Notes from Ann: Back to the Book Report

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The set of Bel Canto, image via Lyric Opera of Chicago

I feel like I excused myself from the table at a restaurant to go put money in the meter and never came back. I’ve been gone from this column a long time, and I apologize.

The good news is that I’ve used my time wisely: while I was gone I finished writing my novel. Commonwealth will by published by Harper Collins on September 6 of this year. That’s a solid excuse, right? I didn’t write my blog posts, but I wrote a novel. And Bel Canto was made into an opera by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The performance was terrific, and I got all sorts of credit for the whole thing when in fact I had nothing to do with it (other than writing the book, which at this point I barely remember doing). Karl and I went to the cast party after the performance on opening night and stayed until nearly two o’clock in the morning. Darling young opera singers kept coming up and hugging me, saying, “I’m a terrorist!” It was a little surreal.

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In Chicago for the Bel Canto premiere with Nilo Cruz (left), the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and librettist, and Eric Owens (right), renowned baritone

I also read a lot of books while I was on hiatus, books I should have recommended ages ago, but fortunately, a book you haven’t read yet is still a new book. Here are my favorite titles from my extended absence:

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra was my favorite fiction of 2015. I would have thought that Marra’s first book Constellation of Vital Phenomena would have been impossible to live up to, but he did it. There’s no point in trying to rank them — one isn’t better than the other — they’re both spectacular. When I read this review in The New York Times, I wrote to the reviewer and thanked her. I’ve never done anything like that before in my life. I was just so moved by the whole-heartedness with which she embraced the book. It’s exactly what it deserved.

I have read and loved all of Ruth Reichl’s books. If you haven’t read her memoirs, start with Tender at the Bone and go forward chronologically. When her new book My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life came out, I thought that I would flip through it, browse. Instead, I read every single word, including the recipe for making a pork shoulder. (I’m a vegetarian.) It held my attention in a way no cookbook could, probably because it isn’t a cookbook. It’s more like a life study with food. Here’s the story: Ruth was the editor of Gourmet. She loved her job and she loved her staff (and I can attest to the fact that they were a lovable bunch: I wrote for the magazine for years). When Conde Nast shut Gourmet down, Ruth fell into a depression, then she cooked her way out of it. She writes about despair and applesauce cake in the same breath. She writes about emotional healing and coddled eggs. She writes about sadness with stark honesty, while writing about food with unbridled joy. You’ll be with her every step of the way.
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Gloria Steinem has been around such a long time doing her good work on behalf of women that I started taking her for granted, in the same way I take my rights as a woman for granted. I figured any story she had to tell was probably a story I already knew. The fact is I just picked the book up because of the cover. The picture of Gloria Steinem on My Life on the Road is great. (This is why it’s important to shop in real bookstores — you never know what’s going to catch your eye.) It turns out I knew very little about Steinem’s life and work, or the extent to which my life had been shaped by her work. Everyone I’ve recommended this book to has a had a similar reaction: Gloria Steinem! Amazing! Steinem’s story is American history, present tense. Her tremendous kindness in the face of boatloads of adversity may surprise you.

I’ve had a copy of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood sitting in my office since she came to Nashville in 2012 as the Nashville Public Library Literary Award winner, and frankly I’ve been meaning to read it since it was first published in 2000 and won the Booker Prize. When Catherine Bock, who so ably runs the Parnassus First Editions Club and handles our online orders, said she was reading it, I decided I would too. There’s nothing like a little peer pressure to get me going. So while this news comes 15 years late, I’m here to tell you what everyone else has already said — The Blind Assassin is a marvel: enormous in its scope and ambition, as well as being deeply entertaining. Very few books can be this smart and this engrossing. If, like me, you’ve been slow to pick it up, I can promise you it’s worth your while.

Elizabeth Strout is famous for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Emmy-winning HBO miniseries, Olive Kitteridge, but her books have been great ever since Amy and Isabelle. Her new novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, is now my all-time favorite Strout. It’s short (a nice balance to The Blind Assassin) and exceedingly direct. The narrative voice will reach out and grab you. You feel like Lucy Barton is sitting across the table, telling the story of her life. It’s a tough life, certainly harder than most, but Lucy greets every act of kindness with gratitude and wonder. It is a splendid novel, a masterpiece in miniature. Strout will be in Nashville as part of the Salon@615 series and you won’t want to miss her. You’ll want to have a signed first edition of this book. (It is the January selection for our First Editions Club.)

There’s a lot to be excited about at Parnassus this year: we’re expanding the store, we’re going to get our bookmobile on the road, and we’re going to see some fantastic new books. I’ve been reading ahead, and I have to say I’m more excited about what’s coming out in 2016 than I’ve been in a long time.

Also, the shop dogs are cuter now. I don’t know how this could be possible, but it is. Come see for yourself.

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Read along with Ann:

The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories  

By Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena 

By Anthony Marra

My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life 

By Ruth Reichl

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table 

By Ruth Reichl

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

By Ruth Reichl

For You Mom, Finally

By Ruth Reichl

Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table

By Ruth Reichl

The Blind Assassin

By Margaret Atwood

My Life on the Road

By Gloria Steinem

 My Name Is Lucy Barton

By Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys

By Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge 

By Elizabeth Strout

Amy and Isabelle

By Elizabeth Strout

Bel Canto

By Ann Patchett