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Ann Patchett talks about family, friendship and writing ‘These Precious Days’

Best-selling author Ann Patchett discussed "These Precious Days."
(Heidi Ross)

Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.

On Thursday, novelist Ann Patchett regaled us with stories about the people and subjects most dear to her, drawn from her new story collection, “These Precious Days.”

During our final book club night of 2021, Patchett talked about her no-cussing, no-smoking LAPD detective dad, who was involved in the infamous Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan cases. She shared wisdom from such varied heroes as Homeboy Industries founder Gregory Boyle, children’s author Kate DiCamillo and Snoopy of the Peanuts Gang. She explained how an unexpected friendship and pandemic quarantine with actor Tom Hanks’ personal assistant, Sookie Raphael, inspired her book’s title essay.

The author of such bestsellers as “The Dutch House” and “Bel Canto” also discussed how she constructs a novel. “I can write the first 10 pages of a novel 50 times,” Patchett said. “But for me it’s like building the basement of a house. I have to get the basement exactly right before I can go on to the next floor.”

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Patchett spoke of her joy in owning a neighborhood bookstore in Nashville filled with rescued shop dogs.

“What is the secret to small independent bookstores?” columnist Steve Lopez asked her. “What can they offer that the giants can’t?”

“It’s curation,” Patchett said. “Somebody has gone through picking the books that they think the customers are really going to relate to. A lot of it is just service.

“If you have a little store you’re hiring people who are readers and they know the customers and they remember what the customers read last time.”

You can watch the entire conversation, including Patchett’s reply to a reader question about Hanks’ interest in opening his own bookstore, here.

Ann Patchett and Sparky the bookshop dog.
(Heidi Ross)

Our year of reading

In 2021 the pandemic continued to keep us from travel and adventure. Yet our community book club took us everywhere.

We read stories from across the world and close to home—stories that touched every aspect of our lives and culture. Race. Politics. Justice. Gender. Family. Friendship. Climate. Wildfires. Hollywood.

Our book club continued to be a welcoming and safe place to discuss the most pressing, and difficult issues of our times.

Here’s where the L.A. Times Book Club took us in 2021:

In January author Lisa See transported readers to “The Island of Sea Women.” Her novel introduced characters inspired by the real life haenyeo, a culture of legendary women divers on the Korean island of Jeju, where they hunt seafood in the ocean depths without breathing equipment.

See said the book grew from a magazine piece about the haenyeo she spied at her doctor’s office.

“It was just one paragraph and a small photo,” See recalls. “But I just ripped that out of the magazine and brought it home with me. I knew that one day I would write about them.”

Author Lisa See's latest book, "The Island of Sea Women
Author Lisa See at Point Dume Beach
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

In February novelist Charlotte McConaghy joined us from Sydney, Australia, for a tumultuous fishing vessel voyage from Greenland to Antarctica in search of the last Arctic terns.

McConaghy’s eco-thriller “Migrations” unfolds in a near future when climate change has accelerated to a devastating pitch.

She knew her story’s harsh reality needed to be tempered with a gripping plot and a glimmer of hope that all is not lost. “I wanted to energize people and myself to come out of the other side of despair and apathy and into a place of hope, love and action,” McConaghy said.

Charlotte McConaghy with environmental reporter Rosanna Xia
Australian author and screenwriter Charlotte McConaghy and Times environmental reporter Rosanna Xia.
(Los Angeles Times)

In March we went to Paris.

That’s the setting of “The Committed,” Viet Thanh Nguyen’s sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Sympathizer.” Nguyen says his protagonist, a half-Vietnamese, half-French communist double agent, is “still a man of two faces and two minds.” But in the sequel the unnamed spy is a refugee in 1980s Paris, “a revolutionary without a revolution.”

Nguyen’s literary thriller is part political novel, part historical novel and part comic novel. “I thought that there would be a sweet spot for readers who would be willing to grapple with serious ideas and be entertained at the same time,” he said.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen at home.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

In April, we went inside the White House.

Former President Barack Obama joined us for a conversation with filmmaker Ava DuVernay about “A Promised Land.” Obama’s fast-moving memoir puts readers in the room at defining moments of his groundbreaking presidency.

Obama also answered questions from local high school students and offered this advice for young activists: Be clear and strategic.

Former President Obama joined with filmmaker Ava DuVernay.
Former President Obama joined book club readers on April 21 to discuss “A Promised Land” with filmmaker Ava DuVernay.
(Los Angeles Times)

In May novelist Charles Yu shared his journey from corporate lawyer to TV writer to National Book Award winner.

Yu’s satirical novel, “Interior Chinatown,” explores how Hollywood and society trap Asian Americans in stereotypical roles.

“I wondered if I would run into people who would say, ‘What is the big deal? Is it really such a big problem?’” Yu recalled. “I thought I’d get skepticism. Does this story really need to be told?”

Author Charles Yu poses for a portrait in Irvine on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021 in Los Angeles
Author Charles Yu in Irvine.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

In June, we went to the E.R.

Author and emergency medicine physician Michele Harper shared the stories behind “The Beauty in Breaking,” a memoir about race, gender and the humanity of patients marginalized in the hospitals.

Harper also offered insights into the daily sacrifices and struggles of medical workers in a bestselling book that debuted in 2020 during the depths of the pandemic.

Michele Harper is the author of "The Beauty in Breaking."
(Riverhead Books/ LaTosha Oglesby)

In July filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia shared a contemplative account of losing both of his parents.

He wrote “A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes,” about his father, Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, and mother, Mercedes Barcha.

“I just miss talking to them,” Garcia said. “I’d love to be sitting here with my mom saying, ‘What do you think? I wrote about your death. What do you think about this thing at the Los Angeles Times Book Club?’ And she’d have a hoot, saying, ‘You’re such a gossip. You spilled the beans, but you did well.’”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mercedes Barcha in the late 1960s
Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mercedes Barcha in the late 1960s, in a photo from “A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes” by Rodrigo Garcia.
(Photo from the Garcia Marquez Family Archive)

In August tennis legend Billie Jean King took us from the public tennis courts of Long Beach to center court at Wimbledon to the epicenter of her lifelong battles for women’s rights and fairness.

In her memoir, “All In,” King writes about being outed as a lesbian and seeing corporate sponsors desert her “overnight.”

“I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin until I was 51,” King told Times Executive Sports Editor Christian Stone. “So it was a tough journey.”

Billie Jean King and Times Executive Sports Editor Christian Stone.
(Los Angeles Times)

In September, journalist Jaime Lowe showed us the frontlines of California’s wildfires through the experiences of the women inmates risk their lives to save a state in peril.

Lowe said her book, “Breathing Fire,” was inspired by the death of Shawna Lynn Jones, a 22-year-old inmate killed on the fire lines in Malibu — just six weeks before her release date.

Book cover for "Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California's Wildfires" by Jaime Lowe.
(MCD/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux/ Jeff Montgomery)

In October director Ron Howard and actor Clint Howard showed us what it was like to grow up on some of the most popular TV shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

At age 6, Ron became a familiar face on “The Andy Griffith Show” and moved on to “Happy Days,” while brother Clint starred opposite a giant brown bear on “Gentle Ben.”

In our first in-person book club night in 20 months at L.A. Live, the Howard brothers discussed their lives as child actors and why they finally decided to co-write a memoir, “The Boys.” And here’s more about book club night on L.A. Times Today.

Ron Howard (left) and Clint Howard chat before book club night.
(L.A. Times Today)

In November, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones discussed “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story ” with Times Executive Editor Kevin Merida at the California African American Museum. Authors Terry Millan and Nafissa Thompson-Spires also read their contributions.

When the book got a greenlight, Hannah-Jones didn’t want to mince words in her sweeping exploration of slavery and its continuing legacy in America today.

Hannah-Jones said she created a style guide to ensure contributors would be mindful of the language used: Human beings would be referred to not as “slaves” but as “enslaved persons”; “Blacks” would never be a collective noun; and “plantations” would be called what they were: “slave labor camps.”

“When you think about the image that the word ‘plantation’ evokes, it’s ‘Gone With the Wind,’ it’s bucolic, it’s mint juleps and it’s these beautiful dresses,” she said. “And undergirding all of that is torture, and the threat of torture.”

Watch the L.A. Times Today TV segment.

Nikole Hannah-Jones on her book, "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story," with L.A. Times Executive Editor Kevin Merida.
Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses"The 1619 Project” with the Los Angeles Times Executive Editor Kevin Merida.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

What’s next

On Jan. 25 bestselling author Stephanie Land will discuss Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and A Mother’s Will to Survive” in a virtual conversation with Times reporter Paloma Esquivel.

Land’s story of resilience, recovery and dreams postponed but not ended is now a Netflix series. President Obama included “Maid” on his summer reading list, describing Land’s book as “a single mother’s personal, unflinching look at America’s class divide, a description of the tightrope many families walk just to get by, and a reminder of the dignity of all work.”

Sign up on Eventbrite.

And tell us: what books and authors would you like to discuss in 2022? Please share your ideas in an email to bookclub@latimes.com.

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