books

John Darnielle Reads to a Packed House at Parnassus

John Darnielle reads at Parnassus Books.

John Darnielle reads at Parnassus Books.

By my count, over 150 people packed into Parnassus books Thursday evening for a reading of Wolf in White Van, a new novel by Mountain Goats leading man John Darnielle. I’ve only read the first chapter, having just bought it, but I’m already hooked on the narrative voice that is both inviting and lonesome–a characterization that I suspect will apply to the protagonist, Sean Phillips, as well.

Here’s what I gather from the reading: the narrator, Sean, who was disfigured in his youth, creates a correspondence role playing game that blurs the edges of fiction into the landscape of his isolated reality. The game is successful on different levels–in popularity and in the solace it provides Sean. But the confluence of fantasy and reality doesn’t stop in the imagination of its creator. It becomes real to two of its players, with dire consequences.

I’ll issue a brief disclaimer: I’m not familiar with Darnielle as a musician. Perhaps because of it, I didn’t have high expectations. I find a lot of contemporary prose to be self-congratulatory, repeating its best phrases and metaphors until they lose their significance and sacrificing complexity for style. Darnielle read from two sections of the book. While it’s usually quite difficult to follow a reading that begins in the middle of a novel and is not preceded by an introduction, I found myself quite drawn into the prose. Sometimes tangential, it occupies the whole of Sean Phillips’ mind, but not at the expense of the plot. Darnielle knows how to withhold information and how to dole out the lines that make you pause.

In the Q&A that followed his reading, he showed an ease interacting with the audience that reminded me that he’s used to being in front of a crowd. Admitting that “being a writer was my first real dream,” Darneille shared that he was “freaked out” when he received the news that Wolf in White Van is on the long list for the National Book Award. Based on the questions asked, fans seemed to want to draw a connection between Darnielle the songwriter and Darnielle the novel writer, but the artist said that he puts up walls between the two: “I want the two things to be discreet,” he said. It’s interesting that he wrote the last chapter first and then worked backwards to figure out how it got to that place. “The book is a tracing back to a moment,” he said, “which is something I do a lot.” When writing songs, the artist said he always works from beginning to end. Where a finishing a song packs an “immediate punch,” writing a novel is more like sculpting, he said.

Wolf in White Van is already receiving rave reviews. All 17 copies have been checked out at the Nashville Public Library, and 16 more have been ordered. Read an excerpt published in Vice. Listen to his intense interview with Mark Maron on WTF.

Your Saturday Afternoon at the Public Library

If you wistfully remember Patience and Fortitude, regally guarding the Beaux-Arts building on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, you should give the main branch of the Nashville Public Library a chance.  Located downtown at 615 Church Street, the library, like the Beaux-Arts branch in New York, is like a museum.  Everything is pristine. The grand central lobby shows NYPL’s current celebration, best viewed from above as you lean over one of the balconies. The Civil Rights Room is a beautiful tribute to Nashville’s role in the Movement, complete with a lunch counter that displays the rules for nonviolent protesters. The teen book room alone made me want to morph back to my 17-year old self for the first time ever. The library also boasts a sunny courtyard and fountain, a large special collection, kids’ crafts and story time, and a photography exhibit.  

I only poked around for a couple hours, but it was by far the most relaxing afternoon I’ve had in a long, long time. I haven’t known the warm smile of a librarian in ages, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the libraries in New York are frequently smelly and kind of gross. I’m excited to check out some NPL events, too. 

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Book Hunting

Something about Nashville (namely, my boyfriend) has moved me toward the digital and audio read, so I decided to spend the afternoon exploring Nashville’s independent book stores. To me, a big bonus of living in a city is the likelihood of finding a good, independent bookstore, and Nashville is no exception.  One of my favorite places in NYC is The Strand. It claims to house 18 miles of books in narrow aisles, piled upon displays, and stacked on the floor. Inevitably, to reach the title of my desire, I had to mount one of their 20 foot ladders and make my shaky ascent.  Much like the rest of New York, in The Strand, you’re surrounded by people, yet completely alone in your world to feel the crushing weight of 18 miles of books that you simply must read before you die.

So, former New Yorkers, to find similar variety, visit McKay Used Books, CDs, Movies and More. Load up on classics for pennies. This is not hyperbole, my friends. Many titles go for 1 or 2 cents, a dime, a quarter. Really popular titles may get you up to $5.50. They have genres galore, too. And, they buy and trade, so after you move your 700 book library across the country, go ahead and sell those bad boys your first chance, like I did.  Your back (and boyfriend) will thank you when you move again.

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The stacks at Rhino Books.

If St. Mark’s Books was more your thing–you’re looking for less traffic and a less daunting selection–go to Parnassus Books in Green Hills. Co-owned by Nashville author Ann Patchett, Parnassus offers new books, hosts events and readings, and runs a popular book club, switching titles each month. The management’s selection veers toward women writers and best sellers.  (Milling around, I was never more aware of how gendered book covers are.) If you’re child-ridden (really? and from New York?) kids will find the children’s section cozy and intimate.

Brooklynites who favored Tea Lounge on Union Street for their java will feel at home in Rhino Booksellers near Lipscomb University. Crammed with used books–even in the restroom!–this store carries all the charms of the past including collectibles and rare books. Although the organization is wonky (I saw The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in three different places), the staff is friendly and knowledgable. They’ll help you find what you need. Their Southern Literature section is a must-see, and they don’t mind if you make yourself comfortable in one of the armchairs to peruse your top choices and eavesdrop on the conversations of locals who hold court as if it’s a front porch in the summer time. Sweet tea, anyone?

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If you’re like me, you spent countless afternoons drifting through Unnamable Books in the Village. Check out BookmanBookwoman in HIllsboro Village. They sell used and new books, their staff picks totally rock, and their collection spans two store fronts and winding back rooms. It’s a quiet place, and no one will be in your way. It’s mercifully free of children, the staff is unobtrusive but friendly, and for cryingoutloud, you get to explore alcoves of books! The last stop on my book hunting excursion, I picked up a new copy of The Girl with Curious Hair and headed home, just as it began to rain.

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Bookwoman, Hillsboro Village.

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Bookman, Hillsboro Village.