Notes from Ann: The Great American Novel

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Scott Turow, Ann Patchett, Tari Hughes, Dianne and Kent Oliver at The Nashville Public Library Literary Award Gala on November 8, 2014. Turow was honored for his contributions to the world of books and reading.  (photo by Richard Rogers for The Tennessean)
Novelists everywhere! Authors Scott Turow and Ann Patchett; Nashville Public Library Foundation president Tari Hughes; Dianne Oliver and Nashville Public Library director Kent Oliver at The Nashville Public Library Literary Award Gala on November 8, 2014. Turow was honored for his contributions to the world of books and reading. (photo by Richard Rogers for The Tennessean)

I met Maureen Corrigan at the Southern Festival of Books in October. I knew I shouldn’t have introduced myself but I couldn’t help it. I’m crazy about Maureen’s book reviews on Fresh Air. I trust her judgment and her straightforward voice. She had come by the Parnassus tent looking for me, but I’d missed her. I went to hear her presentation on her new book And So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures and found it fascinating. If I’d had any sense I would have applauded politely and then slipped out the back, but instead I asked Maureen if she wanted me to drive her over to see the bookstore. I invited her to dinner. We had so much to talk about! Maureen Corrigan and I were going to be friends, and once you become friends with a book reviewer they won’t review your books any more. But everybody knows a smart new friend trumps a great review any day.

Maureen’s new book then jumped to the top of my stack of things to read. I’m a devoted re-reader of The Great Gatsby — I’m never going to get tired of it — so a book all about Gatsby and how it was put together and what it means is the kind of thing I devour. Maureen’s book made me feel like I was back in school again, but this time school was smarter and more personal, full of insider information. I think that every book club in America should reread Gatsby alongside And So We Read On because the opportunities for conversation would be endless. Fitzgerald loved his novel, and he knew how perfect it was, so he was devastated by its utter lack of success. He died in 1940 at the age of 44, years before America started to wake up to Gatsby’s greatness.

In thinking about Gatsby’s initial failure, I couldn’t help but wonder what else we might have missed along the way. Most people recognize Gatsby as a great American novel, if not THE great American novel, but do we love the book in part because it’s short and appropriate for the classroom? The two other most obvious contenders for the title of Great American are Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick. They’re harder books, and a lot longer. Many people never get through them.

If I could nominate a contender, a book that was both brilliantly written and offered up some profound wisdom about the condition of American life, it would be John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest, though Rabbit Is Rich wouldn’t be a bad choice either. The problem is that the first two novels in the series, Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux, are at best dated and at worst loathsome. And since high school isn’t the time to read any of the Rabbit novels they would never get the same sort of traction in the classroom. Still, Rabbit at Rest is so great and so American it’s worth considering. Updike! How I miss him. I lie in bed at night now wondering what great American novel I might not be thinking of. What about Philip Roth’s American Pastoral or, better yet, The Human Stain?

IMG_0238One book I’m currently crazy about but which doesn’t stand a chance at winning the heavyweight title because it’s British is Brother of the More Famous Jack, by Barbara Trapido. It was first published in the U.K. in 1982 and is just now coming out in this country. My editor in London sent me a copy and it arrived just as I was heading out the door to go on a trip. I tossed the book in my bag and would have been glad to stay on the plane for as long as there were pages to turn.

There are certain books that are connected through some zipping electrical current back to my love for Jane Austen, and these books, which understand something deep and difficult to articulate about the state of being a woman, seem to skip my brain and go directly to my heart. Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and In Pursuit of Love fall into this category, as does Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy (the first two books, not so much the third). I’d put The All of It by Jeanette Haien in there as well. And now I can add Barbara Trapido to the list. Brother of the More Famous Jack is funny, resonant, dirty, and sad. I was recommending it to a young friend at dinner last night and said, “You’d love it! It’s about a beautiful, smart, young woman with low self-esteem.” She blushed and dropped her head, and I realized, of course, that she was beautiful and smart and young with deplorable self-esteem. Maybe this is the book that should be required reading in high school.

Funny, too, when I look at the list above, the books are all either English or Irish (Jeanette Haien being an American whose book is set in Ireland). Maybe that’s because Austen set the stage for me when I was young. But one American I could add to the list is Maria Semple of Where’d You Go Bernadette? fame. Maria wrote the introduction to Brother of the More Famous Jack, generously lending her best-selling name to promote an excellent book.

Two more recommendations before I close: one illustrated book and one graphic novel. Maira Kalman’s brand new masterpiece My Favorite Things is the book I will henceforth wave in the face of anyone who tells me print is dead and e-books are better. This is a book that must be held, with glossy pages that must be turned. It is a gorgeous book, a gift in every sense. I’ve already ordered 10 copies and I’m going to need more because I can think of so many people I want to give it to. If you’ve seen Kalman’s illustrated pieces in The New York Times you know she defies easy explanations. While the book is nominally about a show she curated at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, it’s really just about things she loves, balanced out with some things she doesn’t love. It isn’t a story exactly, it’s an experience. More like life and less like a book. Come to the store, pick it up, flip through. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

Roz Chast is the first cartoonist ever to make the nomination list for the National Book Award, for Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant, an illustrated memoir of her experiences caring for her aging parents. It is by turns hilarious and deeply sad.
Roz Chast is the first cartoonist ever to make the nomination list for the National Book Award, for Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? — an illustrated memoir of her experiences caring for aging parents.

I bought Roz Chast’s book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? as a gift for someone I didn’t know very well and then, after reading half of it (there are pictures, it moves fast) changed my mind and kept it for myself. If you ever took care of your parents, or are taking care of them now, or might be taking care of them in the future, you’re going to need to read this. It’s been nominated for a National Book Award and has shown up on just about every best book of the year list I’ve seen. Chast is a staff cartoonist for The New Yorker and you’ll recognize her work as soon as you see it. She uses her humor and funny little drawings to talk about matters that are so impossible I don’t have words for them. I feel like she’s done a national service by getting the trials of aging down on paper.

IMG_3170Things are starting to get busy at the bookstore. The shop dogs are resting up in order to be fresh for the holiday season. And speaking of shop dogs, did you see the rumor that I married Sparky?

It isn’t true, but I might have done it if I’d thought of it in time.

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Read along with Ann. Stop by and pick up any of these books, or click below to shop online.

 

$26.00
ISBN-13: 9780316230070
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Little, Brown and Company, 9/2014
$15.00
ISBN-13: 9780743273565
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Scribner, 10/2004

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mass Market Paperback)

$5.95
ISBN-13: 9780553210798
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Bantam Classics, 2/1981

Moby-Dick (Paperback)

$14.95
ISBN-13: 9781626860575
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Canterbury Classics, 5/2014

Rabbit, Run (Paperback)

$16.00
ISBN-13: 9780449911655
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 8/1996

Rabbit Redux (Paperback)

$16.00
ISBN-13: 9780449911938
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 8/1996

Rabbit Is Rich (Paperback)

$16.00
ISBN-13: 9780449911822
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 8/1996

Rabbit at Rest (Paperback)

$16.00
ISBN-13: 9780449911945
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 8/1996

$16.00
ISBN-13: 9780375726347
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Vintage, 5/2001

$15.95
ISBN-13: 9780375701429
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage, 2/1998

$16.00
ISBN-13: 9781620407226
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Published: Bloomsbury USA, 10/2014

$14.95
ISBN-13: 9780307740823
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Published: Vintage, 8/2010

$14.95
ISBN-13: 9780307740816
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Published: Vintage, 8/2010

$20.00
ISBN-13: 9780452263949
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Published: Plume, 5/1987

$12.99
ISBN-13: 9780062090096
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Published: Harper Perennial, 6/2011

$14.99
ISBN-13: 9780316204262
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Published: Back Bay Books, 4/2013

$28.00
ISBN-13: 9781608198061
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Published: Bloomsbury USA, 5/2014
$35.00
ISBN-13: 9780062122971
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Published: Harper Design, 10/2014