Tuesday, September 20, 2016

When the Author and the Bookseller Are the Same Person

I became a fan of Ann Patchett's fiction long before I moved to Nashville. In fact, after I read Bel Canto, the first book of hers to come across my radar, I wrote a review that was published in English Journal, the secondary education professional publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. What I found in that book was a work of literary fiction I could recommend to readers who wanted a suspense novel. The novel and its characters stuck with me the way many books never do.

Since then, I have read everything Patchett writes, fiction or nonfiction. When she joined partner Karen Hayes to open Parnassus Books in Green Hills after Davis-Kidd closed, I always looked forward to trips to Nashville. This independent bookstore was a nice size with a healthy book to other stuff ratio. Obviously, the employees didn't just work there; they loved books. They talked books.

Upon moving to Nashville, I got my library card just a few blocks from Parnassus, but I headed to tho the bookstore often enough to purchase books I needed to own, not just to read. Then I discovered Salon@615, a library partnership with the bookstore that presents so many great writers at their frequent events.

Last week, the author was Ann Patchett, debuting her new novel Commonwealth.  She was getting ready to start her book tour (beginning at the airport bookstore the next morning before flying out of town. She certainly gave her audience a nice preview to the novel, reading from it and talking about how it was different from and similar to her other books.

Then she started giving suggestions of other people's books. I had my pen poised and ready. She always has a book she's revived and is sharing with others. Right now, it's Lucy Dawson's Dogs as I See them, from the 1930s. It was for sale on the table right alongside Patchett's in the lobby.

She also predicted that Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, the current Oprah Book Club selection, will win everything this year--Pulitzer, National Book Award, everything. She also mentioned his earlier book The Intuitionist, which she also loved.  Other favorites this year she mentioned several authors whose earlier books I'd loved--My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Stout (Olive Kitteredge) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Rules of Civility). 

Discussing Whitehead's novel, Matthew Desmond's Evicted, and others, Patchett referred to what she calls the "Hamilton Principle": an author takes a story--World War II and the Holocaust, slavery--we all think we know and makes it new and fresh.

She also recommended Louise Erdrich's new novel La Rose. Earlier in her talk, Patchett had admitted that all her books are really the amen book: a group of strangers are thrown together in an isolate place and form a family.  Erdrich has a formula too, she said: something unspeakable always happens in the first eight pages, and the rest of the book deals with it.

She also said that one of her favorite recent novels was Jane Hamilton's The Excellent Lombards, her most autobiographical novel so far.

She also mentioned Elena Ferrant's Neapolitan novels, a quartet beginning with My Brilliant Friend. She said that anyone buying the first one must also buy the second because you will "go down that rabbit hole" and not come up until you've finished them all. She says after finishing the first one, you will have to start the next one immediately. She also recommended Edward St. Albans' Patrick Melrose novels.

Among the nonfiction she mentioned were Susan Faludi's In the Dark Room (and she also recommended her earlier book Backlash), Hope Jahren's Lab Girl, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

I left the reading clutching my new hot-off-the-press copy of Commonwealth, a bigger reading list than ever, and a new friend I met in line. I couldn't be happier.