I’ve got a card on my desk from my friend Charles Strobel’s ordination as a priest in 1970. It’s the size of a holy card but it’s plain — no prayer, no saint — just a quote by Robert F. Kennedy. I used to pick it up once or twice a year and read it, but recently I’ve been reading it every day. It goes like this, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lots of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
The quote always reminds me of the speech Tom Joad gives near the end of The Grapes of Wrath. The book was first published in 1939, at the end of the Great Depression. Bobby Kennedy would have been 14 years old at the time. “I’ll be aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be everywhere — wherever you look. Wherever there is a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there is a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there . . . I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.”
This is how I want to start the new year, combining the vigilance and action of those two quotes. Have you reread The Grapes of Wrath lately? Have you read it at all? It could be just the classic for 2017.
And while you’re at it, here are a few new books that will make you feel good about January:
Wait a minute, did I just go from Bobby Kennedy to John Steinbeck to LSD? Bear with me. When Michael Chabon was here last month to promote his fabulous novel Moonglow, I asked him how his wife Ayelet was doing. He told me she was great, and then he told me why: after years of trying every possible method of dealing with her depression, she’d decided to mircodose LSD for 30 days, and then she decided to write about it. The more he told me, the more I wanted the book. Waldman is smart. She went to Harvard for law school. She writes engagingly about chemistry, law, American history, and psycho-pharmaceuticals, both the legal ones and the illegal ones. And even though she’s writing about her own dark struggles, she does it with so much humor and self-awareness that on several occasions I started to quack like a duck I was laughing so hard. The book is short and riveting. If taking microdoses of LSD made Ayelet Waldman happier, reading about Ayelet Waldman taking microdoses of LSD made me happier, too.
Swing Time made me happy just by being so good. It’s a great big book, and the pages seemed to turn themselves they went by so fast. Bless Zadie Smith for writing a work of art that’s so much fun to read, as fun and art so often seem to wind up in separate books. The story is this: two little girls meet in dance class and become friends-sisters-soulmates, and then they break up. The book follows their lives, as the narrator (the one who was never a good enough dancer) winds up getting an all-encompassing job as the personal assistant to a Madonna-like character who makes extraordinary demands on her time. If I could rename this novel I’d call it “The Handmaid’s Tale” (except that one’s already taken, and no one’s asking me anyway) because it really is a novel about a woman who serves first her friend and then her employer. Our narrator is such a terrific handmaid that she has a hard time holding onto herself. I’ll be interviewing Zadie for the Salon@615 series at Belmont University on Thursday, January 19, and I’m thrilled. Swing Time is also our January pick for the Parnassus First Edition Club. And in addition to being on everybody’s end-of-the-year best books list, it’s a finalist for the Carnegie Prize, which is given by the American Library Association. The other two finalists are Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad and Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, which were also First Editions Club selections. (Can we pick them? Yes. Yes, we can.)
The book I’d recommend for anyone who might feel like dropping out of society and taking refuge in a utopian science project is Perfect Little World, which will be published on January 24. (Author Kevin Wilson will be reading and signing at Parnassus on January 26 at 6:30 p.m.) What I love about this book is that it’s full of good people and all their good intentions. That doesn’t mean everything works out, but you can’t help but think, Oh, what if it could? Izzy is finishing high school and pregnant with her art teacher’s baby when she meets Dr. Grind, a child psychologist who’s starting the Infinite Family Project. Wouldn’t a child be better off with lots of parents? Shouldn’t we live in a community where we all help one another? It’s such a good idea, even as you watch it go off the rails. Kevin is beloved at Parnassus, and I don’t just mean his terrific books, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and The Family Fang. I mean he is beloved, so be sure to come out to meet him.
The last thing I need to tell you, and there’s no graceful segue way here, is that the opera of Bel Canto, a book I wrote 16 years ago, will be on PBS this Friday, January 13, at 8 p.m. (Check your local listings if you’re not in Nashville.) The opera was commissioned by the Chicago Lyric Opera, and I was there when it opened in December of 2015. It’s not every day a person gets to see an opera made out of something she wrote, so I don’t know how objective I am, but I thought it was very good. The run sold out. People stood up at the end and applauded. I had absolutely nothing to do with it except for writing the book. The characters Carmen and Cesar sang arias that brought me to tears.
We thank everyone for a knockout holiday season. We were grateful for the rush of people who wanted to give one another books, and now we’re grateful that things in the store are a little quieter. It would be a good time to come in, sit down on the couch with a shop dog, and read a book. If you rub the dog’s ears it will count as the aforementioned tiny ripple of hope that will spread across the world.
* * *
|The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Bel Canto the Opera, an adaptation of Ann Patchett’s award-winning novel about a hostage crisis in a South American embassy, will air on PBS’ Great Performances series, Friday, January 13, at 8 p.m. on Nashville Public Television. The opera was composed by Jimmy López with a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz and curated by legendary soprano Renée Fleming, Lyric’s creative consultant, who hosts the broadcast. This performance was recorded in Chicago last January.
(As always, if you’d like a signed copy of the book, we at Parnassus would be happy to hook you up with one.)