Notes from Ann: Cheering Up

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Photo via Unsplash / by Dominik Martin

I recently gave a talk at an OB/GYN conference as a favor to a good friend. That in itself strikes me as a funny sentence, especially because people are always telling me that I have a very exciting life and I keep telling them I don’t. Anyway, I had been asked to recommend some books, and so I pulled up my own blog to see what I had been reading for the past year. What I found is that I’ve been an incredible downer — anxious before book tour, sick during book tour, asleep after book tour. After that there was death and illness in my family, and I went into an understandable slump. I managed to bring all of my sadness to my reading, and then I brought all my reading to these book reports.

Sad nonfiction has been my particular specialty, and frankly, I stand by all that sad nonfiction. Everyone I’ve talked to who read Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index has found it to be an amazing book. We just can’t keep it in the store. And I should also mention Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, which will go a long way toward making you appreciate your life and all the people you love. In fact, when I went to speak to the gynecologists and obstetricians, I was reading yet another devastating piece of nonfiction, Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, which is about Memorial Hospital in New Orleans and what happened there after Hurricane Katrina. That book reads more like a thriller than my regular meditations on loss. I highly recommend it for anyone who has any connection to the medical profession or the city of New Orleans. Still, given the subject matter, it certainly qualifies as sad.

Of course, sad books should not be avoided. There would be very little left of great literature if we swore off the sad. But when I was standing up on stage giving my reading list to the doctors, it became very clear to me that it was time to pull up.

Thunderstruck & Other Stories, by Elizabeth McCracken, is a book that is very much like life, which is to say sad and also really funny, and so it was for me the perfect bridge back. It’s also just a perfect book. A collection of short stories, it’s Elizabeth’s first book of fiction since she published Niagara Falls All Over Again in 2001. I’ve been waiting a long time for this one, a lot of people have. I suppose every writer is unique in one way or another, but not in the way Elizabeth is unique. There simply is no one like Elizabeth, or even sort of like her. No one with her depth and darkness and light and huge, forgiving heart. There’s no one who can make me laugh out loud when something is impossibly sad. There’s just no one who writes so beautifully. We’ve been friends for a long time and our writing lives have been deeply intertwined, but I don’t want you to think this is just me going on about my friend’s book. Read the review in the June 8 issue of The New York Times Book Review. Read any of the reviews of this book. I’m clearly not the only one who thinks my friend is brilliant. Here at Parnassus, we’ve picked Thunderstruck for our First Editions Club in June. Elizabeth and I will be in the store together talking about writing and friendship and these stories tomorrow, June 3.

straight manSo, having read many, many books that were sad, and one book that was funny and sad, I was ready to try for something that was just funny. I remembered Elizabeth telling me to read Straight Man by Richard Russo. I think she told me about it when it came out in 1998 and I’ve always meant to read it because the cover has always struck me as funny. (The cover is red with a picture of a goose on it. A really great cover.) Does anyone else have books on their list that they’ve been meaning to read since 1998? I was out in California at the time and I bought a copy of Straight Man even though I already had one at home, because I needed something funny right away. The book is set in a tiny town in the rust-belt of Pennsylvania, in a lower-mid-level college, in a petty, bitter English department. The jacket copy said something about hilarity and heartbreak, but it was pretty much all hilarity as far as I was concerned. I had once taught literature in just such a department in just such a town in Pennsylvania, and I had enough distance on the experience to realize I could laugh about it now because I didn’t live there anymore. If you get a copy of Five Days at Memorial for anyone in any sort of medical profession (all ethical dilemmas writ large), then get a copy of Straight Man for all the academics in your life. They will be rolling around on the floor.

After Straight Man I did a bit of backsliding and read Richard Russo’s memoir Elsewhere just because I was on a Richard Russo roll. That was a heart-wrencher of the highest order. It is funny only insofar as Russo is just an innately funny writer. He knows when to give the reader a laugh as an act of emotional kindness. Elsewhere is the story of his life spent with his extraordinarily needy and crazy mother. It’s a short book and I got the feeling Russo was probably protecting both his mother and the reader from the worst of it, but I found it very moving. When I turned the last page I called my mother and asked her if she wanted to take the dogs to the park so I could tell her in person how wonderful I think she is.

So what are some other really funny books? Anything with the name David Sedaris on the cover is a pretty safe bet. There’s no better gift than a David Sedaris audio book (he reads them all himself), unless you have young children in the car. Taking a random sampling at the bookstore, I would say that a lot of people are still laughing over Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I asked Sissy what her favorite funny book was and she pulled a copy of T-Rex Trying by Hugh Murphy off the shelf and started laughing so hard just standing there holding it that she had tears in her eyes. I would agree with that assessment.

The favorite funny book of my youth was Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. It was a book I found so hysterical that I can’t bear to read it again for fear it might not be as funny as I remember it. Thanks to that book I had three goldfish in my college dorm roomed named Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless. They struck me as very, very funny.

I still think Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford is funny. Maybe I just think English manor houses are funny. Although Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth is pretty much the gold standard for funny books of a certain age and it takes place nowhere near an English manor house. Remember that little college in Pennsylvania where I used to teach? I got in big, big trouble there for recommending Portnoy to a student who told me he wanted to write things that were funny. In retrospect, I would have been grateful if they’d fired me.

All of this is to say that things are getting better. Part of the reason, a large part, has to do with the fact that I’ve finally started writing a novel of my own which I hope will follow in the great tradition of Elizabeth McCracken and be funny and sad all at the same time. Because of the novel writing, I hereby officially announce that I’m going to be spotty on filing these book reports for awhile. I don’t feel bad about this at all. Since the brilliant Mary Laura Philpott came into our lives at Parnassus and created Musing, this site has become a veritable feast. People I know email me all the time and tell me it’s better than any magazine out there. So I feel confident ducking out for a while, knowing that you’re in excellent hands.

In the meantime, please come and visit us at the store. The dogs need a lot of attention. A veterinary student came in this week and gave Sparky an impromptu physical exam while playing with him on the floor. She pronounced him healthy and gave him a treat. We would appreciate you sharing your expertise with us.

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Some happy, some sad, some both…

Wave (Paperback)

$15.00
ISBN-13: 9780345804310
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage, 12/2013

$27.00
ISBN-13: 9780307718969
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Crown, 8/2013

straight man

Straight Man (Paperback)

$15.95
ISBN-13: 9780375701900
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage, 6/1998

Elsewhere (Paperback)

$15.00
ISBN-13: 9780307949769
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage, 8/2013

$15.00
ISBN-13: 9780385336482
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Dial Press Trade Paperback, 8/2005

$26.00
ISBN-13: 9780385335775
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: The Dial Press, 4/2014

$14.99
ISBN-13: 9780316204262
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 4/2013

$16.00
ISBN-13: 9780316776967
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Back Bay Books, 6/2001

$17.00
ISBN-13: 9780316154703
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 6/2014

$16.00
ISBN-13: 9780316154680
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Back Bay Books, 6/2009

$16.00
ISBN-13: 9780316010795
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 5/2005

$13.99
ISBN-13: 9780316038409
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 10/2011

Naked (Paperback)

$16.00
ISBN-13: 9780316777735
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 6/1998

T-Rex Trying (Hardcover)

$13.00
ISBN-13: 9780452299023
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Plume, 3/2013

ccf

A Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition with French flaps, rough front, and luxurious packaging
$16.00
ISBN-13: 9780143039594
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Penguin Classics

$14.95
ISBN-13: 9780307740823
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage, 8/2010

$15.00
ISBN-13: 9780679756453
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Vintage, 9/1994

ISBN-13: 9780156033800
Availability: Special Order – Subject to Availability – THIS BOOK IS CURRENTLY OUT OF STOCK AT THE PUBLISHER – WE WILL STOCK IT AS SOON AS IT BECOMES AVAILABLE
Published: Mariner Books, 6/2009