As the Indies First*, Small Business Saturday, the Local First Milwaukee Shop Local Pledge, and Thank You For Shopping Indie promotions all gear up for this coming Saturday, I turned to the person whom our book editor calls “the patron saint of bookselling,” Ann Patchett. Her new book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage collects work from Gourmet, Harper’s , Outside, Audible, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, as well as book excerpts from State by State and her introduction for Best American Short Stories.
It's true! I read a book not for an upcoming event or an event I wanted to book or for a book club that I was leading, but just to read. There is a double advantage to not having as many events booked in the holiday season. For one thing, the deadline for reading the winter books is a bit farther off, and I can sneak in some "selfish reading" time, as Hannah calls it. And for a second thing, when I work days with no errands, I can take the bus to work, giving me extra reading time.
I've noticed that if you put the personal essays of an author together in a volume and you are very clever about it, you can label the book a memoir. Unlike calling collected short stories a novel, which publishers seem to have no qualms about (see most recently Marie NDiaye’s Three Women), this is not done as often as I'd expect. Calling something “essays” scares off a certain sort of reader, so the answer seems to be to not label the book at all. That’s what FSG did for Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives earlier this year, and Harper has taken the same path.
One of the interesting things about Patchett’s essay writing is that she notes that while the essays are factual, the novels are not. On the other hand, many fiction writers will say that only through fiction can they write the truth. Even stranger, I’ve had more than one journalist say at a talk that they feel that they can tell the truth through fiction but not through their journalism. I think it has something to do with not really being able to create the nuance and gray area necessary to get the story complete. But Patchett also argues against those writers who say that their books write themselves. I think the two sides are using slightly different definitions of "truth."
I'm sure this has led to much dinner party discussion, as I've gotten the impression that Patchett is a spirited debater, and saw it first hand at a dinner in conjunction with her Milwaukee visit for The Magician's Assistant, when she engaged another spirited debater, the late David Schwartz, on several issues of the day. Author tours get their due in the essay, "My Life in Sales."
Patchett’s essays in places like The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and Granta certainly appear with some regularity. In addition, she’s also well known for memoir about her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy in Truth and Beauty. But what you probably don’t know is that she started out as a traditional creative writing student, first at Sarah Lawrence, and then at the Iowa Writers Workshop, but left a teaching post with little notice, forcing her into Plan B, which was writing for Seventeen and Bridal Guide, with some waitressing thrown in. It has to do with making a number of changes in a game plan that was not working, including a first husband.
Yes, Patchett can write about anything, but she has a special gift for capturing the people and animals in her life. I feel like I know Sister Nena**, the nun who taught her at St. Bernard’s, as much as I know anyone, and I’d probably argue that I met her dog Rose several times, even though we'd never met. Her father really came to life in her essay about trying out for the LAPD. And her husband Karl? There are a lot of good stories here; an amazing Paris dinner left the couple at odds, but an RV excursion (yes, both were probably magazine assignments) brought them back together from a breakup. And why did Patchett break her vow to not marry? That explanation is also in the connection.
It’s been a good year for collected essays from some of my favorite novelists. Not only was there Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, but a spring highlight for me was Elinor Lipman’s I Can’t Complain. After reading these collections, I am much more apt to read essays from fiction writers I admire in the future. It’s an underrated pleasure.
So what about the bookstore? Parnassus is given its due in “The Bookstore Strikes Back,” a piece that originally ran in The Atlantic, which was posted in just about every independent bookstore around the country. When that store opened, it was front page news in The New York Times, and led to an appearance on Stephen Colbert, which itself led to a run of signed copies. At least for now, we have a few signed copies of This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, but I’ll say up front that they are tipped-in pages, which is generally the case when we have signed books from an author that hasn’t visited. Some folks think they aren’t as good as the real signed first edition, but it’s a real signature and on a page bound in, not a bookplate.
So Happy Indie First/Small Business Saturday/Thank You for Shopping Indie. We’ll see you at Boswell or Parnassus, or whichever indie bookstore you like to shop at. And if there’s no indie bookstore within 50 miles of your house, maybe there’s a town hall meeting in your future.
*This links to a piece in the Los Angeles Times.
**My fellow bookseller Jane is a big fan of this story, "The Mercies."
Reading Without Walls Challenge!
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