Ann brings it home.

Ann Patchett is a favorite in these parts of the interwebs. We were beyond excited when we learned she had a new book out. In These Precious Days, Pattchett shares with readers a lovely essay collection that runs the gamut of shared human experience. Even if you aren’t friends with Tom Hanks, or aren’t an award-winning writer and bookseller, Patchett feels like real people to you: accessible, witty, candid, and sharp. The very title of this collection hints at a theme running throughout this book: these moments, these pandemic-infused moments – as well as the stories from our past – are treasures. Precious, indeed. 

Lara: I have to admit, I am not a big essay reader. Of course I read her other collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and we reviewed it here. But, I have to say, I will literally — and that is not an exaggeration — read anything this woman writes. And this did not disappoint.

Do you like essays? Do you prefer her fiction over her non-fiction? 

Jennifer: That’s actually a tough question! And let me just say it here: you were the one who introduced me to Ann! (I’m not entirely sure why she wasn’t taught in my MFA program.)

Also in recent years, I have become a lover of nonfiction. Not all authors can write both equally well. She can! I might, in all honesty, like her nonfiction better!

I’ll talk about that in sec. I got things to say. You’ll be mad. But first: do you like the fiction best?

Lara: I will gladly take credit for introducing you to Ann! And if anyone reading this column was introduced to Ann because of me, you are welcome. And if anyone reading this column hasn’t read anything by Ann Patchett, get started immediately after you finish reading our review. 

So, to answer your question, I like her nonfiction as well as her fiction. She can do no wrong. 

Now, what are you going to say that will make me mad?

Jennifer: Well, what book would you actually start people off with? I do think I started with the right one, and you can find our very first Snotty Literati review right here: State of Wonder

Now, to make you angry, I find — even with her nonfiction — that she is a great storyteller, but there’s, um, something rather shallow or spiritually vacant about the stories? Very mean of me. 

Go with me here. Hear me out. 

They are mildly sentimental. Perfectly crafted–and I mean that. She’s an excellent writer. I seriously will read whatever she writes. I know it’ll be good writing. I’m not sure its weighty like some work is. I’m not sure I feel its import. Like, these are precious days . . . Why? What makes them precious? Her friend shared precious days, yes. Does this add up to something other than an understanding that life is short and every second counts?

I have never, ever articulated this thought before, but I’ve sensed it. The lack of import. I think recently, in a book group that we’re both in, I might’ve referred to Patchett as “comfort food.” I think that’s right. She’s reliably good, but maybe not profound. I still love my comfort food.

Oh man, sorry.

After you tell me off, tell me your fave essay. And know that I still truly love her.

Lara: What the . . . WHAT ARE YOU EVEN TALKING ABOUT? Did we read the same book? You are sounding pretty high and mighty. I think the essays are all about the beauty of singular moments in life, adding them up, and that’s what makes our life on this earth truly precious. How was the time she spent with her dear friend Sooki, opening her house to her at the start of the pandemic so that she could have access to a cancer clinical trial not spiritually rich? They connected over art, movement, and nature. If that’s not spiritual, what is? 

Or about the time she, never wanting to be a mother, wants to foster a young black boy. Stevie, featured in her local newspaper. She talks it over with her husband (Karl) and he agrees. She calls the paper, and the featured boy is not available. 

“It was a bait and switch, a well written story: the bed, the dog, the brother. They [the newspaper] knew how to bang on the floor to bring people like me out of the woodwork, people who said they would never come. I wrapped up the conversation. I didn’t want a child, I wanted Stevie. It all came down to a single flooding moment of clarity: he wouldn’t live with me, but I could now imagine that he was in a solid house with people who loved him. I put him in the safest chambers of my heart, he and his brother in twin beds, the dog asleep in Stevie’s arms. 

And they stayed, going with me everywhere until finally I wrote a novel about them, Run. Not because I thought it would find them, but because they had become too much for me to carry. I had to write about them so I could put them down.”

How is an experience like that not meaty or meaningful? 

I need you to answer for yourself!

Jennifer: Don’t get hung up on the word spiritual. Trust me. Ferrante, my goddess of import, isn’t spiritual in the least bit. 

Let me try to soften this . . . I love Patchett. I admire her. She teaches me. (I have numerous highlights to share that blow me away.)

I’m not sure that I can do anything other than offer a comparison to another piece of real Art (uppercase “A”), my beloved (and it really is beloved) This Is Us. I love that show. I love the characters. I want that show (sounds creepy, is creepy). Nonetheless, it doesn’t touch me in the profound way that, say, Succession does. Succession, in its picture of humanity, might knock me to the ground. And the former is just as good as the latter. One might break my heart in a particular way . . . In terms of literary comparisons, I think Elena Ferrante can shake my world; I’m not so sure that Patchett does. . . 

I’ll let you respond before I share the parts that do touch me so.

Lara: Hmmmmm. I think this bothers me more than it should. 

Jennifer: I see that. I’m sorry. 

Lara: Ha! It all comes down to our individual experiences, subjective opinions, what we bring to the information we are reading. It’s interesting. You know, I think personal essays, as a genre, are just a high-brow form of memoir. And, for example, Joan Didion has an expansive personal essay collection and I just can’t get into her. I think Patchett’s essays are WAY MORE accessible. Does that mean Didion isn’t a great writer? No. It means she’s not a great writer for me. 

So, instead of overreacting to the fact that you didn’t love it as much as I did, I am going to focus on the fact you did love the book and I am not putting those words in your mouth.

What worked for you?

Jennifer: Okay, let’s really make this point clearly, though. The personal essay–and actually creative nonfiction–has probably only recently been commercially popularized. Back in the day, essays were something you read in school–by authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Bertrand Russell (snooze fest). Then, magazines festered and creative nonfiction blossomed and we’ve got personal essays and memoirs (I like memoir a lot). That is one key thing to consider.

But I also think accessibility is huge. 

You mention Joan Didion. RIP Joan. You were awesome. To quote the writer Pam Houston, “She was the Joni Mitchell of journalism . . .” 

But, yeah, I get it. She can be pretty highfalutin. Pretty inaccessible. (I admit to loving Didion, but not really loving that one book everyone seemed to rave about, The Year of Magical Thinking. (If I said I loved it in there, I was lying.) 

Ann Patchett is accessible. And that doesn’t mean simple. It means clear in her meaning.

Okay, so every single thing Patchett ever says about writing resonates with me, and she knows this world so well.

Let me just share a few: 

First this . . . 

​​”My formative years were spent in a Snoopy T-shirt, sleeping on Snoopy sheets with a stuffed Snoopy in my arms. I was not a cool kid, and Snoopy was a very cool dog. I hoped the association would rub off on me. That was pretty much the whole point of Charlie Brown’s relationship with Snoopy: the awkward kid’s social value is raised by his glorious dog.”

Now, you’re, like, What does this have to do with writing? Wait for it. She quotes Snoopy, and adds her own comment: 

“I’m a great admirer of my own writing.” Oh, beagle, isn’t it the truth?

I freakin’ love that! I don’t know why.

And then this, which is not about writing as much as it’s about my world and my love of books:

“Amazon has opened a brick-and-mortar store in the mall across the street from us. People want to know how well we are doing. I’ll tell you how well we’re doing: they’ve come to kill us. But we’ll survive.”

Patchett, it should be known, owns Parnassus Books in Tennessee. She’s wry here. I love that. 

Finally, but not finally: 

“MOST OF THE writers and artists I know were made for sheltering in place. The world asks us to engage, and for the most part we can, but given the choice, we’d rather stay home.”

Damn straight, girlfriend!

I think I’m also intrigued by the solidity of her marriage. I do also want to talk about the title essay. Your thoughts?

Lara: I am glad you agree, or at least, I think you agree with me. And hey — I know a lot of people found so much comfort in Didion’s work, especially the Magical Thinking one. Here’s the thing, there’s room for all of the books. The room and table are big enough for all of us and our different perspectives, our likes and dislikes.

As for the title essay, it’s so good. As I read it, I thought it might be my favorite. But it turns out, that I may have loved the epilogue most. I also loved when she met John Updike when she was being honored with an award by the Academy of Arts and Letters. And I loved “Flight Plan,” where she talks about her love for her husband Karl and his love of flying.

“When I am in the plane with Karl, I read, I look out the window, I sleep an untroubled sleep, my head against the window.”

But that’s not what you asked. I think the title essay is where we get a glimpse, a reminder, of what’s important in life: how we show up for others, how we show up for ourselves. I really don’t want to say too much. I don’t want to spoil it. But I will say it’s about a woman Ann became very good friends with very recently (and isn’t it hard to form deep connections with people the older we get) and the impact their relationship has had on each other. 

It’s really hard for me to pick a favorite. They are all so good. 

Jennifer: [This might be an Afterword of Sorts.] I’m writing this on the morning of our fateful meeting, in which I, um, pissed you off . . . 

Ironically, we watched This Is Us last night, and — Lara, would you believe it? — I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about Ann and This Is Us as the clock ticked.

These are some of my final, deep-in-the-trenches, burning-the-midnight-oil thoughts:

I think the cover painting by Sooki Raphael is AMAZING. I think each and every one of these essays does, indeed, attest to the preciousness of life. I admire her kindness in the treatment of her father-figures. I can only praise her for her bookstore advocacy and love. She speaks to me as a writer. I like the way she takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. She talks about her mildly ordinary life — normal marriage, walking the dog, typewriters–and renders them in extraordinary ways.

But back to Sooki. This woman was, um, dying. She was sheltering-in-place, like we all kinda did, with a writer and the writer’s husband. They have a good time. We find out that Sooki, surprisingly, is married! Okay . . . But where is he? He is fine in having his wife live in Tennessee while undergoing an experimental cancer treatment? Really???? 

There’s more to the story, obviously. Obviously. There ain’t no way that this isn’t bigger than what we’re getting. We are not hearing the full story.

It’s fine that Ann Patchett chooses to emphasize one precious moment over the undisclosed moments. That’s her writerly prerogative. But that’s the my personal, um, “hole in my heart.” I’m the kind of gal who’s, like, Where the fuck is the husband?

Back to This Is Us. Saw it last night. It’s dreamy. Perfect. It’s like Ann. Humans need the kindness of others. They need the light and not just the exposing of the dark. Ann does that. I will be her fan forever, because I believe that she does, indeed, show these precious moments.

My closing Ann quote: 

“Quieting rooms is my party trick.”

Lara: In fairness, Sooki came to Nashville for the cancer trial. No one knew the pandemic would keep her there. She does make it back to her family. But that’s all I am going to say about that.

If you haven’t ever read an essay collection, These Precious Days is a great one to cut your teeth on.

Next Up!

Join us in February, when we will discuss Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book. Until then, happy reading Snotties!


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