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Booksellers look back at the best titles of 2020

In a year of isolation and pain, book sales are up as many turn to reading for a distraction, understanding and pleasure. Jeffrey Brown talks to two booksellers for our look at the year in books.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    In a year of isolation and pain, book sales are up, as adults and children have turned to reading for distraction, understanding and sheer pleasure.

    In our continuing look this week at the best of 2020, Jeffrey Brown turns to two booksellers who curate their selections with this year like no other in mind.

    It's all part of our ongoing art and culture series, CANVAS.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And for our look at the year in books, we turn to two bookstore owners.

    Janet Webster Jones of Source Booksellers in Detroit, we featured her recently in a look at the plight of independent booksellers. And Ann Patchett is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville and, of course, one of our leading writers. Her recent novel is "The Dutch House."

    It's nice to see both of you. It's really nice to see both of you in your T-shirts.

    Janet, let me just start with you before we get to our list. Give us a little update. How is the holiday season going?

  • Janet Webster Jones:

    Well, the holiday season is an absolute joy.

    We have been so busy, especially since the last time we talked, that we can hardly answer the phone. We have had a very busy, busy season. We have been frantically doing our fulfillment orders, as well as greeting people by twos and threes as they come to the store.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, Ann Patchett, what's it been like for you in this strange year?

  • Ann Patchett:

    It's a very similar story here.

    We have been overwhelmed by how incredibly kind and supportive our customers have been, not just in Nashville, but really all across the country. People have stepped up to help us out, ordering books online, ordering curbside.

    We have been running books out to people's car. And now we're letting a few people into the store at a time. We take everybody's temperature. Everybody wears masks, hand sanitizer. And people have been really kind and compliant and supportive. It's been a very heartwarming Christmastime.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, so let's look at some of the most important or favorite books of the year.

    And you both nicely packaged our first round in a package of three.

    Janet, why don't you start. All of your books, you told me, have the word rise in it. Tell us about them.

  • Janet Webster Jones:

    The three books that we have that have the word rise are first a biography. It's called "The Dead Are Arising" by Les Payne, who was a very well-known journalist, and his daughter, Tamara Payne.

    The book was worked on over a 30-year period, and it's about the life and times of Malcolm X. So, this new biography on him for — that was worked on for 30 years, I think, is very important, "The Dead Are Rising."

    The next one is a political commentary by Reverend Al Sharpton called "Rise Up." And this book is a book of choice-making, he says, that readers are led to understand that we are at a crossroads in our political development, sort of like our social development, our emotional development.

    Well, we're in — as a country, in a political development where we must choose to live out the meaning of the title, "Rise Up."

    And the third one is a cookbook, and it's a historical and contemporary history. It's called "The Rise" by chef Marcus Samuelsson, who I know has been on your show, Jeffrey. And he was so good. I love hearing him.

    The book is beautiful and insightful, and is one that we highly recommend for people.

    So, those are my three books of rise — that have rise in the title, which seems to be the message, that we have to rise up and change the way we live and think.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right.

    So, Ann, Janet went with nonfiction. I think your first three are all novels. So, what do you have?

  • Ann Patchett:

    Yes, I'm always for fiction.

    "Deacon King Kong" by Jim McBride. Jim McBride is very much in the news recently because he's had a television show about his last novel, "The Good Lord Bird," which won the National Book Award, was terrific.

    This is a book that is set in Brooklyn in 1969. A character named Sportcoat, who is a bad alcoholic, shoots a drug dealer in the projects where he lives and has no memory of it. Sportcoat has both the worst luck and the best luck of any character I have about ever seen in literature. And this story follows what happens when everyone's trying to catch up with him.

    The next book, one of my very, very favorite books of the year, "Transcendent Kingdom" by Yaa Gyasi. And it is the story of the wonderfully named character Gifty, who is a sixth-year doctoral student at Stanford in neuroscience. And she's studying the science of addiction and depression.

    And it is about the intersection of evangelical faith and science in how she's trying to solve the problems of her own life.

    And my very, very favorite book of the year by my very favorite writer, Louise Erdrich's "The Night Watchman" set in 1959. This is the story that's loosely based on Louise's own grandfather and how he tries to save the Ojibwe Nation by making sure that a termination contract on Native American treaties doesn't go through the U.S. government.

    This is such a hopeful book. And, really, all three of these novels are about one person making a difference in the world and changing the outcome of fate for a lot of people.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There was a book that I know you both loved.

    Janet, you can start on this. It's called "Black Bottom Saints," a historical novel by Alice Randall.

  • Janet Webster Jones:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Janet, tell us about it.

  • Janet Webster Jones:

    "Black Bottom Saints" is a novel.

    And I think it's a very important subject, because it's a historical novel based on real-life characters and people who lived and worked and walked through a section of Detroit which was called Black Bottom. Black Bottom was a very important neighborhood in Detroit prior to the expressways.

    And it has been raised by the expressways coming to Detroit, the interstate expressways, so that the neighborhood no longer exists.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ann Patchett, you had a few books for young people or for — or for the child in all of us?

  • Ann Patchett:

    Yes, yes.

    We always need something for our kids.

    All right, "Silver Arrow" by Lev Grossman, fourth grade and up. A girl named Kate asks her rich uncle, who she's never met, for a birthday present. He sends her a train. She and her little brother Tom go off on the train, have such adventures. And it, again, is all about problem-solving and creativity, really a wonderful book.

    Everything Kate DiCamillo writes, I love. This is the fifth novel in the Deckawoo Drive series, "Stella Endicott and the Anything-Is-Possible Poem," grades one through three. You have to write a poem for school. Stella writes it about her neighbor's pig, Mercy Watson.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, Janet, I think we have time for one more. You got one more pick for us?

  • Janet Webster Jones:

    Well, I — yes, I have five, actually, but I will pick one.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Janet Webster Jones:

    One that has gotten a lot of attention is called "Braiding Sweetgrass" by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

    This book, "Braiding Sweetgrass," has, I believe, changed the lives of a lot of people, because we have had people come in the store to say, I read this book, I have given it away, and I want to buy more and give them away.

    So, this is "Braiding Sweetgrass."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Janet Webster Jones of Source Booksellers in Detroit, Ann Patchett of Parnassus Books in Nashville, thank you both very much.

  • Janet Webster Jones:

    Thank you, Jeffrey.

  • Ann Patchett:

    Thank you, Jeff.

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