Chapter 16: Nationally noted

Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 9:05pm
By Serenity Gerbman Chapter16.org
RossPhoto1012.jpg
Adam Ross (Eric England/SouthComm) 

A year ago at this time, the future looked grim for Tennessee bookstore patrons. Beloved stores Carpe Librum in Knoxville and Davis-Kidd in Nashville were closing, and Davis-Kidd in Memphis faced an uncertain future. The Borders chain teetered toward failure, and the e-reader reached its tipping point, becoming one of the most popular holiday gift items.

One year later, it’s clear that the physical bookstore is not only alive but possibly even experiencing something of a resurgence. At Chapter 16, we’re celebrating the good news for Tennessee bookstores and authors who made it a bountiful year for readers. The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis emerged from the bankruptcy of the Joseph-Beth Chain. Union Ave. Books opened in thriving downtown Knoxville. And Parnassus Books came to Nashville.

If star power is measured by media attention, 2011 was no doubt the year of Ann Patchett, bookseller, who partnered with longtime Random House sales rep Karen Hayes to open Parnassus. When the store was first announced, Patchett told Chapter 16, “To me, it’s like the gift I want to give to my city, the city that I love.” A month into the life of the store, the city is showing its appreciation by packing the store and keeping its small staff busy this holiday season. Of course, it was also the year of Ann Patchett, writer, whose bestselling novel State of Wonder is now appearing on numerous year-end best-of lists, including those of The Washington Post, National Public Radio, at Salon, in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and IndieBound.

Patchett has used her powers for good in other ways as well this year, personally rescuing from oblivion The All of It, a long-out-of-print novel by Jeannette Haien, and writing the introduction to Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, a short-story collection that went on to become a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Patchett was also a vocal advocate for fellow Tennessean Kevin Wilson, whose novel The Family Fang is also earning critical acclaim. “This book is powerful, funny and deeply strange,” Patchett told Salon. “You won’t read anything else like it.” Wilson, an assistant professor of English at the University of the South, made some best-of lists of his own, including those at Amazon and Esquire.

Another writer with a Sewanee connection is alumnus John Jeremiah Sullivan, until recently an editor at large for GQ and now both a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and Southern editor for The Paris Review. Sullivan, who has long been a writer’s writer, broke through in a big way this year with the acclaimed collection Pulphead. In an interview, he told Publishers Weekly: “My fixation is Southern enlightenment: times and places when the South has gone against the country’s low expectations of it and offered up sources of inspiration.” Pulphead made the best-of lists in Time, The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

Michael Sims, another Tennessee nonfiction writer, also found new audiences this year. Sims is a native of Crossville who once worked as a bookseller at Mills Bookstore in Nashville. He now lives in Pennsylvania and maintains one of the most interesting writing careers around, acclaimed for his writing on science and nature and for his editing of vintage detective fiction. In 2011, with The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, Sims embarked on yet another genre. With this unique biography, he focused not on the whole storied career of the famed writer and essayist, but on the ways in which E.B. White’s life led to his creation of the beloved children’s novel. Sims has been recognized in year-end lists by The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, BookPage, The Boston Globe and IndieBound.

This year, one of the most critically acclaimed young-adult books was Between Shades of Gray by Nashvillian Ruta Sepetys. For her debut novel, Sepetys drew upon her Lithuanian heritage to write her debut novel, which follows sixteen-year-old Lina and her family as they are forced under Stalin’s regime to leave their home for a Siberian work camp, where Lina’s art helps her to survive. Chapter 16’s Fernanda Moore praised the novel as “as invaluable testament to a ghastly chapter in twentieth-century history.” Perhaps for this reason, Sepetys became the first American author to win the prestigious Prix RTL-Lire, a French prize for the best novel for young people published in the last year, and was recently named a finalist for the American Library Association’s William C. Morris Award, given annually to a writer who has never before been published. Between Shades of Gray also made best-of lists at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Wall Street Journal and iTunes.

Fellow Nashvillian Adam Ross followed up his 2010 bestseller, Mr. Peanut, with a critically acclaimed short-story collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, which made the best-of list at Kirkus Reviews. Meanwhile The Color of Night, a novel by former Nashvillian Madison Smartt Bell, made the best-of list at The Boston Globe.

It may come as a surprise to Tennessee readers to learn that acclaimed historian Robert K. Massie spent much of his childhood in Nashville. Massie’s new book, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, is another in his collection of exhaustively researched narrative masterpieces focusing on Russian history. The book made the year-end lists of The New York Times Book Review and BookPage, IndieBound and The Boston Globe.

Last year’s runaway hardcover bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by former Memphis resident Rebecca Skloot, continued in 2011 to top the bestseller charts as a paperback. It was listed as the No. 1 nonfiction paperback this year by IndieBound. The big book in science reporting this year came from Nashvillian Holly Tucker, an associate professor in Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health and Society. In Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, Tucker tells the fascinating history of the suspicions against blood transfusions when they first came into common use. Tucker was recognized by The Seattle Times.

It turned out also to be a great year for fans of music and books, as a number of chart-topping Tennessee musicians shared their stories with the world. John Carter Cash, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, David Frizzell, Ashley Judd, Brad Paisley and Shania Twain all made headlines in both the literary and entertainment media. Country Music Television offers a roundup of the best music books of the year here.

One writer, in particular, is in our thoughts as we end 2011. Sewanee poet Wilmer Mills died July 25, at age 41, in his childhood home in Louisiana, surrounded by his family. Shortly after being diagnosed with liver cancer, Mills wrote a letter to friends and family that we were honored to publish. “The simplest way to enter the fullness of time is by breathing our words aloud to each other, and often, with love and hope,” he wrote. We end this year with hope for all of the writers and readers out there, and wish you the very best in 2012.

For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.