are always air conditioned, and we are always glad to see you.
I’ve got pretty much one message these days and it’s this: my mother, Jeanne Ray, has a new book out, Calling Invisible Women, in which the heroine, the slightly beleaguered fifty-something named Clover Hobart, takes a believable cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs (a little hormone replacement therapy, some calcium supplement, a pinch of anti-depressant) and is rendered invisible. You would think that would be bad enough, but the really troubling part is that no one in her family notices she’s missing. Clover then joins a support group of invisible women, none of whom have been missed. It’s a very funny book, and she’s my MOTHER, so I think it is essential that anyone reading this blog buy the book (we have signed copies. We’ll mail them to you.)
In fact, this is a great month to buy locally written books at your locally owned and operated independent bookstore. Alice Randall has a new novel out, Ada’s Rules: a Sexy, Skinny Novel, and she packed the house at Parnassus for her reading. The phone has been ringing off the hook with people wanting to know if we have Ann (Mason-Dixon Knitting) Shayne’s novel, Bowling Avenue, and the answer is yes, we do! It is reported to give the inside scoop on life in Nashville and I’m looking forward to it. We will also have Jennie Fields’ novel about Edith Wharton, The Age of Desire, which comes out in early August. Our Local Authors section is one of the most popular spots in the store. There once was a time here in Nashville that if I told someone I was a writer, they would ask me if I recorded my own songs. These days everybody knows that Nashville is a great place to write novels.
Not that I’ve been in Nashville much lately. I’ve been out on book tour for the paperback of State of Wonder for the past month, journeying forth into America to see bookstores and meet readers and sell books (every single night, in every single store, I pushed my mother’s book because I am a good daughter and because the book is FUNNY.) Even though I’ve been going on book tour for the last twenty years, this is the first time I’ve gone out as a bookseller. I had such a good time hanging out with the staff at various stores and talking shop - What are you reading? What are you loving? How have sales been? It used to be I was all about the front of the store where books are sold, now I’m much more interested in the back rooms where the books are received. I guess people who own restaurants are always going to be more interested in the kitchens.
While I traveled, I read. I read some truly fantastic books this past month and none of them are going to be published anytime soon (though remember the name Anthony Marra for future reference.) I’m going to wait and talk about those books when they can actually be purchased. One book I read and loved that actually is available is a novel a writer friend sent me called Lean on Pete, by Willy Vlautin. She said she thought it was a perfect book for Nashville, and even though it’s set in the West, I understood what she meant. It has a toughness and self-reliance about it that reminds me of Tennessee. It’s about a young boy who is very much on his own who finds comfort in a horse. I was reading it late at night and I became so frantically worried about this kid I had to stay up until 2:00 a.m. to see what was going to happen to him. That to me is the surest sign that a book is working - when I forget that I’m reading something that someone made up, when I get caught up in the narrative and believe in the lives of the characters.
One last thing - I memorized the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V this month. It was a great adventure. I hadn’t tried to memorize Shakespeare since high school and I definitely found the Shakespeare receiving part of my brain to be in great disrepair. But once I finally got it I felt incredibly proud of myself. Brain calisthenics! I told my friend Jim Fox about my project (he had just sent me Harold Bloom’s book, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, which he says is worth the effort, though I personally have not made the effort yet), and Jim told me he was memorizing lyrics from Reading Lyrics: More than a thousand of the Finest Lyrics from 1900 to 1975: A celebration of our greatest songwriters, a rediscovery of forgotten masters, and an appreciation of an extraordinary, popular art form, edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball. This, I think, is a brilliant idea, because anytime you know all the words to ”The Man That Got Away” or “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” life is going to be better. It also gives me a nice excuse to recommend it because this book is my social secret weapon. Bring it to a dinner party instead of a bottle of wine. Send it to a sick friend in lieu of flowers. Take it as a hostess gift when you go to stay with friends. I’ve given it so many times and everyone seems to be genuinely thrilled with it. Of course, Jim Fox was the person who first gave the book to me many years ago.
If your book club is interested in doing State of Wonder, please bring them to the store either on July 18th at 6:30 or July 19th at 10:00. I’ll be there to lead the discussion with our wonderful book club facilitator, Kathy Schultenover. And while you’re marking your calendar, be sure to note July 10th at 1:30 when the Honorable Phil Bredesen will discuss his favorite books with Donna Nicely. I plan to come early to get a good seat.
When making a list of all the things we can’t get on Amazon, let’s put an afternoon with our former governor, surely the smartest man in the state, at the top. I look forward to seeing you in the store.