Independents’ Day

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Common Good Books, where you can find "Good Poetry" and "Quality Trash"

Last Monday I imagined a business model in which Nobel Prize winning authors sell books. In fact, the idea of a famous author owning a bookstore is no fantasy–in my home cities alone there are two independent bookstores owned by best-selling writers. Louise Erdrich, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Guggenheim fellow, runs Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, which specializes in Native American literature (there’s a page on the Birchbark website devoted to the dogs of the store…swoon). In St. Paul, Garrison Keillor, host of the long-running Prairie Home Companion, is the proprietor of Common Good Books, aka my favorite bookstore.

We’re lucky in the Twin Cities. We have a multitude of wonderfully curated independent bookstores, and even a few dedicated to children’s literature. Some of them, like Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis, garner widespread praise for hosting upwards of 150 readings a year by both obscure and well-known talents. By this point you’ve probably heard of Tea Obreht, the incredibly gifted 26-year-old author of The Tiger’s Wife, who became the youngest woman ever to win the Orange Prize. You know where she started her reading tour? Yup, Magers and Quinn. Her book had barely been out a week when my boyfriend and I crammed into the reading area tight with bookshelves and overly-cologned middle-aged women.

Other cities are not so fortunate. One of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, brought the plight of Nashville to national attention this past November when she opened Parnassus Books. One local bookstore closed, and bankruptcy shuttered the Borders; as the New York Times put it, “A collective panic set in among Nashville’s reading faithful.” Patchett and Parnassus saved the literati.

I don’t know what I would do without a bookstore in my vicinity. This past Friday night when my boyfriend asked me what I wanted to do, I immediately replied “Let’s look at books!” He laughed–and then he realized I was serious. There was no reason to think I wasn’t, since we’ve spent a few Friday nights this way already pointing out books we’ve read, want to read, want to reread.

Actually, I do know what I would do if I moved somewhere without such a healthy literary community. I’d make like Louise and Garrison and Ann and open a shop myself. There’s just no way I could live without literature.

What it feels like to play piano

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Following is a beautiful passage from Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto (one of my favorite novels) that describes how it feels to just sit down and play:
“Then Tetsuya Kato, a vice president at Nansei whom Gen had known for years, smiled and walked to the Steinway without a word. He was a slightly built man in his early fifties with graying hair who, in Gen’s memory, rarely spoke. He had a reputation for being very good with numbers. The sleeves to his tuxedo shirt were rolled up above his elbows and his jacket was long gone but he sat down on the bench with great formality. The ones in the living room watched him as he lifted the cover of the keyboard and ran his hands once lightly over the keys, soothing them. Some of the others were still talking about the piano, you could hear the Russians’ voices coming from the dining room. Then, without making a request for anyone’s attention, Tetsuya Kato began to play. He started with Chopin’s Nocturne opus 9 in E flat major no 2. It was the piece he had most often heard in his head since coming to this country, the one he played silently against the edge of the dining-room table when no one was watching. At home he looked at his sheet music and turned the pages. Now he was certain he had known the music all along. He could see the notes in front of him and he followed them with unerring fidelity. In his heart he had never felt closer to Chopin, whom he loved like a father. How strange his fingers felt after two weeks of not playing, as if the skin he wore now was entirely new. He could hear the softest click of his fingernails, two weeks too long, as he touched the keys. The felt-covered hammers tapped the strings gently at first, and the music, even for those who had never heard the piece before, was like a memory. From all over the house, terrorist and hostage alike turned and listened and felt a great easing in their chests. There was a delicacy about Tetsuya Kato’s hands, as if they were simply resting in one place on the keyboard and then in another. Then suddenly his right hand spun out notes like water, a sound so light and high that there was a temptation to look beneath the lid for bells. Kato closed his eyes so that he could imagine he was home, playing his own piano. His wife was asleep. His children, two unmarried sons still living with them, were asleep. For them the notes of Kato’s playing had become like air, what they depended on and had long since stopped noticing. Playing on this grand piano now Kato could imagine them sleeping and he put that into the nocturne, his sons’ steady breathing, his wife clutching her pillow with one hand. All of the tenderness he felt for them went into the keys. He touched them as if he meant not to wake them. It was the love and loneliness that each of them felt, that no one had brought himself to speak of. Now the people in the living room of the vice-presidential mansion listened to Kato with hunger and nothing in their lives had ever fed them so well.”
Here’s the Chopin piece mentioned (also one of my favorites):

10 favorite novels

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I kind of hate being asked who my favorite authors are. There are very few authors of whom I’ve read the entire oeuvre. In fact, sometimes I avoid reading more of an author’s work when I’m completely enamored of one of their novels, because inevitably I’ll feel disappointed (or so I learned when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera). Picking out favorite novels, though, is a piece of cake. If I thought a little harder, this list could easily expand to 25 or 50. In the interest of time, I’ll stick to my top 10:

Cover art from One Hundred Years of Solitude

1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez: I read this book for a world literature class in high school. When the town of Macondo suffered a plague of insomnia and lost their past, when a Buendía daughter ascended into the sky with the laundry, when it rained yellow butterflies I would think You can do that?!? I’d never read anything like magical realism before, and it flipped my world upside down.

2. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: This is the kind of book I wish I’d written first. I mean, one of the characters is an opera singer, another is a translator, and it’s all set in an unidentified South American country. And it’s so freakin’ flawless. One of our assignments for my novel class was to bring in a paragraph we love from a published work. The only difficulty was choosing which one of Patchett’s incredible paragraphs to bring.

3. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: This was the only novel I brought with me to Spain. And, even though reading it was pretty much all I did with my free time, it took me three months to finish it–it’s that dense. Reading it was realizing that magical realism can exist outside of South America. Reading it somehow was both wading through Rushdie’s thick sentences while also being buoyed by his exuberant energy. I don’t think any other novel could have sustained me for so long.

4. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: One of the two best novels of last year. For a book about an Irish boys’ prep school, it’s surprisingly long. And it’s surprisingly wise. I’ve bought it for all the boys in my life thus far.

5. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: The other best novel of the past year. And also, technically, the only book on this list that’s not a novel. Instead, the book is made of interconnected stories that grow out from each other, wind back on themselves, delve into the characters’ pasts and launch into their futures. I got to see Egan at a St. Paul event called Talking Volumes at which she spoke of how her writing process for this book was just to follow her curiosity. It all began with a tiny moment in her own life, from which she wrote a story and then she wrote a story about one of the ancillary characters from the first story. I like this as a description of the creative process–follow your curiosity and see where it leads. Egan also has a very cool website which you can read about all her moments of inspiration and how they led to different stories.

6. Saturday by Ian McEwan: Set all on one day in London, Saturday is a deep study of one character’s psychology. McEwan loves detailing how tiny decisions and collisions set a course that affect an entire life. When he did this in very popular Atonement I was so angry I threw the book across the room at the end of the first chapter and never picked it up again. When he does it in Saturday, it’s extremely effective.

7. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood: Atwood is the queen of creepy science fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale being perhaps her most famous twisted novel. It’s best, though, in the Blind Assassin because the novel is a story inside a story inside a story inside a story. The innermost story is a gorgeous piece science fiction that is told by one unnamed character to another (which happens to be a novel written by another character). In the science fiction section, orphans are made to create fine carpets for the ruling class; a carpet’s quality is determined by how many children were blinded in its making. The orphans, once blind, have no place to go except an elite assassins’ club where they use their other senses to get close to their victims. The other surrounding stories are just as incredible.

8. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex is full of transformations: we’ve got the Greeks who become Americans, cousins who becomes spouses and, of course, the main character who is raised as a girl before going through puberty and finding out she’s biologically male. Given that I sold more of this novel than any other when I worked in a gay and lesbian bookstore in Provincetown, MA, I’d say this is a favorite in that crowd, but the questions of identity are relevant to everyone.

9. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon: Another novel I wish I’d written. In fact, there are some similarities between this novel and the one I’m currently trying to write. I love reading novels like this where, when you get to the end of it, you share the characters’ nostalgia for their pasts. And who can beat a novel where Hitler’s getting punched on the cover?

10. My Antonia by Willa Cather: I read this when I was perhaps 12 or 13, and it taught me what nostalgia tastes like. I think the books I read at that age had a deeper emotional impact on me, and this one in particular seemed to settle into my bones. My favorite line from all of literature is when Jim tells Ántonia, “Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’ve have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister–anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.” Forever after, that’s how I’ve understood love.

What are some of YOUR favorites?