Message in a Bottle

In my last post I announced that I was going on vacation, but I didn’t say exactly where I was going. Now that I’m out of the shop and far from the reach of your envy, I feel safe enough to reveal that I’m writing to you now from the sunny south of France. I’m living la vie en rose, I’ll admit, but not every minute. Paris may be a model of grace and style, but getting through its airport is no promenade dans le jardin. And hey, I had to leave the beach to write this post, didn’t I? 

Well, I guess I didn’t have to, but I wouldn’t want to leave my readers hanging in my absence. The possibility that spending a little time during my trip talking about books might allow me to write the whole thing off on my taxes never entered my mind, I swear. So let’s get to it.

imageimageI already mentioned my favorite travel writing, but I made sure to pack a few fat novels in my carry-on. There’s no better opportunity than a long plane ride to indulge in a big book—as the altimeter climbs, so does the page count. For international flavor I chose something by Julio Cortazar, a well-traveled author born in Brussels, raised in Buenos Aires, and made famous in Paris, where his classic Hopscotch is set. To remind me of the Pacific Northwest I brought the epic Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. 

imageSome non-fiction also made the cut. Sure, I can study history in real life by visiting the ancient châteaux that are strewn across the landscape here like fried chicken franchises back home, but a little book learnin’ never hurt anybody. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Danubia, Simon Winder’s idiosyncratic account of the Habsburgs, the royal family who controlled wide swaths of Europe from the middle ages to the end of the first world war. They were a bizarre and confusing bunch, but Winder straightens out their story with ease. He never does get around to explaining why he doesn’t call them the HaPsburgs, though, which is how I remember the name of their house being spelled. Better yet, he makes their saga endlessly amusing, favoring the personal over the political and small, telling details instead of broad summary. I love that approach, and I love that he isn’t afraid to digress. For example, he riffs at one point about zoo architecture and a guinea pig village, and those three or four pages alone were worth the price of the book for me.

What else? Well, later on I’ll make a report or two about my observations regarding bookselling and book reading in Europe, but right now I hear the Mediterranean calling my name. Partly because of that, but also because August is a traditionally sleepy time where publishing is concerned, we’re going to take it pretty easy on the blog for the next month. The store will be open in real life as usual, but expect no more than one message from us per week via the web. You’re probably too busy with vacations of your own—at least we hope you are—to bother reading our yammerings more often than that. 

Enjoy the rest of your summer! I know I will.


The Fever by Megan Abbott

imageEvery summer there’s one or two thrillers that everyone’s talking about. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson dominated 2010. In 2011 it was Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson and Sister by Rosamund Lipton, in 2012 there was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and last year the big one was The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. This year, everyone’s been telling me I have to read The Fever by Megan Abbott. So I did.

We already know a version of The Fever in real life. In 2012, Le Roy, New York made the news with a strange epidemic: a strikingly large group of mostly teenage girls all developed an idiopathic tic. Was there an environmental cause? Was it stress? Had everyone gone crazy? No one seemed to know. What happened in Le Roy was eventually believed to be a psychological problemmass hysteria. But that isn’t the case in Abbott’s new novel.

In The Fever, the first teenager to suffer a seizure and fall into a coma is Lise, a voluptuous and popular girl who has been getting a large amount of male attention since puberty hit. It just so happens that the day before Lise’s seizure, her best friend Deenie lost her virginity to the same guy Lise had been hooking up with. Deenie is the central character in The Fever and her entry into the world of sexuality sets the stage for the book’s underlying condemnation of promiscuity, implying that the victims of what soon becomes an epidemic are actually being slut-shamed. The primary male characters, Deenie’s father Tom and her brother Eli are stable, solid guys. But Deenie’s mom had an affair and abandoned the family. All the other female characters are either promiscuous, sinister, or hysterical. Women, it seems, are being punished.

Lise’s case is the most serious, but soon the strange seizures spread and incident after incident lands girls in the hospital. Deenie’s other best friend, Gabby, is one of the victims, and soon Deenie begins to notice that the symptoms are striking those closest to her. Theories are floated. Was it the school-given HPV vaccine that caused the epidemic? Contact with the local contaminated lake water? But then why isn’t Deenie affected?

It isn’t the solution to the problem that’s at the heart of The Fever. It’s the force of teen emotions and the dynamics of their interactions with each other that’s so compelling. Teenagers make each other crazy, but oddly, sometimes their motivations make perfect sense. At least in the ending of The Fever they do.

While I enjoyed The Fever, if you’re looking for a thriller about teens gone wild, the one to watch for is The Secret Place by Tana French coming in September. Now those characters are crazy.



Traveling Companions

imageFor the first time in years I’m actually taking a substantial vacation, one that involves airplanes and oceans and everything. Which also means that for the first time in years I can read travel books without experiencing crippling jealousy. Some stay-at-homers may find them inspirational, but those readers are clearly better, less petty human beings than I. The last thing I want to read when I’m trapped in the daily grind without hope of escape is a story about someone finding thrills or (God forbid) enlightenment in an exotic land.

The only exceptions to this rule are books featuring writers raising families in foreign countries. Examples include Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr; The Moon, Come to Earth, about Philip Graham’s experiences in Lisbon; and the seminal Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. (Big miss, Doerr–should’ve called your book Quattro Stagioni Sulla Luna if you wanted to complete the trifecta.) I give these books a pass because the authors aren’t flitting about the globe for their own selfish purposes, they’re trying to immunize their offspring against a plague of Happy Meals and teach them what a globe really looks like. I can tolerate descriptions of lazy, late-night meals in piazzas and effortless visits to picturesque ruins by telling myself, “Think of the children.” Who knows, I may someday raise bouncing bilingual babies of my own by following the good example of Messrs. Doerr, Graham, and Gopnik.


When my tickets are in hand and I can look at the rest of the world without envy, the time arrives to forget about formula and diapers and take up a tale or two by a solo sojourner. Even then I’m not looking for traditional vacation fare. I don’t want anything too breezy or yoga-centric, I want something weighty that will provide ballast on my trip. I want to learn something about a place that I wouldn’t find out on my own, to pick up details that the natives might not know, and understand how the author’s mind processes it all. Which shouldn’t preclude a healthy dose of fun, mind you. A tall order, I realize.

imageThe classic travelogue that fits this bill is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. In her glamorous youth she was noted for her scandalous, decade-long affair with the much older H.G. Wells, but by the time she came to write her magnum opus she’d become a major-league intellectual and activist with a reputation that more than matched his. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon relates her travels throughout the Balkans in the period shortly before World War II, but it also covers about a thousand years of regional history. It’s still the book that offers the most insight into the confusing ethnic and cultural strife that continues to splinter what used to be known as Yugoslavia. And it’s entertaining, believe it or not.

What’s most wonderful about the book is the way West can digress so fruitfully in unexpected directions. Everything she sees and everyone she meets can inspire marvelous asides that other writers would build whole novels on. Like this bit, which is so good that I can recite it from memory:

Remember, when the nuns tell you to beware of the deceptions of men who make love to you, that the mind of man is on the whole less tortuous when he is love-making than at any other time. It is when he speaks of governments and armies that he utters strange and dangerous nonsense to please the bats at the back of his soul. This is all to your disadvantage, for in love-making you might meet him with lies of equal force, but there are few repartees the female governed can make to the male governors.

imageThe only other travel writer I can think of who matches up against West’s literary firepower is Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011 at the age of 96, but not before completing a legendary trilogy. As an eighteen-year-old he walked across Europe, roaming for almost two full years from the English Channel all the way to what he romantically insisted on calling Constantinople, and recording the journey in three parts. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were published during his middle years, and the adventure ended just a few months ago in the posthumously-published The Broken Road. Fermor was an amazing figure (if you don’t believe me, just read the biography by Artemis Cooper; his military exploits alone will astonish you) and his writing style is as charismatic as he was in person.

Hmm. Between Rebecca and Paddy, I’m up to 2,100 pages. Guess I’ll need a bigger suitcase.


This piece was first published at

Bookstore Employment Woes


If you venture a look at the cart around the front counter at Island Books, you might get a glimpse of this poster about “Your Rights as a Worker.” It’s about 25 years old. Was the minimum wage really $3.85 per hour back then? That won’t even buy a soda at the movies these days.

Roger showed me the poster with a chuckle the other day, after a recent article in The New York Times got us talking about the history of bookstore employment. The story was about a distressing dispute between a bookstore owner and his employees. My dad emailed the link with the question, “What would Roger say?”

Chris Doeblin owns both Book Culture bookstores, located near Columbia University in Manhattan. His employees recently pursued unionizing in order to gain more holiday pay, promotions, and health insurance. On the management side, the economic realities of independent bookselling necessitate cutting costs. Doeblin prioritizes maintaining his business above retaining his employees. The move to unionize resulted in Doeblin’s firing of several key staffers, and an uproar in the surrounding community.

The recent expansion of Book Culture contributed to Doeblin spreading himself too thin. During such uncertain times for the independent bookstore industry, his concern for his own personal investment understandably kept him up at night. He told the press he’s losing money, and the volatile negotiations with the union seem to have made him an even more stressed and angry boss. While the employees were eventually rehired and concessions were made, it’s hard not to envision a work environment at Book Culture that’s both disrespectful and depressing.


There’s not much else we can say from across the country, except that we feel for both the owner and the employees. Bookselling, like other passion jobs like acting, dancing, and teaching, operates under the notion that the people working in the business are doing it as much for the joy of the work as for the pay. But it would be nice if both owners and employees didn’t have to fight so hard to make ends meet.

We can only hope that the team there can figure it out. The independent bookselling business has enough external threats to keep us up at night. The last thing we want to see is a good indie bookstore self-destruct from within.



Mio Suocero

Mother-in-laws get a bad rap, but father-in-laws don’t get any attention at all, it seems to me. Having done what I can to rectify the former, it’s time to do something about the latter.

My father-in-law was born into a large Italian-American family in Brooklyn, New York. How large? Large enough that his accounts of family history quickly descend into confusion for the listener who has to keep track of all the members, a problem that’s compounded by the fact that they all shared the same handful of first names. They grew Tonys in bunches like grapes, it seems.

imageimageBrooklyn in those days was a fairly tough place, and kids didn’t venture outside their own neighborhoods very often. If your last name ended in a vowel and you had to go down the Irish block, you ran. The atmosphere of the time is still present in the fiction of Gilbert Sorrentino, especially his novel Steelwork, and also in Vincent Papaleo’s Italian Stories.

Before my future father-in-law was out of his teens, Uncle Sam came calling and summoned him to Korea. He reported late for duty because of an honest mix-up about the date (timeliness is not his strong suit, a trait he passed down to his daughter, much to my chagrin) and missed the boat across the Pacific. Instead of getting tossed into the stockade, though, he was handed a plane ticket. Even with a cushy stopover in Hawaii, he made it to Asia ahead of his unit and got a better assignment as a result. I don’t know if this was the first time his bad luck turned to good because someone wanted to do him a favor, but I know it wasn’t the last. He brings that out in people.

imageimageHe describes Korea as cold, which corroborates David Halberstam’s attestation in the title of his history of the Korean War. My father-in-law didn’t see action, fortunately for all of us, but his time there wasn’t the most pleasant experience. He did get to go to Japan on leave, where he and some other GI buddies bumped into Don Newcombe and other members of the world champion 1955 Dodgers in the Ginza market. They were in town to play an exhibition against the Tokyo Giants and gave the soldiers free tickets. Roger Kahn tells the story of that Dodgers team in one of the greatest baseball books ever written, The Boys of Summer. Ironically enough, even though my father-in-law grew up in Brooklyn, he’s a lifelong Yankee fan—his greatest flaw, in my mind. Blame Joe DiMaggio, I guess.

Maybe this international experience was the thing that broadened the horizons of that kid from the neighborhood. Back in New York after his tour of duty ended, my father-in-law expanded his cultural horizons and started hanging out in Manhattan more often. He saw artists in their early days who are now legends, including such musicians as Thelonious Monk and Bob Dylan, who’d only recently stopped calling himself Robert Zimmerman. It was around then that my father-in-law took up the family trade and became a teacher—there are multiple educators and principals among his siblings and more distant relations.

As most of the rest of his generation pulled up stakes in Brooklyn and headed for suburban Long Island, he looked farther east and took a civilian job with the Department of Defense. He started teaching the children of commanders and generals at NATO headquarters in Paris, where in his off hours he roared down the Champs-Élysées in a 1964 Mustang. Paris took some adjustment (he inadvertently sabotaged a relationship with a Francophile colleague when he told her how dirty and smelly he found the city) but adjust he did. He saw Edith Piaf sing in one of her final concerts and palled around with Eddy Mitchell, even passing himself off as the pop star’s manager at one point.

When NATO HQ moved north to Brussels, my father-in-law moved with it, but not before meeting and marrying the young Frenchwoman from Algeria who would become my mother-in-law. She gave birth to a daughter (my one-day wife) in Paris and two weeks later found herself in the house in the Belgian countryside where she and my father-in-law still live today. In the intervening decades, they raised a family there while he taught literally thousands of kids and coached countless others, regularly winning championships in soccer and other sports. Those kids grew up to be generals, commanders, and accomplished civilians themselves, and just recently dozens of them, some newly graduated and others gray-haired with grandchildren, flew in from all over the world to participate in a soccer tournament founded in tribute to my father-in-law.

He finally retired just last week after 52 years in the same job and will soon be enjoying a well-deserved vacation in the south of France. As you may know, the French celebrate their independence every summer much like we Americans do, with a lavish display of fireworks, but not on the Fourth of July. Their big party takes place on Bastille Day, July 14th, which happens to be my father-in-law’s birthday. A running joke in his family has it that the spectacular display is held in his honor, and as far as I’m concerned, it is.


Goodnight World Book Night


Sad news, fellow book lovers. After three years and a tremendous effort by publishers, writers, booksellers, and more, World Book Night is suspending operations.

James wrote about his experience with World Book Night back in 2012. Looking back at his blog, you can already see the writing on the wall. His initial effort to hand out Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to his softball team sounded disappointing. James took home half the copies he tried to distribute. “Too busy,” was the response. When people are turning down a free bestseller because they never have time to read, that’s depressing. But it’s also reality.

The program failed due to lack of funding. World Book Night officials were unable to secure outside grants, and I can see why. How could they document the results? There’s no way to prove that giving away free books increased overall book sales or helped the book industry. We don’t know if it even increased reading, because chances are many of those free copies ended up on a dusty shelf or at a yard sale. Despite plenty of buzz on social media, what did the World Book Night actually accomplish?

That’s a sad question for a book lover and reading advocate. At the time he wrote his blog, James said he wasn’t demoralized and intended to participate the following year. But things change over time, and it just wasn’t as easy to get excited the next time World Book Night came around. He wasn’t the only participant I know who developed a growing antipathy to the event.

imageI suppose there was a bit of a missionary aspect to the process. While people weren’t handing out bibles, they were trying to convert non-readers into readers. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do when you’re dealing with adults. Most recipient’s reading habits were already formed by the time they received their free copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

The way I see it, the problem with World Book Night was the way it was targeted. I suspect if we all went around trying to give free ski lessons to random adults, the response would be, “too busy / scared of hurting myself / don’t have money to get hooked on an expensive habit / hate the cold” and so on. But, if we tried to give ski lessons out to a bunch of random kids (the necessary parental participation aside), many of them would jump at the chance to expand their horizons. Why couldn’t World Book Night be World Book Morning at the front door of local elementary schools?

Just a suggestion. Still, I’m sorry to see the program go. Like many old school and romanticized notions about books, this was an effort that was out of touch with reality. Sigh.



The Goal Is In Sight

World Cup fever has cooled a bit around here since the US team bowed out of the tournament, but the temperature is still high. How could it not be after this year’s display? It looks like the record for total goals scored will fall before all is said and done, and we’ve seen some spectacular play along the way. In particular, Germany’s shellacking of Brazil was a match that will be talked about for at least the next fifty years. The finals take place on Sunday at noon, and even if we can’t watch, you can bet we’ll be checking the score from behind the counter. Oh, the sacrifices we make for you, our beloved customers.

As we’ve mentioned before, though, the World Cup of Literature has been even more fun for us to follow, and that competition too is winding up. Thirty-two works of fiction from around the globe have been facing off against each other for weeks now, and a winner, the so-called best book in the world, will be announced on Monday.

There have been some uncanny parallels between the action on the field and in the books, including a shocking upset of Spain. The defending champs on the pitch got crushed by the Netherlands, and pre-tournament favorite Your Face Tomorrow by Spaniard Javier Marías likewise got bounced in the first round, taken out by Australian Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch. The United States and Belgium had critical second-round matchups on turf and also on the shelf; apparently we Americans are better writers than soccer players, because we lost the first but won the second.

Before the WCL comes to an end, let’s take a closer look at the most successful books so far, the ones that made it all the way to the semifinals.

imageAusterlitz by W. G. Sebald (Germany): A novel that takes the form of a thirty-year conversation unfolding in train stations and travelers’ stops across England and Europe. Jacques Austerlitz is an orphan who came to England alone in the summer of 1939 via the Kindertransport, rescued from a Jewish family. He relates to an unnamed friend his lifelong efforts to discover the truth about himself and his family, details obscured by the veil of atrocity that the Nazis dropped across the continent during the war years. Almost any subject is fodder for Austerlitz’s intellectual investigation—railway architecture, military fortifications; insects, plants, and animals; the constellations; works of art; the strange contents of the museum of a veterinary school; a small circus; and the three capital cities that loom over the book, London, Paris, and Prague. Austerlitz was a favorite of the judges throughout the tournament, and also of the fans who followed it—each win was endorsed by more than ninety percent of those who voted.

imageBy Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño (Chile): Chile’s soccer team had a remarkable run through the World Cup, and so did this novel, which recounts the tale of a poor boy who wanted to be a poet, but ends up a half-hearted Jesuit priest. Father Urrutia is offered a tour of Europe by agents of Opus Dei (to study “the disintegration of the churches,” a journey into realms of the surreal); and ensnared by this plum, he is next assigned the secret, never-to-be-disclosed job of teaching the dictator Pinochet all about Marxism, so the junta generals can know their enemy. One WCL judge called it “razor sharp in its examination of centuries of abuse of power, corruption, and apathy in Chile’s sordid history; the strange bedfellows that such corruption creates; and the oh-so-human tendency towards looking the other way, towards self-preservation, towards going with the flow. It’s an indictment against the world laid out in Bolaño’s trademark style, wherein he leads you right to the lurking horror but doesn’t quite let you see it in full. And then, all of a sudden, you see it in all its horrible glory, know it better than you thought you wanted to, to the point that you will doubt humanity’s capacity for good. Ever. This was Bolaño’s power, and it’s on full display in this short book. A masterpiece if ever there were one.”

Cheerless but darkly comic, By Night in Chile went up against Austerlitz in a semifinal that felt more like a final. Either book could easily be crowned the most important international fiction of this millennium, but in this match Chile got the win.

imageThe Pale King by David Foster Wallace (USA): Like the US soccer team, this book is a bit of a hodgepodge that’s nonetheless powerful and full of potential. Wallace left the work unfinished upon his death in 2008, and it was restructured and assembled by an editor before it was published on April 15, Tax Day, 2011. The judge who moved it into the quarterfinals says this about it: “On its face The Pale King is about the Internal Revenue Service and a bureaucratic snafu that creates a case of mistaken identity between two IRS employees named David F. Wallace. The characters orbit a back-story involving the mismanagement of tax returns and an IRS regional processing center’s bungled cover-up…. But do not read The Pale King if you are looking for a novel with a strong plot. What you will find are fully drawn characters who feel alive and true, with their various neuroses, skin conditions, glandular disorders, and hardship enduring the consistent drudgery of the Service. These people (mostly men) are boring. Their work is boring. And DFW’s slow, granular descriptions, use of repetition and bureaucrat-speak make the tedium of their lives palpable. The labyrinthine IRS procedures and protocols depicted are absurd. But for these ‘anti-actors’ adherence to them is a test of will, even heroic. Weak will is failure. And the writing is great: immediate, but not urgent; technical, but accessible; overly descriptive, but entertaining. All of the opposing elements combine to create something extraordinary, like eating something that is both sweet and salty.”

imageFaces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico): Something of a breath of fresh air entered the semis when this book made the cut. It’s a debut novel, the only one by a woman and in fact the only one by a living author still in the mix. The publisher describes it thus: “A young mother in Mexico City, captive to a past that both overwhelms and liberates her, and a house she cannot abandon nor fully occupy, writes a novel of her days as a translator living in New York. A young translator, adrift in Harlem, is desperate to translate and publish the works of Gilberto Owen, an obscure Mexican poet who lived in Harlem during the 1920s, and whose ghostly presence haunts her in the city’s subways. And Gilberto Owen, dying in Philadelphia in the 1950s, convinced he is slowly disappearing, recalls his heyday decades before, his friendships with Nella Larsen, Louis Zukofsky, and Federico Garcia Lorca, and the young woman in a red coat he saw in the windows of passing trains. As the voices of the narrators overlap and merge, they drift into one single stream, an elegiac evocation of love and loss.”

North America fared much better in the WCL than in the real World Cup, pushing two teams into the final four. Pity that they both couldn’t go on, but in the end Faces in the Crowd knocked out The Pale King.

So the final is set: Mexico vs. Chile in a Spanish-language battle for all the marbles. Tune in Monday to the Three Percent blog to see who wins.


So Bad It’s Good: Literary Junk Food and The Bachelor

imageIsland Books customers are some of the smartest and most intellectual people around. We read sweeping and complex works of fiction, hard-hitting political memoirs, and epic histories. For our children we buy books that model the kind of citizens we want them to be, from coming-of-age novels to the classics. We go to the symphony, the ballet, and the theater. Our families, our careers, and our leisure activities bubble up in banter with the staff, proving over and over that our store serves a special and highly educated community. 

And yet. Dig a little deeper, and you might find that the same customer who joyfully read Melville and Woolf in college and buys books like The Goldfinch and Hard Choices loves to read People magazine. Get to know that customer after a few more languid visits to the store, and they might even let it slip that they love to watch The Bachelor.

You might be surprised to know that among the educated and upper class wealthy Americans, one of the most popular primetime television shows is indeed The Bachelor. And if you’re smart and you’ve watched even a few of the 18 seasons, you know the show isn’t really about romance. Finding love is only the premise, but the fascinating part is the discrepancy between what the cast members think they’re showing the viewers and what they’re subconsciously putting out there for public judgment.

If you appreciate the complex psychological aspects of the show (ambition! competition! greed! delusional thinking!) you know that the real fascination is with what isn’t being said on television. Whether it’s due to contractual obligations with ABC or sheer terror, up until now the only person who has boldly pulled back the curtain on the show is the blogger Steve Carbone, better known as Reality Steve. Not only has he successfully spoiled most of the endings to The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor Pad since 2009, his blog is so entertaining and popular that he makes his entire living by running the site. (Personally, I love his sarcasm and have lost hours of my life to this guy. I find knowing the spoilers makes the show even more enjoyable because you watch the behavior and editing through different eyes.)

Now, a new voice has emerged next to Reality Steve to give us the down and dirty on what happens behind the scenes. Other contestants have written books that sunk like stones, mostly filled with dating advice and inspirational cliches. Finally, here comes the most candid and shocking memoir Bachelor fans could have ever hoped for. I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends by Courtney Robertson just hit The New York Times bestseller list, and that’s because what’s between the covers is as satisfying as a hot fudge sundae.

Every good Bachelor fan knows Courtney Robertson. She was the winner of Season 16 starring Ben Flajnikand the most reviled villain the show ever produced. Did I mention she’s a model? When she showed up at the “Women Tell All” episode at the end of the season, her fellow contestants nearly ripped her to shreds. Her sound bites included comments like, “These girls have no idea what I’m capable of” and “I almost want to rip her head off or…shave her eyebrows in the middle of the night.”

When Flajnik proposed to Robertson on the season finale, fans were in an uproar. They hated her with a passion. But was she that bad…or was it the editing? And what role did Ben Flajnik play in all of it? Amidst rumors of him cheating, their relationship still managed to survive an entire year. Still no one was surprised when they broke up. But so many questions remained.

I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends answers every single one of those questions and more. The media has picked up on the more sensational parts of the book, like what really happened when Robertson and Flajnik went skinny-dipping (you’ll get every last detail). There’s also the truth about what happened in the fantasy suite, Robertson’s experiences dating other celebrities before the show, and how the whole breakup with Flajnik played out. But that isn’t what sets the book apart. Anyone can dish gossip out if they know it. There are two things that make her memoir such a good read, and it isn’t the salacious details. One is how honestly she shares her feelings throughout the experiences. These are adventures most of us will never have but have diligently watched, and it’s fascinating to hear from her perspective what it’s like to conduct a romance on television and in the public eye. The other great part is her small anecdotes about all the people she met along the way, from descriptions about one contestant’s annoying habit of referring to herself in the third person to how she and her cast mates coped with stomach problems during filming. All of it is so real it could only have come from someone with the most inside scoop.

You can read I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends in just a few hours. It’s addictive. There’s no need to like anyone in the book, including the author, to have a blast reading it (although you might find yourself reconsidering your opinion of her if you watched her on the show). And I won’t judge you if you take a break from your impressive reading list to devour this book candy. It’s summer, after all.



Impractical Cooking, Practical History

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Most people who know me well would find it very funny that I’m writing about cookbooks today, given that almost all of my contact with food comes after it’s prepared and plated. I’m no good in the kitchen, so my usual contribution to dinner is saying, “Whatever you want to eat is fine with me.” I do appreciate fine culinary artistry, though, and I also appreciate the books that explain how to produce it.

For instance, I really like Keepers by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion. It contains well over a hundred recipes that take flavor, health, and practicality into equal account. Not dumbed-down, but still accessible for beginners, it’s exactly the sort of book a family chef will actually use again and again. Keepers follows in the footsteps of several other great books that prove you can work with real ingredients just about as conveniently and quickly as you can with the pre-packaged stuff that gets passed off as food—and get far better results, of course. I’m thinking of Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach, Fast Food My Way by Jacques Pepin, Homemade with Love by Jennifer Perillo, The Family Cooks by Laurie David, not to mention the various releases in the Everyday Food line from Martha Stewart and the Family Cookbooks from America’s Test Kitchen.

imageExcellent, sensible volumes all, and I benefit from them enormously on the rare occasions that I open one. But I’m helplessly drawn to another kind of cookbook entirely. My real fondness is for books that I’ll never smudge, spill upon, or even use at all, most likely. The latest example is The Bloomsbury Cookbook by Jans Ondaatje Rolls, which catalogs the life, art, and meals of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and the other geniuses of their circle. Rolls draws on letters, diaries, and other writing from the period to find out what and how the authors were eating, and in so doing has filled in some gaps in our understanding of a very glamorous, very specific cultural milieu in England in the 1920s.

Take this quotation she shares from A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf describes lunch at a men’s college:

[O]n this occasion [it] began with soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream, save that it was branded here and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe. After that came the partridges, but if this suggests a couple of bald, brown birds on a plate you are mistaken. The partridges, many and various, came with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard; their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent. And no sooner had the roast and its retinue been done with than the silent servingman, the Beadle himself perhaps in a milder manifestation, set before us, wreathed in napkins, a confection which rose all sugar from the waves. To call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult. Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled.

Rolls has uncovered through her research period recipes for all these menu items; it’s essential background information that infuses the passage with even more vibrancy than Woolf, for all her brilliance, could alone. Rolls has also filled her book with paintings, drawings, and photographs by the likes of Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington, making it as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the mouth, a combination of cultural history, cookery, and art.

That’s a perfect description of an even more sumptuous lust-object for the foodiest bibliophiles, Historic Heston. It’s named after superchef Heston Blumenthal, whose Fat Duck restaurant has been voted the best in the world. His efforts to bring his patrons the latest in gastronomical wonders have led to an exploration of the culinary past. He’s resuscitated dishes from antiquity that include Eggs in Verjuice, Meat Fruit, and Hash of Snails; rejuvenated them with hypermodern techniques such as sous-vide heating; and is serving them in his various establishments around the world. Daring diners may attempt to recreate Blumenthal’s recipes at home, but most will content themselves to savor them, and what they say about our ancestors, on the page.

Maybe this sort of thing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure tastes good to me. Typical histories are concerned with out-of-the-ordinary events, but cookbooks are just the opposite; they thrive on the commonplace, the repeatable, and the mundane, the stuff of daily life. As such, Blumenthal’s book creates an intimate connection to the past that simply isn’t present in other kinds of writing. Without his deep dive through the archives in search of the humdrum and domestic, some of the texture of our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents’ experience on earth would be lost. Admit it: you feel a tiny bit closer to ancient Mesopotamia when you imagine someone holding the clay tablet that is the world’s oldest cookbook.

In thinking about the importance of culinary history, I realize that the humbler cookbooks I mentioned above are vital documents of the here and now. Good thing for the historians of the future that I’m keeping mine in such pristine condition.



There’s a New Kid in Town


In one of the most well-read communities in the country, Seattle indie bookstores have a reputation to uphold. We live right next door to a bookselling internet giant that cannot be named, so there isn’t room for mucking around in the book business. It’s sink or swim.

There’s a mutual admiration society around here among the local bookstores that have endured. So when a new kid arrives in town, we cross our fingers and hope they can make our local bookselling community that much better.

Santoro’s was the neighborhood bookstore over in the Phinney Ridge/Greenwood area for 9 years. Owner Carol Santoro sold the store in early 2014 to Ballard resident/Jeopardy champion/former Amazon editor/author Tom Nissley. If his name rings a bell, it’s because he’s hand-sold books at our store and popped up on this blog before.


Nissley reopened the store about a week ago, and my husband and I took an evening trip over there to high-five him. There’s a mom-and-pop ambiance brewing over there that could only make Roger and Nancy Page proud. In addition to Tom and his charming wife Laura, three generations of their family were on hand to work the cash register, write shelf talkers, and ensconce themselves in the community. Their whimsical and personal touch is all over the freshly redesigned space, including creative signs for the fiction (“True”) and nonfiction (“Made-Up”) sections, an Interurban streetcar bookcase, a Ferris wheel on the wall, and Laura’s personally designed Glittersweet handbags (which made a perfect birthday present for our babysitter).

Personally, I think the best and most unique part of the store is the unbelievably curated selection of books. I suspect Tom has read at least half the titles on display. It’s a small store, so there’s no room for anything extra. While any title can be ordered per a customer’s request, the tables and shelves are remarkably deliberate, sparse, and bursting with personal attention. Much like our own Island Books, you’ll find an owner over at Phinney Books almost every day, ready and willing to talk your ear off about all the books he loves, and which books he thinks will most suit you.

Phinney Books is tucked right next to the 74th Street Ale House and across from Bluebird Microcreamery & Brewery, so they’ll get plenty of foot traffic. (We hit both those spots afterwards.) It turned out to be a perfect date night.

So if you’re over in that neck of the woods or just tired of spending all your free time and cash at Island Books, check it out. And tell Tom and crew that we said hi.



Motherhood Illustrated

There’s a rather hardboiled piece of fiction making the rounds again after forty years. Recently released in a new edition by Phaidon Press, it features a cold-hearted protagonist who’s more interested in smoking and brawling than in the love of a good woman. Did I mention that it’s a picture book for kids?

imageIt’s called No Kiss for Mother and it’s by one of the titans of children’s literature, Tomi Ungerer, author of Crictor and dozens of other hardy perennials. Originally published in 1973, No Kiss for Mother stars Piper, the school-aged son in a somewhat dysfunctional family of cats. Dad is detached, mom is doting but ineffectual, and Piper himself is a real hooligan. Hating to get up in the morning, he demolishes his alarm clock. He puts spiders in his teacher’s purse and pours glue on the girls in his class, anything to get kicked out before it’s discovered that he hasn’t done his homework. Despite all this, his mother calls him “Honey Pie” and wants nothing more than to shower him with affection, which he rudely and repeatedly rejects.

imageHe seems a hopeless case, particularly when a fight leads to a badly injured ear. When his sobbing mother rushes to his side and he rebuffs her yet again, her fear and frustration make her snap. Instead of a kiss, she gives him a solid wallop. Finally she’s speaking a language Piper can understand. He apologizes to her for being such a monster with a bouquet of flowers and agrees to be nicer in the future. But she still doesn’t get to kiss him.

In 2014 this is shocking stuff, and the re-release actually carries a label calling it a “controversial classic.” The current publishing (and parenting) powers that be generally believe that showing bad behavior is to be avoided so that it won’t be imitated by young readers. As such, the warning is probably warranted, but I don’t think there’s much danger in this case. It’s pretty clear that no one in this book is to be emulated, and it may well be a good thing for kids to see that even grown-up cats aren’t perfect all the time.

imageMore contemporary maternal manners can be found in a pair of picture books written by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by Barbara McClintock. The first is Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary, which tells of two young girls who share a big house. In their pinafores and Mary Janes, the two lead parallel lives, Mary with her human family and the mouse with her murine one. Each has been taught to mistrust the other species, but when they spot each other through a hole in the wall, they become friends at a distance, keeping an eye on each other’s progress as they grow up. Eventually, now clad in bell bottoms and beads, they go their separate ways. Years later, living in a different big house, their two modern daughters enact the same ritual of discovery and shy smiles, but this time the results are different. Young Maria and young Mouse Mouse bravely approach each other at bedtime for a hearty shared “Good Night!” through the heating grate. It’s a simple, lovely story on the surface that also sends a very subtle message about overcoming prejudice and achieving independence.

imageThe sequel, Where’s Mommy?, once again features Maria and Mouse Mouse, still living in the same big house. As night falls and they get ready for bed, they want to be tucked in, but can’t find their mothers. They separately search room by room, one above and one below, to no avail. Their baby siblings are no help, and neither are their fathers, who don’t seem in the least bit worried about the missing moms. Stealing into the darkening garden, the girls almost trip over each other as they burst into the shed and find … Mary and mother mouse having a pleasant chat. The girls are delighted to find their mothers, and even more so to find that their mothers are friends. Everyone heads back inside for bedtime stories about humans, mice, and friendship across generations. Very sweet, and again accompanied by a subtle lesson. The girls realize that it’s OK for their moms to have lives that aren’t focused on their kids every single minute of the day, and also that their moms have been tacitly aware of their daughters’ interspecies acquaintance without feeling the need to intrude on it. There’s a very sophisticated dynamic portrayed here very delicately.

It’s no slight to Donofrio’s writing to say that much of this is transmitted through McClintock’s illustrations. The detail in her work is exquisite, and because of it her characters are utter individuals who occupy a completely convincing environment. Her books will be lasting portraits of their times as much as Ungerer’s are of his.



My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

imageThis might sound strange, but after finishing the just-released memoir My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, I realized I’m guilty of incorrectly judging a book by its cover color. Although an advance copy had been sitting on my nightstand for quite some time now, I kept pushing it lower and lower in the pile for the simple reason that the predominantly brown cover didn’t appeal to me. I never even bothered to read the jacket copy, so I wasn’t even avoiding the premise or description. It was just that the cover made it seem like anforgive meoverly masculine book.

It’s not the first time I initially passed on a brown cover that held treasure between the pages. The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer was an almost completely brown cover, and oh did I resist reading that one, even though it was the talk of the publishing house I worked for at the time. It was Moehringer’s memoir of growing up fatherless in the local bar in Manhasset, New York. Instead of romanticizing a booze-filled past, this coming-of-age portrait has something for everyone, from father-son story to first love to adjusting to college to finding his way as a journalist. And all of it is recounted with the knack of someone who spent hours telling stories to a colorful cast of characters in a bar; the kind of person who could make you down his writing faster than a good drinker could chug a beer.

imageWith that aside, what I’m intending to tell you about is My Salinger Year. I somehow overcame my aversion to the cover and stayed up far too late reading it two nights in a row. Enough random sources had been whispering in my ear and urging me to crack it open that I finally reached the point of feeling obligated. To be honest, I only noticed the cover included a girl in the window of the apartment after I’d finished reading the whole book. All I’d seen was brown brick.

I should have read the description because it soon became clear this was a book I had to read. It’s a memoir of Rakoff’s year working as an assistant to an established literary agent, right around the time that most offices were just starting to shift to using computers. This was exactly the era when I started my first internship in the editorial department at Simon & Schuster, and my god reading this book was like being there all over again. From feeling so poor that you had to be satisfied with coffee for lunch to yearning for 500 pages of assigned reading per night, the experience of being an assistant in the literary world of Manhattan comes completely to life. This is The Best of Everything in the 90s (I wrote about that 1958 glimpse at the young publishing assistants’ world here) and will easily captivate the same audience.

Although the title implies this book is about Salinger, it’s really a coming of age story about Joanna Rakoff. (If you’re looking for a book about Salinger, read this post instead). Her boss represents “Jerry,” as he’s reverently called around the office, and her interactions with Salinger as well as with his piles of fan mail could actually have been with any number of legendary authors. Even the anecdote about Judy Blume’s appearance in her office could have been about any big writer. What’s universal about Rakoff’s job is what appealed to fans of The Devil Wears Pradaa proximity to and yearning for artistic greatness that makes young and as-yet-unaccomplished 20-somethings particularly vulnerable.

imageWhile she deals with a lackluster relationship based on rebellion, Rakoff begins responding to Salinger’s fan mail. She soon abandons the agency’s recommended form letter and engages in the fans’ attempts to start a dialogue with the author of Franny and Zooey and The Catcher in the Rye. But she’s never read a word of Salinger’s writing. Again, this just isn’t a book about him at all. What comes out is a portrait of a likeable and slightly lost young woman working on her own voice. She feels like the kind of person that anyone who reverently loves books will feel a kinship towards. As she transforms from wide-eyed and awestruck apprentice to a confident aspiring agent who sells her first story, her character nearly bursts off the page with authenticity.

The ending, which jumps forward in Rakoff’s life, has a strange and almost disjointed feeling to it. While it does tie in the significant role Salinger played in her life, there is a part of me that wishes we could have just left the barely-adult Rakoff trudging towards the subway with a bag full of manuscripts. But I suppose every young assistant must grow up eventually, including myself.

Like Rakoff, I’ve never read a word of Salinger except maybe part of Franny and Zooey in high school (but if so, I don’t remember it). So I was impressed with myself for getting up the morning after I finished My Salinger Year and pulling Catcher in the Rye off the shelf. I read the first two chapters last night and damn is it good. What took me so long? Well…I guess I wasn’t excited about the plain red-brown cover.

There’s a moral in this whole story. Something about not judging a book….well…you get the point.



First Page Perfection

Are you the type to fall in love at first sight? I’m not, but I do it sometimes anyway. Mostly with books. What makes it happen? Well, shapely plots and well-fleshed characters can draw me in slowly, but it’s playful, expressive language that forges an instant connection.

Like when I picked up a copy of Brian Doyle’s The Plover in the store the other day. I started leafing through it to see what it was about, read the first two paragraphs, and then stopped. Not to put it back, but to go find anything else I could that he had written. That brief exposure alone was enough to tell me that he and I were going to be spending an awful lot of time together. I brought home my pile of books, ran through the rest of The Plover, and kept going with the rest of his work. The spark we had most definitely turned into a flame.

Not to say that everything’s perfect between us. As charming as he is, as ingratiating and observant and celebratory of the vast diversity of life in all its wonderful and terrible aspects, he can be a little too relentless about it. The wit, the cute remarks, the sheer depth of feeling—now and again you want to ask him (politely) to just shut up. Not forever, but for a little while. Time apart is good in a relationship, I think, and only makes it stronger. Doyle and I aren’t done yet.

Of course, not every book that hits my heart hard and fast becomes a longtime companion. I’m thinking now of a whirlwind romance I had recently with Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell. We met in the YA section, of all places, and I don’t mind admitting that the cover, darker and moodier than most of the candy-colored stuff around it, was what first attracted me. I was truly smitten by the opening line, though: “On the morning of its first birthday, a baby was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel.”

How do we know that it’s a special occasion for this anonymous orphaned infant with “hair the color of lightning?” Well, “because of the red rosette pinned to her front, which read, 1!” She is soon rescued by a scholar, and since it is a “scholar’s job to notice things,” he correctly points out that “the child is either one year old or she has come first in a competition. I believe babies are rarely keen participants in competitive sport. Shall we therefore assume it is the former?” Reader, I swooned and took Rooftoppers back to my place immediately.

It didn’t last, I’m sorry to say. Rundell’s sparkling prose doesn’t flag, but the plot peters out partway through and the whole thing comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying end. I’ll always have fond feelings for it, though, and if Rundell and I run into each other again in the stacks I’ll be happy to see her there and hear what she has to say. You never know, we may both have grown a little and pick up right where we left off. And even if we don’t, I won’t chalk up what went on between us as a failure. If nothing else, it served as a reminder that you never know where, when, or how a real literary relationship will start.

As such, I’m keeping my eyes open. Just now I spotted an elegant spine on the science shelf. It turned out to belong to a gorgeous little number called Things That Are, a collection of essays about the natural world by a debut author named Amy Leach. I opened it randomly, and the first thing I read was this: “In the seventeenth century, his holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish.” I ask you, how can you not fall in love with that?


This piece was first published at

Teen Summer Trends


The stellar box office performance for The Fault In Our Stars is only one piece of evidence that the young adult genre is heading in a new direction. For years YA has been overrun by dystopia, thanks to the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games. But now, thanks to John Green and perhaps Rainbow Rowell (who wrote the bestseller Eleanor and Park) we’re getting back in touch with the side of teenagers that fell in love with Judy Blume.

Could it be that teens are ready to look at—gulp—real life? This summer we have some strong candidates for bestsellers about teens who live in the same universe we do. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (see our review here), The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Matheieu, and of course the upcoming film If I Stay, based on the bestseller by Gayle Forman.

Two other recent and notable YA novels come to mind that fit in the realistic category: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han and The Art of Secrets by James Klise. I recommend both.

To All the Boys is about a Korean-American girl who writes love letters to all of her crushesfor her eyes only, as a way of journaling her feelings. But then someone mails the letters and she has to deal with the consequences. What could have been a corny premise is both heartfelt and entertaining in Han’s hands, and as much a story about sisters as it is about teen romance.

Told from multiple points of view, The Art of Secrets is a whodunit about a Pakistani-American teenager whose family’s apartment burns in a mysterious fire. Neighbors and classmates organize a fundraising event to help the family, which leads to unexpected consequences and reveals disturbing secrets. Both dramatic and mysterious, this story offers up plenty of fodder for discussions about race, class, and what it means to be an outsider.

I, for one, am glad to see such a glut of good YA summer reads in this style. I’m tired of dystopia and never enjoyed it much to begin with, so this new wave of realistic fiction makes me happy.

Of course, by the time my almost-two-year-olds start to read YA, this fad will probably come and go again several times. But for now at least, parents of teens can look forward to a vampire-free summer.



The World Cup of Literature


The din of South African vuvuzelas has barely died away, yet here it is again—the World Cup. For the next month the finest soccer teams in the world will meet on Brazilian pitches, eliminating each other one by one until a final champion is crowned. As always, it promises to be a fascinating pageant, whether or not you’re a follower of the Beautiful Game. Whenever the whole globe decides to take part in something, it’s worth paying attention.

imageimageTrue soccer fans can fill the downtime between matches with some excellent new books, including the sumptuously illustrated 1000 Football Shirts and Eight World Cups, George Vecsey’s personal history of a lifetime covering the sport. But even those not athletically inclined have a way to to show their international spirit and get in on the action.

The crafty folks at Three Percent, an online resource built to promote translated literature, have cooked up a World Cup of their own. They’ve chosen a representative book from each one of the 32 nations taking the field in Brazil and matched them against each other. As the real teams do battle, judges will read the books and determine winners, passing the best along to the following rounds. By the time the national squads have booted, tackled, and sweated their way down to a single victor, the judges of the World Cup of Literature will have also chosen the best book on the planet.

Is it a little ridiculous to pit books against each other this way? Of course. Is the process subject to the whims and foibles of individual taste? Obviously. Is the whole idea that a single book can be “the best” inherently flawed? Absolutely. But is it fun? I say yes. It’s a great opportunity to expose yourself to fiction from the far corners of the world and root for authors, however arbitrarily. Maybe you love their books, maybe you just love the cuisine of their homelands. Doesn’t matter.

The first-round matchups:

A diverse array of titles, all contemporary and selected to reflect the current literary scene, which is much more interesting in my mind than trying to weigh so-called classics against each other. Moby-Dick vs. Middlemarch would be a whole ‘nother kind of tournament.

Some of the favorites here correlate with the heavy favorites in the real World Cup—Spain, Germany, and Brazil probably have equal chances to win on grass or on the page. There’s more likelihood of a breakthrough for the underdog nations in the World Cup of Lit, though. You have to think the US will be better represented by David Foster Wallace than by its 23-member, Landon Donovanless national soccer squad. (What were you thinking, Coach Klinsmann?) The smaller nations have a fighting chance because of the high quality of their entries, but also because of the capricious nature of the judging. You can’t completely trust those decision makers. I know because I am one.

That’s right, yours truly will be presiding over the final first-round match between Germany and Ghana. I have my own thoughts about Sebald and Laing, but FIFA, soccer’s governing body, has a long tradition of corruption that I’m honor-bound to uphold, so your opinions carry just as much weight as mine, assuming you back them properly. There’s plenty of time between now and June 26th, when the winner of my match is declared, to ply me with inducements of all kinds. I’m partial to dark chocolate and Belgian beer, but a simple cash bribe is always acceptable.

Unmarked bills, please.



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