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.