I know a bad book when I see one. I can usually tell in a matter of sentences, certainly in a matter of paragraphs, when I’m not going to like something. What’s even more frustrating than the bad books are the books that are just okay, the books that seem fine but never really amount to anything. Those are the books I read all the way to the end thinking that they’re going to get better, and when they don’t get better I feel frustrated that I wasted my time. There are so many good books to read, after all. I don’t need to read bad ones.
But I try not to talk about books I don’t like unless I’m with a friend and the door is closed. That’s because I’m often wrong. Books I can’t stand go on to do quite well in the world. When the hue and cry went up over the fact that there was no Pulitzer awarded in fiction this year (a hue and cry I was partially responsible for), many writers and critics and bookstores put forth their own lists of books they thought should have been nominated. Two books that were mentioned frequently were novels I hadn’t liked. Maybe I read them on a bad day, in a bad mood. I had a tooth abscess recently (dreadful) and I hated every single book I tried to read while I was sick. One must take extenuating circumstances into account.
The book I’m reading is also influenced by whatever book I just finished. Is this one as good as the last? I have to say that since reaching the end of The Patrick Melrose Novels of Edward St. Aubyn I’ve been a bit adrift in my reading. Nothing has seemed right, everything has been a little disappointing, just because I wish I were still reading St. Aubyn. After several failed attempts to connect with different books, I finally picked up The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje, and I found it beautiful and soothing. When I praised this book to friends, some people said it was boring. I disagree. From what I understand, the book is very autobiographical, and tells the story of a young boy’s journey alone on a ship from Sri Lanka to England. Nothing horrible happens to the boy, and the writing is transporting. I was all for it.
Sometimes I get hooked on a book that is just not my kind of book. Such was the case with A.J. Jacob’s Drop Dead Healthy. I met him once a couple of years ago at a benefit for literacy in New York and I thought he was the funniest, most delightful guy in the world. Being something of a health nut myself, I found his quest for perfect health weirdly addictive. The book is silly, and I have a low threshold for silly (though I have an unbelievably high threshold for boring), and yet I kept going back until I was finished. I couldn’t figure out why I was reading it but I couldn’t stop reading it either. By the end I was surprised by how much I’d liked it. I would recommend this one for the health nuts, or for the people who wish they were healthier.
There are two books coming out the first of May that I want to strongly recommend. I read both of them months ago and gave blurbs for the jackets. The first is Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds. I picked up an advanced reading copy in the backroom of Parnassus because I had read and liked her first book, a collection of short stories called Lucky Girls, and because I thought it had one of the most compelling covers I’d seen in a long time: a drawing of two little birds facing each other. Ever wonder if we judge books by their covers? Well, we do. Two birds? Newlyweds? That intrigued me. The story is about an American man and a Bangladeshi woman who meet through an on-line dating site and decide to marry. The cultural divide they both have to cross is overwhelming, and while it may not seem immediately applicable to everyone’s circumstances, the story makes a sly comment on the nature of marriage. I liked this book so much I called the editor and asked if I could write a blurb for it. This was a first for me. The editor said yes. Three weeks later I got a nice thank you note from Nell (who I’ve never met) saying she was sorry she hadn’t written sooner but that she had been busy having a baby the day my blurb came in, and that her husband had read it to her in the hospital while she was in labor. I would say she has astonishingly good manners to even remember.
The other book I love that’s just come out is Sadie Jones’, The Uninvited Guests. I told my publicist months ago that I was taking a break from writing blurbs (people send me books constantly and sometimes it gets overwhelming), and she said it was fine to stop but not until I’d read The Uninvited Guests. What a great directive that turned out to be. I wound up begging more copies of the galley to send to friends. It was the kind of book I wanted people to read immediately. I’m so glad it’s out now so I can buy it for everyone. At first the book seemed like an entertaining pastiche: a dash of Jane Austen, a little Turn of the Screw, some Downton Abbey, but the farther I read the more I realized it was something wholly original. There were plot twists that caught me completely off guard, and by the end I found the story to be both moving and thrilling. We’ve picked it for our Parnassus First Editions Club even though the closest Sadie Jones (who is English) is getting to Nashville is Toronto. We’re having our copies of her book shipped to Toronto so she can sign them and then having them shipped back to us. That’s how much I loved it. (But in this case, I don’t think the jacket does the book justice.)
With all that’s been going on lately, I sort of forgot that my paperback tour for State of Wonder starts in a little less than a week. I’ve been busy and so I pushed this fact to the back burner for as long as was humanly possible. But now that tour is almost here, I’ve been thinking about what book I want to read while I’m on the road. I want one book that will last me the entire month so it has to be huge. I also want an engrossing plot so that when I’m sitting in an airport with a blaring television set (why? Why did anyone think that a television set in a waiting area was a good idea?) I’ll be able to block out my surroundings. In short, I wanted Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but I’ve already read that. I’ve decided to give Bleak House a try. Sometimes I get tired of being current and long for the comfort of Dickens and James and Austen, though that said, I read Mansfield Park last month and I couldn’t stand it. There, now THAT’S a book I’m willing to speak out against: I did not like Mansfield Park.
And speaking of standing up for what we like and don’t like, I got a great suggestion from Julie in Palm Desert, California, who said her book club was planning to read the three Pulitzer finalists: Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace, and Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and then make their own decision about who they think should have won. She asked me to encourage other book clubs to follow suit, and I think it’s a great idea, so please consider yourself encouraged.
To wrap this up with a note of glamour, I’ve just come back from New York where I attended the TIME 100 gala. It is strange, bordering on unbelievable, but I was named one of the most influential people in the world, and not because I write books. I made the list because I opened a bookstore. So the next time someone tells you bookstores are dead or books are dead, just remember that the co-owner of your local independent bookstore got to go to an unspeakably fancy party with Hillary Clinton and Jeremy Lin and Rihanna and Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Dolan and 94 other influential people (not to mention all the influential people who won in the past and came back because the party is just that good) all because I believe that people have the right to browse and that shopping local matters. Bookstores are influential. Books are influential. We are holding up a torch here in Nashville, showing other people this can be done. And that’s thanks to all of you who are coming in and making this business work. We look forward to seeing you again soon at Parnassus.