Notes From Ann: Frogs

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Whenever I’m writing a novel I think a lot about Georges Seurat, specifically about his masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which I saw once at the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s an enormous painting, 81.7 inches by 121.25 inches, comprising tiny colored dots. It seems impossible to me that he could have visualized the whole while crouched in a corner or standing on a ladder putting in another fleck of blue. It’s hard enough to take it all in as the viewer because what the painting means at a distance and what it means up close aren’t at all the same. This is true for Chuck Close’s portraits as well. I always puzzle over them long and hard when given the chance. In a giant canvas, days must be spent pouring over a space as big as the artist’s palm. How does the brain balance the part it can actually see with the greater whole it imagines? I have no idea, but there’s real comfort in the knowledge that it’s happened in the past and so hopefully it will happen again in the future.

If you wonder how my novel’s going, and there’s no reason you should, it’s going like that. I’m too close to really understand the little sections I’m putting together with dots, but I’m hopeful. I have a vague understanding of how the moments will eventually become a whole. All I can really do is just keep stringing letters together — tiny, tiny little letters.

I’m smarter when I’m writing a novel than I am when I’m not, and my sense of timing is quicker so I’m better at telling jokes. On the other hand, I’m not as patient. I get bored easily. I’m not as nice. And I am much, much more likely to stop reading a book because I don’t like it. I recently stopped reading a book with only 20 pages left to go because I realized I didn’t care what happened in the end. On the other hand, the books that I love when I’m writing I love like an all-consuming house fire. I’m dazzled by how the writer solved the problems, made the structure, moved me to tears. I think, Look what he’s done! I want to do that! A great book can be my incentive to go on.

timebeingI didn’t read Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being for the longest time. I don’t know Ruth, but we have a lot of friends in common, so I think of her as someone who would be a friend if the opportunity ever presented itself. To be honest, I judged the book by its cover. There was something too cute about the cover, and since I knew it involved the found diary of a teenage girl I figured the book itself must be cute. It got wonderful reviews, won prizes, and I still didn’t read it. Then someone told me it was a great Buddhist novel, and I thought, OK, I’d really like to read a great Buddhist novel. That was what it took to get me to open it up. I place a high value on a book that’s doing something different, and Ozeki is really stretching here; she’s asking the reader to stretch. A Tale for the Time Being is about Buddhism, nihilism, the second World War, bullying, physics, marriage, depression, and expectations — it is constantly pushing past the reader’s expectations, by turns much rougher and much kinder than I thought it was going to be. I was thoroughly engrossed. I recommended it to my husband’s physicist cousin and his brilliant wife and they both thought it was terrific. I would highly recommend this one to book clubs because there would be so much to discuss.

October is The Big Month in publishing so a lot of what I’ve been reading (and throwing away) are books that will be out in a couple of weeks. I read Rick Bragg’s new biography, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, and loved every amphetamine-laced, whiskey-soaked, gun-shot page of it. I think this is going to be a big book for the holidays because, well, wouldn’t you want to give everyone on your list a book about booze and pills and violence that came with a great soundtrack and five wives? This thing moves. It rocks. And while every review to come will no doubt mention that there has never been a more perfect union of writer and subject, I’m glad to be able to say it here first — Bragg and Lewis are a match made in heaven. I didn’t believe half of what I read and I didn’t care at all because the writing was so good and the subject so enormous. But since you still have a month to go before this one comes out, I suggest you use your time wisely and read (or re-read) Peter Guralink’s impeccable Last Train to Memphis: the Rise of Elvis Presley. The two books represent two entirely different means of coming at a rock and roll legend, but together they create a perfect balance.

Before Karen and I opened Parnassus, I read a lot of Henry James. Now, thanks in large part to the First Editions Club and the fact that we’re always reading like mad trying to find the best book to pick every month, I am reading all over the place. I am especially grateful to the First Editions Club for bringing me to the best book I’ve read all year. I know 2014 still has three months left to go, but I don’t expect to find anything I liked better than Héctor Tobar’s Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free. It is a masterpiece of compassion. I read it on vacation and I kept pacing around wishing that there was someone I could talk to about this book. I seriously considered trying to track down Héctor Tobar, whom I don’t know, just to tell him how extraordinary I thought it was. (Does Héctor Tobar need to hear this from me? No, no he does not.) You know the story – 33 men were buried in a spectacular mine collapse, stayed underground for two months, and then were rescued, all of them unharmed. But how do you write that book? We know what happens in the end and not much happens in the interim, and yet somehow Tobar makes the story riveting. He puts us down there with those men. He examines all the big questions: the value of life, faith, hope, despair, and resurrection. This is a quieter, deeper book than Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, but it is a more than worthy predecessor. It happens a lot in the bookstore, someone comes in and says, “My dad loved Unbroken. What should I get him next?” As of October 7, the answer is going to be Deep Down Dark.

Packing the right books for vacation is not dissimilar to packing clothes. Formal books? Casual books? You need the right weight for the occasion, the right mood. The other book I threw in my bag was David Shafer’s first novel, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. I bought it back in early August based on the first sentence of Dwight Garner’s review in The New York Times: “Is it too late to nominate a candidate for novel of the summer?” Like Joshua Ferris, David Shafer seems to have studied hard at the David Foster Wallace School for Fiction. This book was tremendously clever and smart and fast, and it did a really good job filling up my afternoons. If you have experienced paranoia about the Internet and Edward Snowden and a world in which all your information is gathered and stored, you really will have vertiginous fun with this one. There was a scene with a micro-chipped dog and a cell phone that gave me the shivers. The book didn’t have a lot heart — it was more like taking a ride on very fast roller coaster with a very smart guy — but that can be fun. As for the title, I figured it must have something to do with the tail letters on an airplane. It was my husband who told me I was reading a book called WTF. (Did I say I’m smarter when I’m writing a novel? Maybe I’m a little slow on the uptake.)

No one likes to over-pack for vacation, but at the same time no one likes to run out of clothes either. With a day and a half of our trip left to go, I ran out of books, so Karl and I went to Books & Books in Miami. Books & Books is a very sexy bookstore. The majority of the floor is given over to giant art book displays, hulking coffee table books on fashion and design. There’s a room with nothing but travel guides, and the spines are so bright it looks like a couple thousand tropical birds lined up on the shelves wing to wing. The fiction room seemed small and quiet by comparison, but I started at the A’s and went to work. What did I want to read? I crouched at the bottom shelf and then got up on a stool to look at the top shelf. I went up and down, shelf to shelf, knowing I could read anything I wanted to. There were 50 books waiting for my attention at home but in Miami I was free. I saw plenty of books I’ve been meaning to read forever, but the one I picked was Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? 

Is there anything better than finding the perfect book? This one was a Swiss watch, a city cut out of white paper and lit with candles, a heartbreak. A scant 150 pages, it was whip-smart and funny and clever while at the same time being soulful and wise. It turns out those things aren’t mutually exclusive after all. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? brought to mind other explorations of young female friendship, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, books that are different and also excellent, just in case you feel like going on a reading spree with a specific subject.

I was very excited to see my pal Elizabeth McCracken on the long list for the National Book Award for her terrific book Thunderstruck & Other Stories. Just to show what good taste we’ve got, I’ll tell you that we picked Thunderstruck for the First Editions Club, along with three other honored books on that list: Philip Klay’s Redeployment, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (trust me, it’s coming). A fifth nominated author, John Darnielle, was recently at the store with his novel Wolf in White Van, and the event was packed. The book just landed on the bestseller list, and we’re certainly doing our part to keep it there. John Darnielle is the lead singer and lyricist for the group The Mountain Goats. I don’t know how many successful crossovers there have been from lyrics to novels but now I can say I am a big fan of Darnielle’s on both fronts. His book is, however, just as devastating as his songs.

So now I’m back to my reading, back to my writing, trying to figure out how all the tiny dots in the world connect to make something bigger. It’s what we’re all about at Parnassus, making connections, coming together. Please come by and visit. The dogs need more love than we can possibly give them.

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 Connect the dots: 

$16.00
ISBN-13: 9780143124870
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Penguin Books, 12/2013

$27.99
ISBN-13: 9780062078223
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Harper, 10/2014

$18.00
ISBN-13: 9780316332255
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 9/1995

$26.00
ISBN-13: 9780374280604
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 10/2014

$26.00
ISBN-13: 9780316252638
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Mulholland Books, 8/2014

$14.95
ISBN-13: 9781400033829
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage, 3/2004

Cat’s Eye (Paperback)

$15.95
ISBN-13: 9780385491020
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Anchor, 1/1998

In Zanesville (Paperback)

$14.99
ISBN-13: 9780316125277
Availability: Special Order – Subject to Availability
Published: Back Bay Books, 4/2012

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

Redeployment (Hardcover)

$26.95
ISBN-13: 9781594204999
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Penguin Press HC, The, 3/2014

$24.95
ISBN-13: 9780385353304
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Knopf, 9/2014

Lila (Hardcover)

$26.00
ISBN-13: 9780374187613
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 10/2014

$24.00

ISBN-13: 9780374292089
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 9/2014