After my last book report in which I recommended a ridiculous number of books, I had a great idea – I would post a book report in which I only recommended one book. Wouldn’t that have been genius? I was going to recommend The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. I’d read the electrifying rave review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review and I jumped in my car and drove right to Parnassus to buy a copy (which is why it’s good to have a local bookstore, because sometimes overnight is not soon enough). Even though there were no fewer than thirty books stacked up on my dresser that needed to be read immediately, I sat down and started reading this book. And I loved it. I read it as I walked from room to room, read it as I ate my oatmeal in the morning. I’m someone who can put pretty much any book down no matter how compelling it is, but not this one. There was something about the narrator’s voice that felt completely new to me. It shook me up.
If I were to describe certain kinds of books I don’t much care for, historical fiction and those driven by first person child narrators would be at the top of the list. But here I was, glued to a book about the famed abolitionist John Brown as told by a runaway (or forcibly liberated) child slave. It’s all about the writing. This book introduces big ideas about how much responsibility we have for our own salvation. It kept me thinking, and it kept me stirred up, for a long time.
Yes, it would have been something had I managed to just recommend that one book.
But there are other factors at work here: my own book comes out on November 4th and my life is getting busy. If I wind up not having time to write another book report before I ship out on tour, then there are several books I need to get in now. Also, it’s October, the month of The Big Book in the publishing world, so things I read awhile ago in manuscript and galley are finally coming out, or will come out soon, and now is the time to talk about those books, especially because so many of the authors are coming to town. We’ve got some once-in-a-lifetime events here. Don’t miss them.
I’ll start with one that just came out, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. If you’ve got Liz (I call her Liz, we’re friends) in a box marked Eat, Pray, Love, it’s time to let her out. She’s a great writer whose fiction is as appealing as her nonfiction. This novel is the story of Alma Whittaker who is born to the richest man in Philadelphia at the start of the 19th century. Here I go liking another historical novel, but this one breaks all previously held concepts of the heroine apart. Alma is smart rather than beautiful, bold instead of retiring, and a true scientist instead of a woman forced to sit around in hopes that someone will ask her to dance. Instead, Liz creates a prickly, fascinating woman that other 19th century heroines could have looked up to. Alma’s field of interest is moss, and if you think you have no interest in moss, trust me, by the end of this book you’ll be in love with the stuff. Liz does such a deft job with her extensive research, she makes a small life with a narrow field of interest into something riveting and expansive. She also pulls off an impossible trick I would love to do myself someday – a birth to death novel. Alma lives a long life and we see her through all of it. Everything about this book is a real achievement.
Elizabeth Gilbert will be part of our Salon@615 series, brought to you in partnership with Humanities Tennessee and the Nashville Public Library & Foundation. The event is November 1st. Check the Parnassus website for details about getting free tickets.
Donna Tartt’s long-awaited third novel, The Goldfinch, comes out on October 22nd, and while I wouldn’t normally be writing about books that you can’t buy this afternoon, the aforementioned circumstances of my own life mean you’re going to have to cut me some slack here. Donna once told me that the reason it takes her so long to write a book is that her books were basically the equivalent of three regular books. Where has she been for the last twelve years? She’s been home, writing this great big complicated novel, and when you read it it will seem perfectly understandable that it took such a long time. I don’t want to tell you about the plot because it hasn’t been published yet and I took so much pleasure in reading it without knowing what was going to happen. Some stories can’t be ruined by a few details. I can tell you Liz’s book is about a woman who devotes her life to moss and nothing will be lost. The Goldfinch has a lot less science and a lot more suspense, and so the story line is best left alone. I will say that every single sentence is constructed with the same level of care that went into the Golden Gate Bridge. In short, she has given this one her all. I imagine it will be an enormous hit. She’ll be with us on October 22nd, her pub day!, again, at the Salon@615series. Look back one paragraph for details.
And speaking of writers coming on pub day, Pat Conroy will be here for his pub day on October 29th with the nonfiction book, The Death of Santini. There are no spoiler alerts here either. It’s the follow-up to his 1976 novel, The Great Santini. Let’s get this straight — the sequel to a work of fiction is a work of nonfiction and both books have the word ‘Santini’ in the title. This is the story: Conroy has written many semi-autobiographical novels about the violence and insanity that rocked his family of origin. Now he has decided once and for all just to tell the truth about what happened and put it to rest. The truth, is turns out, is far more compelling than any fiction. The Death of Santini is my favorite of his books. It is a dark and at times horrifying account of life that somehow managed to make me laugh out loud about every three pages. Conroy does not pull any punches, and more than once I wondered if he would be going into the witness protection program once this book comes out. Maybe he is, but he’s coming to Nashville first. I’ll be interviewing him on stage and I know there’s going to be plenty to talk about. This is also a Salon@615 event, but as we expect most of Nashville to turn out, we’re going to hold it at the auditorium at Hume Fogg. Thanks, Hume Fogg!
Don’t forget Humanities Tennessee’s Southern Festival of Books is October 11th through the 13th. Check out the schedule online – you’ll be amazed at the authors who are coming. I’m looking forward to seeing Andrew Solomon, whose book Far From the Tree is one I was praising in this very book report last year. I’m also introducing three of my favorite authors at the festival – James McBride for The Good Lord Bird (I suspect this book is going to be a big prize winner this year and you will feel very self-congratulatory to have a signed copy in advance of the award ceremonies), Karen Joy Fowler, whose book We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I have been pushing on people relentlessly because I love it so much, and my most beloved former teacher Allan Gurganus, who has just published a gorgeous collection of novellas, Local Souls. Allan’s voice is like none other. Not only is he one of our finest writers, he’s the best reader I’ve ever heard, bar none. If you only come to one event, come and hear Allan.
I can love a book passionately, recommend it to everyone, and then forget about it. It’s called getting older and reading too many books. When I suddenly remember the book again I’m thrilled. It’s my own lost-lamb-returns-to-fold moment. This happened not too long ago with Jill Ciment’s Heroic Measures. People are often asking for a great book about a dog and this is the best dog novel I know. Because it features a dachshund, I gave a copy to our Events and Marketing Director and my dear friend Niki Castle, whose little dachshund Lexington has been a fixture at Parnassus ever since we opened. But before Niki could read the book, dearest Lex ate a bad bone and died. It’s safe to say the people at Parnassus have been as devoted to Lex as we are to books. We miss her bright spirit terribly.
So come and see us, pick up one of Lex’s postcards in memoriam, pet Sissy’s dog Bear or my dog Sparky, who are trying their best to fill Lex’s very petite shoes. It is a fall full of thrilling books. There are so many things I still have to read. Drop by and let us know what you’re reading, too.
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The Goldfinch (Hardcover)
Availability: Special Order – Subject to Availability
Published: Little, Brown and Company, 10/2013
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Nan A. Talese, 10/2013
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Scribner, 10/2013