"These Precious Days: Essays" by Ann Patchett; Harper (320 pages, $26.99)
Ann Patchett’s splendid new essay collection, "These Precious Days," overflows with life — the joys of friendship, the bonds of family, the delights of bookstores and dogs, the mysteries (even to her) of writing. It’s warm and funny and smart and full of unexpected insights. What more could you ask from a book that is essentially a meditation on death?
Patchett is a brilliant novelist ("The Dutch House," "Bel Canto" and many more), but she’s also a gifted essayist, as anyone who’s read her 2013 collection, "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage," knows.
The essays in "These Precious Days" were all published elsewhere, but they read as if crafted to fit together in this book, with a pleasing rhythm of short and long, dark and light, sharp and soft.
A pair of shorter essays early in the book are apt for the season. In “The First Thanksgiving,” Patchett recounts being a 17-year-old college student stranded in her dorm for the holiday. Her cooking skills are rudimentary, but her confidence is that of the young. She checks "The Joy of Cooking" out of the library, goes shopping and invites five other kids (after liberating some flatware from the cafeteria). She cooks every single thing from scratch. “Why would someone who didn’t know how to cook think that this is what Thanksgiving required?” she writes. “I didn’t know any better.”
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The dinner is less than perfect, and the university turns off the heat in the dorms so they all have to huddle around the gas oven for warmth, but the evening, she writes, was “brilliant,” marking the first time she saw herself as an adult.
She’s been an adult for a while when she chooses “My Year of No Shopping.” A friend had done it a few years before, making no unnecessary purchases for a year. Patchett likes the idea, but it comes back full force in 2016, when “our country had swung in the direction of gold leaf.” She can’t focus on writing or reading, and “in my anxiety I found myself mindlessly scrolling through two particular shopping websites, numbing out with images of shoes, clothes, purses and jewelry.”
None of that made her feel better. “What I needed was less than I had,” she writes, so she devises a plan for what to stop buying and learns some surprising lessons along the way.
Needing less is also a theme in “How to Practice,” about helping her childhood friend Tavia clean out the condominium Tavia’s father had lived in since the 1970s — and apparently not thrown anything away the whole time. After his death, for a whole summer, she helps Tavia spend weekends clearing it all out, “to bear witness to the closing down of a world that had helped shape me.” And they swear to each other never to leave such a chore to anyone else.
Many of the essays, of course, focus on writing, her own and other people’s. In Patchett’s wonderful introduction to a new edition of "The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty," she writes that she first thought the great Southern writer was a fabulist. “It had never occurred to me that Welty was accurately representing a culture until I married into that culture myself.”
“Cover Stories” is a smart and fascinating essay about how book jackets are designed — and about who wields power in publishing. I feel somehow embarrassed not to have known that John Updike (one of Patchett’s inspirations) designed some of his own book covers.
“A Talk to the Association of Graduate School Deans in the Humanities” is a savagely funny account of Patchett’s experiences in a creative writing MFA program in the 1980s that morphs into a celebration of her unexpected second career as the owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville.
In “Reading Kate DiCamillo,” Patchett writes about meeting the beloved children’s author and deciding to read one of her books, even though “in my adult life I’d never made a habit of reading children’s literature.” "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" so bowls her over she reads all of DiCamillo’s books, culminating in a mystical experience with "The Magician’s Elephant." This essay is an excellent counter to the boneheaded notion that children’s books should never make children feel sad or scared or lost — books are the very things, Patchett writes, that have the power to teach children to be brave enough to cope with pain.
Several of the essays focus on family matters that affected Patchett’s career as a writer. “Sisters” is about her mother, a woman so spectacularly beautiful she had to have checks printed without her phone number to keep store clerks from calling her for dates. As a child, Patchett writes, “I had seen the benefits and costs of beauty and decided to pass.” But she mourns for her mother’s other qualities — intelligence, kindness, wit, a dedicated career as a nurse — overshadowed by her beauty. “Three Fathers” is about her mother’s three husbands, Patchett’s father and two stepfathers, and their decidedly different attitudes to Patchett’s writing.
“There Are No Children Here” is Patchett’s self-assured and refreshing response to the countless people who question her decision, made early in life, to be childless. Grilled by a radio interviewer about the issue “as if my childless life were a matter for investigative reporting,” she responds, “I don’t have children. It’s not a secret. But I wonder, would you ask Jonathan Franzen the same questions? He doesn’t have children.”
Many of the essays touch on death, from Patchett’s journey to Welty’s funeral to her excavation of Tavia’s father’s condo and the deaths of her own three fathers. But the book’s centerpiece and title essay brings life and death together most intimately.
The whole story, Patchett writes, is improbable. One night in 2017, she plucked a book for bedtime reading from “a pile by the dresser.” Bookstore owners and famous authors both get tons of books from publishers hoping for blurbs, so you can imagine how many she gets.
The book is a short story collection, "Uncommon Type," by actor Tom Hanks. She’s pleasantly surprised by it and sends off a blurb. A few weeks later Hanks’ publicist asks if she will fly to Washington, D.C., to interview him as part of his book tour.
And so she meets Sooki Raphael, Hanks’ assistant. The evening is lively and fun, but Patchett is intrigued by the “tiny woman wearing a fitted evening coat with saucer-sized peonies embroidered onto black velvet.” Over a year and a half, she and Sooki become friendly via email, after Hanks agrees to narrate the audiobook of "The Dutch House."
But then the shock arrives. Patchett learns that Sooki has pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal and difficult to treat of all cancers. The story of the two women’s extraordinary friendship is so surprising and rich I won’t spoil what follows, but “These Precious Days” will both break and lift your heart.