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.
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Published: Vintage, 3/2013
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Published: Vintage, 4/2013
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Published: Broadway Books, 5/1999