Ann Patchett for reals

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

3 words: warm, candid, conversational

Ann Patchett not only writes a wickedly good novel and owns a ridiculously beautiful bookstore, but the woman can scale a wall.

For reals.

Her dad was an LA police officer, and she went through the police academy there, which required that she leap over a wall. And she started training, and then she did that thing.

And that’s just one of the completely unexpected facts you learn when you read this book (or listen to it, which I recommend, because Patchett reads it herself and her voice is perfect for the reading of the books).

While the title essay is about her marriage (and the way, and the reasons, she resisted marriage for a long time), the other essays are about things like this: her loving care of her grandmother, and the time she drove around in a motorhome she was supposed to detest (but fell in love with it instead), and how she concocted the plot of her first novel while waitressing at a TGI Friday’s.

And one of the essays describes how she became a bookstore owner. And I was enraptured. And now all I can say is…

Nashville and Parnassus Books… I’m coming for you.

The Dear Man and I have a date with a donut, and we intend to keep it.

Last time we were in Nashville, we made these two mistakes: 1) I forgot that Ann Patchett and her bookstore live there, and 2) We blew past the very enticing Donut Den even though we really wanted to go to there. The Donut Den, which is like 3 feet away from the bookstore! We’re gonna fix this.

Give this book a whirl if you like… authors describing what it’s really like to do their work, memoirs of women’s lives, and some serious candor

What author do you wish would write a memoir?

On reading On Writing

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

3 words: sharp, encouraging, spare

 

So let’s just start with this: Stephen King scares the living daylights out of me.

When my book club chose to read The Shining, I got 3 tracks into disc 1 of the audiobook, sensed looming menace and unease, and bailed.

 

But I’ve been hearing about his book On Writing for years (it keeps showing up on lists of the best books about writing), and it seemed safe enough.

 

And so it was.

 

Until that very last section, in which King writes about the car that hit him. And while it’s not horror, it’s horrifying. He’s so matter of fact about it, which makes it all the more chilling.

 

So I got to experience some King fear factor after all.

 

But let’s talk about the bulk of the book, which consists of two parts:

  • a brief autobiography of his development as a writer
  • a handbook on the art of writing

 

The thing that blew me away was the strength of King’s writing. Of course, dude is writing a handbook about how to write well, so he darn well better have some game. But I still found myself surprised at his sentences and his paragraphs: fresh and succinct and perfectly formed.

 

He discusses some of the mechanics of writing (he hates adverbs, which kinda makes me adore him), but he also addresses how to actually be a writer. Which, of course, is by writing. Throughout the book, he’s encouraging, without ever being coddling.

 

And this leads us to my next surprise: Stephen King seems like a genuinely nice person. And he’s a man who loves — and likes — his wife. The way he writes about her… it made me happy that they’d found one another.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… workplace narratives, books about books, a peek behind the curtain, and a zippy writing style

 

OK, your turn. What’s your take on Stephen King?

 

Neil Gaiman: the true story

 

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

3 words: wise, impassioned, bookish

Two minutes into listening to this audiobook, I got a little verklempt.

And really, this should not surprise us, cuz when Neil Gaiman writes about the importance of books and reading and libraries, it’s powerful stuff. And when a person listens to him reading those words aloud… holy Toledo, people.

Get out the tissues, my fellow readers.

So this book starts out with essays and speeches about the power of books. And then there are oodles of other topics: graphic novels, introductions to the works of various fantasy authors, and creativity.

And while I thought I might bog down during the introduction to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, I found that I just kept learning new things.

And then I started to curse Neil Gaiman, because I kept adding books to my already too huge TBR. Books like The 13 Clocks by James Thurber. And Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones.

And then, toward the end of the book, there’s his famous “Make Good Art” commencement address.

It made me want to make good art.

 

 

So, if you’re anything of a Neil Gaiman reader, and especially if you’re a Neil Gaiman devotee, this book is rather a treat.

And if you’re an audiobook listener, I highly recommend the audio version, cuz Gaiman reads it himself and he’s seriously skilled at the narrator thing.

What’s the best author-narrated audiobook you’ve listened to?

Bookish tourist must-see

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch

3 words: gentle, uplifting, good-humored

I’ve been on this weird entrepreneurial spree lately.

Not that I’ve been performing actual entrepreneurship, no.
I’ve just been reading and listening about it. With a very strange compulsiveness.
Being an actual entrepreneur would scare me speechless, because I’m risk-adverse, I don’t like uncertainty, and I’m horrific at self-promotion. All of these things make me nearly break out in a sweat, just thinking about them.
But dang, I love learning about how other people make a go of it on their own. It’s like they’re performing feats of strength, right before our eyes.
So in The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Welch and her husband open a bookstore in a rambling old Victorian in Appalachia.
We’ve got books and entrepreneurship here, which sounds like a winning combo. But one thing could tank the whole premise: voice. If the author’s voice is dull or preachy or stilted, I’d be out of there fast.

But this book is in the amiable, smart, self-deprecating voice of Wendy Welch, and she’s a wildly pleasant person to hang out with on these pages.This book’s a winner, my dears.

It’s one of those delightful memoirs that’s both calming (excellent for pre-sleep reading) and addictive (horrible for pre-sleep reading — you’ll stay up past your bedtime, because you just want to stay there in the narrative).
And for us book lovers, it’s a chance to spend some time with a fellow fanatic, whose observations about reading are spot on.
This book is a “Will they make it?” story with a well-earned happy ending. (I’m guessing you could guess that.) Wendy Welch and her husband Jack Beck have worked their tails off to create a vibrant, quirky bookstore and community center, and man, I want to visit Tales of the Lonesome Pine.

Conjunction junction…

Geekier than presidential cookies  

Between You & Me: Confessions
of a Comma Queen
by
Mary Norris
3 words:
smart, exuberant, geeky
One part
memoir, one part grammar & punctuation handbook, one part investigative
journalism (she gets to the bottom of the mystery of who added the hyphen to Moby-Dick).
My
fellow book geeks: rejoice.
Mary
Norris is a New Yorker copy editor
who writes about words, her work, and her devotion to the #1 pencil.
I knew I
could be her friend when I read: “…I had ordered so many pencils that Cal Cedar
threw in a free sharpener. I loved having it with me, to sharpen pencils on the
go or to whip out in a café if a friend’s point had gotten dull.” (191)
Whipping
out a pencil sharpener: I could be that person.
Add to
that some smart explanations about punctuation, and you’ve got yourself a book
nerd’s dream book.
And if
you’re a New Yorker fan, there are
some delightful anecdotes. One of my favorites dealt with the squeamishness of
editor William Shawn: “According to Ian Frazier, the sentence incorporating as
many Shawn taboos as possible was ‘The short, balding man wearing a wig took
his menstruating wife to a boxing match.’” (p. 163)
If you’re
a video type of person, you can also check out her Comma Queen videos.  
Yes. I’m
serious. The first one is about the comma.
I was
enchanted.

In which she reads and eats. And does not stop.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

I impulse-checked-out this book from the library one day, then impulse-bought SunChips that evening, and came home and gorged myself on both.

(This was not planned, the book-and-chips binge. It was all nothing but impulsive. Sometimes things get crazy around here.)

I meant to eat a few chips while I read the first few pages, at which point I’d put down the books and the chips and do something virtuous, productive, and worthy of praise.

Instead, I ate half the bag of chips for dinner (it was one of those big bags, guys) and gulped down half a style manual at the same time.

Yes, this is my life.

The thing is: I was dealing with addictive substances!

Strunk & White pulled me right in, and I kept feeling relief followed by horror, as I realized which guidelines I follow religiously and which I violate like a felon.*

(Cripe: Is it any surprise I needed to comfort myself with chips?)

So here are a few of their edicts that sum things up:

  • “Use definite, specific, concrete language.”  (p. 37)
  • “Write with nouns and verbs.”  (p. 105)
  • “Omit needless words.” (p. 39)

I’ve been doing this one consciously lately, and it feels almost as good as decluttering my house.

Strunk & White sometimes sound cantankerous, but sometimes they just make me smile.

Here’s one instance: “Many nouns have lately been pressed into service as verbs. Not all are bad, but all are suspect.” And then their example: “Be prepared for kisses when you gift your girlfriend with this merry scent.” (p. 82)    (“Gift” as a verb makes me gag. Anyone with me on this?)

And, one of my favorites: “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and
sometimes nauseating.” (p. 105)

Amen, brothers!

 

*I’ve probably just broken at least 7 of their rules. And I’m too damn lazy to cite chapter and
verse. If anyone else wishes to do so, have at it. And pass the chips, please.

Of books and bullets

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of
Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford
English Dictionary
by Simon
Winchester
I know I’m late to
the party on this one. When this book was published in the late ’90s, I
thought, That sounds interesting. Then tons of people read it, and I never did,
till now, when we selected it for a special book club.
And it was
basically what I expected—readable, yet erudite. But a little bit slow-moving,
despite the fact that a crazed murderer was one of the main characters. Interesting
little twist there, eh?
So this book has a
plot that remind me a little bit of The
Devil in the White City
: historic true crime (Devil: creepy serial killer;
Professor: Civil War doctor who shot a man in London) combined with a rather
uplifting story of the undertaking of an unlikely feat that, if successful,
would benefit society (Devil: the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair; Professor: the
Oxford English Dictionary).
The sneaky thing Winchester does in this
book is make you think the professor (James Murray, who led the OED committee)
thought the “madman” (Dr. W.C. Minor) was a doctor at the asylum where he
resided, rather than a patient. But it turns out, Winchester is just letting us in on the
version of the story that was told at the time. In reality, he informs us,
Professor Murray knew Dr. Minor was an inmate all along. Sneaky, say I.
I knew the OED
wasn’t built in a day, and indeed, it wasn’t built in a decade. I didn’t fully appreciate the amount of work that went into
that encyclopedic monster of a dictionary. So now I’ll have a different, warmer
thought every time I walk by it at work, and especially when I consult it. It
has a pretty darn remarkable story of its own, murderer or no.  

Most fun learning in a long while

Stranger Than
Fiction: The Art of Literary Journalism
by
William McKeen
Here’s exactly how to make a geek girl happy: 
While she’s listening
to an audiobook lecture series about literary journalism, address her as “fun-seeker.”
Professor McKeen, the dear man, does this precise thing, and it gladdened my
heart. Here’s how he starts out some of his lectures: “All right, fun-seekers…”
I mean, those are some encouraging words. I actually do realize
I’m not the life of the party, but being told I’m a fun-seeker when listening to something semi-academic… oh, this
makes me a happy one.
So this audio series had me completely blissing out, because I am all about the literary journalism.
And this guy is so wonderfully smart about the subject, and he’s
engaging as all hell to listen to.
And guys! He’s talking about Tom Wolfe (in his obnoxious white
suit) and Truman Capote (in his purple cape) and George Plimpton (playing football with the Detroit Tigers) and Hunter S. Thompson (getting pummeled by the Hells Angels) and Gay Talese (who would churn
out a whopping single paragraph each day, and then stick it on the wall and
read it from across the room using binoculars). These are some odd ducks.  
And this lecture series puts them all in context and relates them
to one another in a way that is completely fascinating to learn.
If I hadn’t been driving while listening, I’d’ve been jotting down
lots of titles I need to read. Instead, I did the thing where I repeat it to
myself incessantly, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold…” to
try to remember it upon disembarking from the car.

And: happiness. In the final lecture, McKeen gives a list of recommended further reading. 

So, yes. The Modern Scholar series is improving my world. And the
“Stranger Than Fiction” lectures are my favorite of the bunch.

P.D. James… again

Talking about Detective Fiction by
P.D. James

At the same time that I was reading Death Comes to Pemberley, I was listening to this book on audio.
(Actually, I wasn’t precisely reading them both at the very same time, because there is a limit to my multi-tasking
abilities. But I was reading them during the same timeframe.)
And maybe that was just a bit too much P.D. James all at once, or
maybe… (and I actually think this is the reason)… maybe I just got too darn
good an education during library school.
’Cause here’s what I kept thinking all the way through the section
about the Golden Age mystery writers: Yeah, I learned that in library school.
And that, too! So this (audio)book was kinda boring, a little bit.
So I really only perked up and got interested in the new stuff
somewhere around disc 4 (of 4). That’s where James started talking about her
own writing, and that was darn interesting. For example, she learned from
Agatha Christie’s experience (of getting annoyed with Hercule Poirot’s
oddities) not to make her main character too quirky. And she writes about the
inspiration for the settings of some of her books, and that’s good stuff, too.
some of my Agathas
(just don’t look too close: dust bunnies!
…because reading’s way more fun than dusting)
Though, one saving grace: James isn’t as hard on Agatha Christie as
some people are. Sure, Christie’s characters were cardboard cut-outs, but
guys—that lady could write one heck of a plot! During junior high and high
school, I read every darn Agatha Christie mystery I could get my hands on, and
I’ve still got a boatload of them on my shelves today. I’ve a fondness for
those old things.
And James recognizes Christie for her strengths, while also
acknowledging her weaknesses… and rather forgiving them, it seems. 

If you’re a huge P.D. James fan and just can’t get enough of her viewpoint, or if you’re interested in learning the basics of the 19th- and early 20th-century roots of the mystery novel, this book might hold your attention better than it did mine. I just felt like I was watching a re-run of a documentary I’d already seen.

Just for us

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
This is a wee, jolly book, my reading friends. It’s 150 pages of Our Kind of Talk.
Yes, it’s a book about the joys of reading.
And the author is a thoroughly amiable fellow. Here’s what he says: “Read at Whim.”
Yes, really! And he’s even an English professor, saying this!
Basically, he’s giving us permission to read what we want to read. We can—yes, we can—ignore those odious lists of Best Books. Unless we happen to want to read some of the books on those lists. Otherwise, it’s OK to read what we love. Because reading books just to check them off a list, that isn’t really reading for the very best reason.
This is so much my belief. It was pure pleasure to read it so beautifully argued.
Here’s one of my favorite sentences of the book. He’s describing his junior year in high school. “At that age I would have been an absolute sucker for any authoritative register of Books One Must Read, and I thank God that I never came across any of them.” (p. 131)
(I myself got hold of such a list in college, and it took a library school class on popular fiction to set me free.)
Jacobs also addresses the difficulties of our wired age. He brings in Nicholas Carr’s ideas from The Shallows to describe how tempting our electronic devices can be, even to those of us who know the delight of being fully absorbed in a book.
Here’s Jacobs: “To be lost in a book is genuinely addictive: someone who has had it a few times wants it again, and wants it enough, perhaps, to beg a friend to hide the damned BlackBerry for a couple of hours, please.” (p. 88)
There are too many delightful sentences here for me to include, but here’s what my favorite sections are about: the importance of allowing ourselves to re-read books when we want to (yeehaw!) and the importance of serendipity in our reading lives. Pretty much what I was railing about a short while ago.
We need those things, and we know we need those things, and we need to make sure we get those things.
A lovely little book. Lovely.