Notes from Ann: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

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Well, I said in my last post that I wanted to read J. K. Rowling’s The Silkworm and I’m here to report that I did it. The book was an unlikely pick for me, but since The Silkworm is Hachette’s big title and Amazon is taking two to four weeks to ship the book as a way of punishing Hachette, I felt that reading it with an eye to recommending it at the store was the least I could do. I never read detective novels. I read Raymond Chandler and I love Raymond Chandler (if you haven’t read him, I would suggest The Long Goodbye) but classifying Chandler as detective fiction is like putting a Faberge egg in a carton with the kind that chickens make. It’s not the same thing.

Which is not to say The Silkworm is a chicken’s egg. It’s good, and if you read a lot of detective novels it might be very good. The book is long and the pages fly by. The hero is sympathetic, the sidekick plucky, and the grisly stuff is kept to a minimum. I have a low threshold for anything grisly, so I appreciate that. If you’re looking for a book that will suck you in and take over your life for a few days then this one fits the bill. Still, when I finished I felt a little like I’d eaten a Costco-sized bag of nacho cheese Doritos. I didn’t exactly feel proud of myself. Is this just the way I person feels having binge-read a giant detective novel? I don’t know. To me, the interesting thing is how much reading a novel that I liked made me think about novels that I loved — The Long Goodbye, for example.

Or J.K. Rowling’s much maligned masterpiece, The Casual Vacancy.  Now there was a book that I loved. It is so complicated and honest and unexpected. Nothing gets wrapped up neatly. There is no hero. Cruelty and humor abound. It makes me respect J. K. Rowling all the more knowing that she can put together a symphony or a crazy pop tune that will get stuck in your head. She’s a very, very smart writer.

But the book I really longed for while I was reading The Silkworm was John Le Carre’s The Perfect Spy. I feel sure I’ve said this before but it’s one of my top ten favorite books of all time. (Beware: The first 50 pages are impossibly confusing — push on.) I also thought a lot about Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, which is very nearly as perfect. In the end, the real gift The Silkworm gave was to remind me that I need to read more Le Carre.

I pushed on from one blockbuster bestselling author to another and read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I think people have been telling me to read this book since it was first published in 2001. I figured at this point in my life I didn’t need to read any more books about writing, but I was wrong. This one was both thoroughly entertaining and of great benefit. I loved reading about all the little pieces of King’s life that went together to make him the writer he is. You don’t need any plans to join the profession yourself in order to enjoy this one; it’s just a great book. Oddly, the parts that made me the happiest were the few pieces of writing advice I disagreed with. They just served to remind me that we all come at it from a different place.

While I have great respect for Stephen King, I don’t read his novels because the few I read when I was young scared me to death. A low threshold for grisly goes hand in hand with a low threshold for scary. I was thinking about that when I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a book that scared me half to death. Sitting on my front porch reading the last 75 pages, all I could think about was how much I wanted a cigarette, only to remember that I stopped smoking 20 years ago. Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel, and as long as we’re talking about things I don’t read, we should add post-apocalyptic to the list. But Station Eleven is so compelling, so fearlessly imagined, that I wouldn’t have put it down for anything. The real question is why I picked it up in the first place. It was because of the Parnassus First Editions Club. At the store we all take turns reading books that aren’t out yet in hopes of finding the one that will be perfect for our club members. We put a lot of thought, reading time, and discussion into these picks. Station Eleven will be published in September and it will be our September book for the First Editions Club. I think this one is really going to go places.

I originally heard about Station Eleven from Donna Tartt. Donna has very high standards and when she recommends a book chances are I’m going to love it. The next book she told me to read was Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End. Nancy Pearl had recently recommended it to her, which means it had the double endorsement of two of my friends and favorite readers. I remember the book getting a lot of praise when it came out in 2008, and I bought a copy but never read it. Lucky for me good books don’t go stale. And Then We Came to the End is very much in the David Foster Wallace school of fiction, but it’s more accessible than a lot of Wallace’s work. It’s fast and very funny and smart and just when I thought it might only be clever, it wound up being a lot more than clever. I also admired it because it takes place entirely in an office setting. It may well be the great cubicle novel for the ages.

patchett and de niro, at it againI was in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on July 12 to do a fundraiser for the Fine Arts Work Center. The Work Center houses 10 writers and 10 visual artists for seven months (in the winter) every year so they can work. I wrote my first novel The Patron Saint of Liars there, and so it is a place I both love and am greatly indebted to. The other guest of honor at the party was Robert De Niro Jr., whose father, Robert De Niro Sr., was a painter who had worked in Provincetown. The actor is as lovely a fellow as you’d ever want to meet. There were plenty of dazzling writers there as well — Michael Cunningham (The Hours, The Snow Queen) and Tony Kushner (Angels in America and the screenplay for Lincoln) and Mark Harris (Pictures at a Revolution and the brand-new Five Came Back). While it was great to meet Robert De Niro, and I’m crazy about Michael Cunningham and Tony Kushner, the best part of the evening was seeing the wonderful Mark Harris because it reminded me that I’d been meaning to read his book Pictures at a Revolution. And so I did. It was smart, engrossing, long, and in no way made me feel like I’d eaten a bag of Doritos. It’s the story of the five nominees for Best Picture in 1967: Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Dr. Doolittle, how the films were made and how they changed the film industry in this country. I am a modest cinephile at best but I can’t imagine who wouldn’t love this book. It’s a complete joy.

When I sat down to write this book report, I started out by trying to say something about John Seigenthaler — what he meant to this country, to this city, and to me, but I couldn’t do it. I decided to wait and put my tribute at the end instead. But here at the end I’m no closer to finding the words for how deeply I feel his loss. Let me just say this: John was a true friend. He first invited me on his show A Word on Words when I was 28 years old. He let me stand in the bright light of his intelligence and good will. He was my great champion — and a great champion of Parnassus Books — when he wasn’t busy being the great champion of liberty and justice and equality. He also never once failed to make me laugh. Like everyone else who knew him, I loved him, and I will miss him greatly.

If you haven’t started your summer reading, there’s still time. These are the Dog Days, and if you need any proof of that, just come to Parnassus. Sparky is marrying his girlfriend Maggie in the store on August 2. They love each other, but really the whole thing is a stunt to raise money and gather needed items for the Nashville Humane Association from whence Sparky was sprung two years ago. (Maggie came from a fashionable shelter in Palm Springs.) So come by and watch two good dogs vow to stay together for a couple of minutes on a Saturday afternoon. Love is grand.

 

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You can find details of Sparky and Maggie’s woof-istry on their wedding invitation. (Note: Although we normally welcome four-legged visitors, we do request that you leave pets at home for this event.)

 

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In praise of good books: 

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A Perfect Spy (Paperback)

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The Hours (Paperback)

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