I loved dear Lindsay Lynch’s recent piece on the books that made her cry. Sometimes a good sob is just what a reader needs. Lindsay’s choices engendered a great deal of back office conversation among the staff at Parnassus. We reminisced about what books had caused us to mist up and what books made us cry so hard we couldn’t see the pages.
I would add to the list Ernest J. Gaines classic A Lesson Before Dying, and Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree (though I am old enough to have read that book when the words “A True Story” were still printed beneath the title. That was before the news broke that Carter was not an impoverished American Indian ripped from his family but an opportunistic leader of the Ku Klux Klan, which is enough to make me cry for a whole different set of reasons.) King Lear makes me cry, and Cyrano de Bergerac makes me cry so uncontrollably I can’t even talk about it.
But in life there are times to bring the Kleenex out and times to put the Kleenex away. I’m here today to recommend some books that spark joy. It’s a question we are often asked in the store: I want a book that isn’t going to bring me down. I want something funny. We immediately scurry off to find a copy of Where’d You Go, Bernadette but the sad truth is most of the people who want a funny book have already read that one. (Maria Semple, if you’re reading this book report, GET BACK TO WORK! We need another book from you.) The truth is, joy can arise in a lot of different ways, and there are some terrific books that are just out which definitely met my standards for happiness:
The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton is about an apple orchard in Wisconsin fraught with financial hardships and family weirdness. Will the children inherit the business? Would their parents wish that on them? There are plenty of difficulties for the Lombards to deal with (like what exactly is the fate of the small family-owned American farm?) but Hamilton’s writing is so sharp and her intelligence so electric that the novel all but radiates light. My joy came from the energy this book possesses, the wit and tenderness, the gorgeous descriptions of apple trees. The word excellent right there in the title says it all.
When you start reading LaRose by Louise Erdrich, you’re going to wonder what it’s doing over here in the joy category. In the opening pages a man accidentally shoots his neighbors’ young son in a hunting accident, and the price he chooses to pay for his mistake is unbearably high. This, you will say to yourself, is going to be one seriously sad book. And yet page by page the load mysteriously lightens, thanks in large part to the magic of the main character LaRose, a child whose sweet and steady disposition calms everyone. This is my favorite Erdrich novel so far, and that’s really saying something.
Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool, the sequel to his hit Nobody’s Fool, charts its course in the opposite direction: it starts off light and by the end we’re met with significant darkness. But that’s what Russo novels do, and they do it brilliantly. You may be careening toward the violence of the ending, but the comic timing is so pitch-perfect you’ll be laughing your head off the whole way. It’s also just so good to get to see those characters again: Raymer, the hapless police officer, is now the star of the show, and Sully, the leading man we love even with his many unlovable qualities, has the supporting role. This is Russo doing what he does best, and he’s going to make a lot of people very happy with this one. He certainly made me happy.
Sometimes what brings me joy in a book is just the fun of reading it. On a recent visit to my publisher I was given a copy of The Rainbow Comes and Goes by the mother-son duo Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper. I have to admit, this is not a book I normally would have bought, but once I started it, I could not put down. I went from being amazed by all little Gloria had endured as a child, to being floored by all the marquee-name affairs she had as an adult, to being mystified that her long-suffering son was able to put up with her. I’ve since lent my copy to four people. They each read it in a day.
Likewise, Frank Langella’s memoir Dropped Names is an account of movie stars and various famous people written (and written well) by the actor who knew them all and slept with half of them. My friend Erica has been demanding that I read this book for years now and I’ve been rolling my eyes, thinking I would never get around to it. When I finally did I found it to be wildly entertaining, self-important, and often moving. I immediately bought three copies for friends I knew who would love it and shipped them off.
My winner in the straight-up-uncontested-joy category goes to Love, Nina, by Nina Stibbe. In the 1980s Nina Stibbe got a job as a nanny in London, and since these were the days before email and cell phones, she wrote short, regular letters to her sister Vic about her life in the city taking care of Sam and Will. Sam and Will’s mother, Mary Kay, writes for the London Review of Books, and their house is full of smart, interesting people, most notably their neighbor Alan Bennett. (The kids hold their own very nicely against Mr. Bennett. They are terrifically funny kids.) It’s the kind of book that made me think I want to live in London! I want two small children who swear! I want a nanny!
And have you read Alan Bennett? I could keep you here all day talking about the joy there is to be found in Alan Bennett’s books. The Uncommon Reader and Smut are both tiny volumes and would be an excellent place to start.
Of course, our deepest joy these days is the bigger and better Parnassus Books. The dogs hardly know what to do with themselves in all the extra space. Someone asked me yesterday if doubling our space meant we had plans to double our roster of shop dogs, but we think we should wait a while before making any rash additions. Please drop in as soon as you can and buy some joyful books so we won’t feel like we’ve made a horrible mistake in expanding. We’re excited but also slightly nervous. We would appreciate you coming by and tell us we did the right thing.
I’m adding on a list of some joyful favorites from our booksellers as well, just in case you need some extra joy to balance out the stresses of this election year. -Ann
A few books that bring our staff joy:
Andy: Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy
Niki: Things Organized Neatly by Austin Radcliffe and Tom Sachs
Kathy: Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Karen: Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and the rest of the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley and A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel
Mary Laura: All of David Sedaris’ books, and Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg
Cat: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
Sissy: Slothlove by Sam Trull
Katherine: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner
Rae Ann: A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
Steph: Flora and Ulysses and Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
River: When Wanderers Cease to Roam: The Joy of Staying Put by Vivian Swift
Grace: Whistin’ Dixie in a Nor’Easter by Lisa Patton
There also seems to be general agreement about the high levels of joy in all things Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, and Matthew Quick.