Message in a Bottle
Q&A With Local Author Jennifer Longo


On Sunday, Sept 14 at 3pm, we’ll be hosting Jennifer Longo, local author of Six Feet Over It. We asked Jennifer some questions to prepare for her visit. You won’t want to miss this opportunity to get to know her!



Island Books: Why did you decide to write a novel for teens? And more specifically, where did you come up with the idea to put your female protagonist in a graveyard?

Jennifer: That’s a really great question – I actually never decided to write a book for teens! I wrote this book as straight up literary fiction for adults, with the protagonist at thirteen years old. My agent thought aging her up and bit and pitching the book as YA would give it a better chance with editors. The only problem was, I hadn’t read any YA books since I was a young adult myself and was completely unfamiliar with the current trend. I’d read Judy Blume and Lois Lowery and Katherine Patterson, and that was about it. Thirty years ago. So my agent sent me a bunch of her client E Lockhart’s books, and pointed me toward other current YA authors to bone up on how these books worked. Revising the book to fit some of the conventions of the YA market was the hardest part of the whole process. I still don’t get it! But I hope I came close - readers and reviewers are responding about how it is different from most YA they read, so that tells most of the heart of the original story was retained. And young readers are loving the story, which tells me YA aren’t all necessarily totally plot motivated readers, they seem to love a good internal struggle, as long as it’s compelling. The idea to put the MC in a graveyard came from the main struggle I wanted to put her in, which is one abut learning to accept help and let herself mourn, and allowing death to have a place in her life without taking over – my own experiences growing up around the graveyard my family owned lent themselves perfectly to the story, and added some rich detail I’d been writing about for nearly thirty years already, so – done and done!


Island Books: How did your background in acting and screenwriting influence your writing style and process?

Jennifer: I did go to graduate school for playwriting and acting – I’m horrible at screenwriting, actually! Acting in and writing plays is hugely influential in how I write prose, particularly in how I write dialogue, how I structure the story, and how I create the character relationships. Plays are nearly all dialogue. Very little action may happen in a play; people playing characters can sit around in a living room for three hours and two intermissions, but the dialogue takes the audience through an entire story – amazing. The results are gorgeous. Writers should all be so lucky to have Albee’s instinct and ear for authentic language. I, on the other hand, must revise and revise and revise and revise….

Island Books: How did you come up with the title?

Jennifer: I did not come up with the title Six Feet Over It. My wonderful Editor at Random House, Chelsea Eberly did. The original title, of the play version of the story and the current novel, was At Need. Random House felt no one would know what that meant, and that it didn’t convey the humor of the story, so luckily Chelsea came up with this one.

Island Books: Your main character, Leigh, is only sixteen and basically takes on most of the responsibility of managing the graveyard her father bought. She’s a bit of a Cinderella, doing all the dirty work for parents who are selfish and infuriating. Her life is pretty terrible, actually, considering her sister has been fighting leukemia and her best friend died. Was it difficult to write from her perspective without making her a martyr? You accomplished that so well.

Jennifer: Thank you so much! That was something my agent, editor and I were constantly monitoring, we had a sort of “Martyr Check!” system – whenever Leigh was starting to whine too much, or get too down in the dark ‘Woe Is Me’ place, someone would make a note, and we’d examine how to pull her out into the light. Or at least find a way for her to take herself a little less seriously, measure her existence against someone else’s, or, my favorite way, have her look the ridiculousness of her situation square in the face and call it out. So much of what she’s living through is Just. So. Dumb! Seeing that is how I got through many situations as a kid myself, actually. I’d be sitting in the midst of some totally stupid moment created by my parents or whomever, I’d be so sad about it, feeling so sorry for myself, and then I’d cling to one thing – how incredibly lame it all was. How when I got home I would write it all down and then later I’d be relating what happened to a friend, and that person would invariably laugh at what I was telling them. Eventually I stopped being hurt that people were laughing at my misery and I realized they were right – most of the crap I was whining about was not misery, it was just incredibly insane! Like, I’d be at lunch in high school with my friends saying “My mom got my dad a stripper for his birthday and my boyfriend was there and we’re eating chips and salsa while three feet away some community college student is grinding on my dad’s lap to Little Red Corvette and I hate them so much!” and I’d be near tears, or in tears….and suddenly I’m in a comedy routing, people were laughing and it occurred to me that things could be much worse. There is, in fact, a ton of humor – dark and otherwise – to be mined from my life. So Leigh’s pushing herself away from self pity was kind of a reflection of my own efforts to do the same, I think. I’m taking a memoir class at Hugo House in Seattle this Fall…We’ll see what hilarity that dredges up!

Island Books: Why did you decide to play out Leigh’s relationship with Dario the way you did? Did you always plan for it to develop that way or had you set out to write their relationship differently?

Jennifer: Oooh my favorite question! One of the only things I knew for certain about this book before I wrote a single word was that it would, under no circumstances whatsoever, contain any romance at all. This was the second hardest part about converting the story from adult to Young Adult. Originally Leigh (the MC) was thirteen years old, so it was much easier to keep any romance out. But when they aged her up to fifteen, I got all kinds of pressure form every editor we shopped the book to. My agent (Melissa Sarver-White at Folio Literary) knew how much it meant to me to keep romance out, and she stuck to my guns just as ferociously as I did. I love her so much for that! And I would like to say first that I am very aware I’m a brand new novelist, I am no Hemingway, I am not speaking to an evaluation of the writing in YA when I say what I’m about to say at all, I’m speaking strictly to the plotlines. Okay. So, there are two main reasons for the Dario/Leigh relationship unfolding the way it does; First and foremost, this is a story largely about this young girl’s relationship with Death. Death - this character, for the narrative clarity of this story, sexual maturation (which normally would be part of the MC’s teenaged experience) has been pushed aside by other, more pressing matters and can’t be explored right then – which sucks for her. It is a problem, and part of the conflict. Part of the narrative. The second reason I knew romance had no place in any book I was interested in writing, was that if it was going to be marketed as YA, I am personally annoyed that nearly every singly YA book aimed at girls has the MC either yearning for, obsessing over or just actively engaged in finding, securing, mourning the loss of or just generally dealing with getting a boyfriend. Why attracting boys and seeking their approval must be such an intense focus for young women’s stories is beyond me. That’s the (hetero) narrative young girls are fed by every book focusing on this theme – that a boy in the center of one’s existence is the norm, if every single book girls read is telling her that if she doesn’t have a boy in her life causing either trouble or joy, there’s something not normal about her? That is not right. And, by the way, it isn’t realistic or true! There are girls who are late bloomers, boys too, or who just don’t give a crap! They might have other things to think about, like themselves, and what they want in life or the struggles they are enduing or helping someone else through. I wanted to offer something different to readers. A story about something other than lipstick by the lockers and all-consuming crushes. That said – I know there are many great YA books about for young girls about other things besides chasing boys, thank goodness. E. Lockharts’ We Were Liars is a book that demonstrates how romance can be part of a story and not be the entire focus, it’s the latest YA I’ve read and it is amazing. Also, Seattle author Karen Finneyfrock’s Starbird Murphy and The World Outside does this exceptionally well; two books I can’t wait to give my own (almost) teenaged daughter.

Island Books: What are your three favorite books and why?

Jennifer: Wild by Cheryl Strayed – My favorite book genre is memoir, this story of a woman who is lost and who pulls herself out of her self pity and forces herself to become a force of nature – it is the most wonderful book I’ve read in years. Beautiful prose, amazing story structure, I read it again and again. Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey – Picture book memoir! Incredible art and words about two girls exploring their world and growing up on an island on the east coast. Moody and gorgeous! Gift From The Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh – I re-read this every year and give it as a gift to everyone I know. It’s this meditation on life as a person, about solitude and living as a wife and mother and artist and human. Also she takes tons of walks on the beach and collect shells and rocks. Runners up: Paul Harding’s Tinkers, Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Island Books: What are some of your favorite things about living on Mercer Island (besides Island Books)?

Jennifer: My family are all lifelong, native Californian/San Franciscans, we just moved here last year and we love it! Particularly:

1. Watching the seasons change while running while my dogs frolic in Pioneer Park

2. Fellow parents at my daughter’s school, so much kindness and wonderful friends.

3. The schools are amazing! My sixth grader is so happy here, the teachers and administrative staff are wonderful.

4. The Mercer Island library! It is so beautiful and I love all the librarians!

5. The South end Starbucks. They let me write for hours and all the baristas are so wonderful and smart and funny and kind.

6. Sunsets over Lake Washington.

7. The farmer’s market. So many great food and flower booths, I love it!

8. The dentists! Seriously! MI Pediatric Dentistry is like a trip to a spa for kids, and Dr. Dawn Bova and her staff have taken this terrified patient and made me happy to go to the dentist. They are fabulous. I love them!

9. The Summer festival. Oh my gosh, so fun! The rides, the booths, the food!

10. Luther Burbank Park. Gorgeous.

11. The Mercer Island Half Marathon – I ran right past my driveway and into my house to put on band-aids and changed my shoes! This island is perfect for a half marathon, 13.1 miles of gently hills all in the shade. Amazing.

12. Reflected pink sunlight on Mt. Rainier. Impossibly beautiful.

13. Fifteen minutes to Seattle but a world away in the quiet trees. It is heaven.

Thank you so much, this was so fun!

Falling Forward


We’ve been quiet in August. Maybe you’ve forgotten about us. Traveling, swimming, and barbeques swallow the summer, and we know how it is, the great weather is a distraction. But now it’s Labor Day and time to get back down to business. There’s a new energy in the store as everyone heads back to school. We’re ready to embrace everything the fall has to offer.

imageFirst, there’s an author event coming up next Friday the 12th at 8pm that we expect will fill the store to capacity. We’ll be welcoming Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat. For those who aren’t familiar with the book and its particular tie to Mercer Island, this is the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Last March, we were lucky enough to host Judy Wilman, daughter of Joe Rantz, for a lively discussion with several Mercer Island book clubs. Obviously this bestseller has great local appeal and has been one of our top sellers since it came out. Word has it that the Mercer Island Preschool Association is meeting up for drinks beforehand to discuss the book and then heading over to the event. Whether you’re a member of that group or just want to gather your friends, it’s a good opportunity to come together for a drink, some community history, and a great time.

imageOur other author event in September will be Sunday the 14th at 3pm with Mercer Island resident Jennifer Longo, author of Six Feet Over It. We always love to introduce debut authors, and Longo’s coming-of-age novel should have wide appeal for young adult readers. Bring your teen readers to meet the author of this dark and witty story about a girl who sells graves for her family-owned cemetery.

imageIf you haven’t participated in Island Book’s open book club before, we hope you’ll consider joining us this year. Our group meets the last Thursday of every month at 7:30pm and if you purchase the book from us you’ll always receive 10% off. After reading Mink River together in June, it was agreed by the group that that pick was a very language-driven novel. One of the members suggested that we explore books that are distinctly driven by either plot, character, or any other means. We’ll be focusing on these types of books for the next few months, starting with our September pick, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Come ready to discuss why it’s a plot-driven story.

If you’re too busy to participate in our events, don’t feel like you aren’t a part of our community. You can still zip through here on your way home from work to pick up a unique gift, or spend quiet time browsing through our carefully handpicked book selections. While we were sad to see our former neighbor, Stopsky’s, close its doors recently, we’re looking forward to whatever will be taking their place. Here’s hoping their coffee will be just as good.

Speaking of gifts, Roger’s head almost spun off when Nancy recently returned from a 24-hour shopping marathon in San Francisco, loaded with all kinds of new toys, games, and unique gifts to stock our shelves. You can see the care and taste she pours into her selections when you browse beyond the bookshelves. We’re confident you’ll find the best and most unusual selection of gifts right inside our store.

imageAnd as for books, well, clear some time on your calendar this fall. Or at least plan to sit up an extra hour after the kids go to bed. There’s a plethora of good reads hitting our tables in the next few months. In September, a few of the titles we’re looking forward to include Tana French’s new thriller, The Secret Place (review coming next week), Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity, Ian McEwan’s The Children Act, and Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light.

When it starts raining too hard for you to venture over to see us, stay in touch by following us on Facebook, Twitter, this blog, our newsletter, and of course the store website. Roger, Nancy, James, Lori, Marni, Cindy, Kay, Garry, Marilyn, and I look forward to seeing you soon.



Counting Down to The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell


Sometimes I like to read fiction that features carefully created, fully rounded characters who respond convincingly to realistic situations. Sometimes I’m looking for plot-driven adventure set in exotic locales. Sometimes I want a historical setting that attends uncannily to detail and brings the past to vivid life. Sometimes I need a spectacular vision of the future that brings to mind possibilities I’ve never imagined before. Sometimes I just want to hear someone play with language and ideas in a way that makes beautiful music to my innner ear. And very rarely, I get all those things I want from a single author.

David Mitchell has made a career out of defying expectations and continually raising the literary bar, producing a series of novels that are nearly unmatched for their brilliance and complexity, yet are somehow accessible and thoroughly entertaining. He’s done all this while maintaining an engaging, humble public profile, as evidenced in this online interview.

On Tuesday, September 2nd, he’ll be releasing The Bone Clocks, which by all accounts is his best yet. It tells of Holly Sykes, first encountered as a fifteen-year-old runaway, whose long, eventful life is witnessed and narrated by several other characters, including a student, a journalist, and a psychiatrist. The action “takes place in Cambridge, Gravesend, Switzerland, Manhattan, the Hudson Valley, Toronto, Vancouver, Russia, Australia, Colombia, Shanghai, Iraq, Iceland, and several places you will look for in vain on a map. The central narrative begins 30 years ago, in 1984, and ends nearly 30 years hence, in 2043, but once you factor in various digressions and backstories, the time span of the book covers some 7,000 years.” Sounds like too much to handle, but Mitchell’s always had a remarkable ability to take the world in all its sprawling confusion and prove how interconnected it really is. I trust his talent implicitly.

How much have I been looking forward to The Bone Clocks? Well, the shop is closed on Monday for Labor Day, but if it weren’t, I’d convince the boss to stay open until midnight so we could start selling it the instant it’s legally possible to do so. As it is, I suggest you turn up first thing on Tuesday morning to claim a copy. Don’t look for me to ring you up, though. I’ll be in the back room reading mine.


Bookselling in France


No, this isn’t one of the display tables at Island Books, it’s one from an independent, approximately Island Books-sized shop in Perpignan, France. It’s mostly filled with work by French writers, but you’ll also see some pretty recognizable Anglophone authors there, including Hillary Clinton, represented by her memoir Le temps des décisions, and E.L. James, famed for her erotic romance Cinquante nuances plus sombre. Sharp-eyed readers will also notice a tall pile of copies of La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert, a hit novel by Swiss author Joël Dicker that was a staff pick for Cindy earlier in the summer.

All paperbacks, you’ll note, but that doesn’t mean these are last year’s releases just making their way into a cheaper format. Hardcovers are rare in France, and pretty much all books sold here start out in paperback. This is a practice that harkens back to the long-gone days when readers had all their books bound in leather. You’d buy the stitched-together paper pages of a book, then take them to a binder to have an elegant set of covers attached. Not only was your book permanently protected, it looked like all the others on your shelves, as if your library consisted of a single giant encyclopedia set. 

imageEven when people stopped binding their own books, French publishers stuck with simple paper covers that looked more like title pages—no pictures at all, just the name of the book and its author. You’ll still see lots of these in stores today, especially on works that are supposed to be serious and important. Historian and economist Thomas Piketty’s surprise international bestseller Le capital au XXIe siècle, visible just right of center above, is a perfect example. 

While all the books are in paperback, that doesn’t mean they’re priced the same. The latest from Donna Tartt, Le chardonneret, costs right around 24 Euros, about as much as it goes for in US dollars in hardcover, while older books may find their way into pocket editions for as little as six or seven Euros. But when you’ve chosen which book you want, there’s no sense trying to bargain-shop in different stores. The 1981 Lang Law, named after the Culture Minister who presided over its passing, states that once a publisher has determined a price and printed it on a book, no retailer may discount from that price by more than five percent. Sounds anti-consumer at first blush, but it allows for a thriving and diverse bookselling community that ultimately benefits readers.

French bookshops may fear cost-cutting global conglomerates, but they aren’t otherwise afraid of internationalism. Fiction in French stores is usually separated into littérature française and littérature étrangère. In larger stores you may even see separate sections for Asian fiction, South American fiction, European fiction, and so on. It’s an interesting distinction, which doesn’t seem intended to ghettoize foreign writing but to highlight it. Makes sense, given that probably half of the novels you’ll see in a French shop originate outside of the country. Reading in translation is normal there in a way that it isn’t quite in the US, however much of a cultural melting pot we otherwise are. Another distinction is made on the books themselves—the latest from, say, Ian McEwan will be identified as being traduit de l’anglais, but something by Louise Erdrich is correctly said to be traduit de l’américain. “Translated from English” isn’t the same as “translated from American,” after all.

French readers (or American tourists) who don’t want to settle for translations, great as they may be, are still in luck. Almost all shops have at least a small section of books in English, as pictured below.

Mostly bestsellers with a few classics sprinkled in for good measure, as you can see. On the top shelf in this photo you can spot another Island Books favorite, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, along with a new discovery, Douglas Kennedy’s Five Days. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s an American writer who’s a huge star in France—his books top the charts and have been made into movies multiple times. Inexplicably, he has yet to match that success in his homeland, but it’s not too late to get that ball rolling. Be the first on your block to give him a try.

Even more inexplicable is the presence in this photo of not one, not two, but THREE copies of Plays by Henry Arthur Jones. He was a 19th-century (melo)dramatist who is remembered today only because of Oscar Wilde, who once said, “There are three rules for writing plays. The first rule is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones; the second and third rules are the same.” I was tempted to take one home as a souvenir, but I decided to save room in my suitcase for something else.

See you in the States in September!


An Ebola Virus Reading List

Spread by contact with organs or body fluids, Ebola has a high fatality rate and there is no known cure. With over 900 reported deaths in the last few weeks, the threat is still far far away from our little bookstore on Mercer Island. Most of the deaths have been in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. And yet. Concern is rising.

Our morbid fascination with infectious disease is nothing new. Something about the silent uncontrollable spread and often dramatic symptoms commands our attention. If you find yourself drawn to the drama of the classic “human race obliterated by virus” narrative, skip the daily news and go for some of these full-fledged disaster stories. They’ll help you put things in perspective. Or scare you out of your mind.

imageThe Hot Zone by Richard Preston: In a story that might hit way too close to home, here’s the one nonfiction book on my list. Obviously still as relevant today as when it was published in 1995, The Hot Zone follows the first emergence of the Ebola virus out of the African forest and into the suburbs of Washington D.C. Don’t panic when you read the in-depth description of viral evolution, symptoms, and means of transmission. You probably just have a little cold. Probably.

imageThe Stand by Stephen King: This is the epic flu novel, worth the enormous page count. A mutated virus accidentally leaks from a U.S. military facility and wipes out most of the human race. The few that are left slowly find their way to each other, congregating into two groups: good and evil. Eventually one group will have to destroy the other. Steeped in nostalgia and iconic character development, this is the one epidemic story that covers the entire scenario from first outbreak to full set of consequences. So many readers claim The Stand as their favorite novel of all time, and with good reason. It’s hard to find a more infectious page-turner.

imageThe Dog Stars by Peter Heller: A heartbroken man, his dog, his old Cessna, and his gun are at the center of this post-apocalyptic tale set in Colorado. Most of the population succumbed to a super-flu nine years prior, and the protagonist spends his time based out of an airstrip, flying around looking for intruders and reminiscing about all that he’s lost. When a voice comes through on his plane’s radio, the interruption sparks new hope that there might be something else out there worth finding. His journey takes him outside his tightly controlled safety zone and towards something that might be worth living for.

imageYear of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: It’s 1666 in this beautifully written historical novel, and a widow with two young sons watches the bubonic plague slowly kill off her remote British village. As she loses everything she knows and loves to the disease, the quarantine and desperate circumstances force her into acts of heroism she never could have imagined.

imageBlindness by Jose Saramago: In Saramago’s vision, a city is hit by a strike of “white-blindness.” It begins with a man in a car, whose wife watches in horror as his sight disappears in the time it takes a traffic light to change to green. The wife is as much a metaphor for humanity as a guide through the reader’s journey. She remains immune as everyone around her succumbs to blindness. In an attempt to stop the spread, the government confines victims to an institution and shoots them if they attempt to leave. The wife pretends she has also gone blind so she can go with her husband. What happens from there is rife with metaphor and raises core questions about humanity. Saramago’s sparse writing style gives the story a distinctive and unforgettable tone. This is no Michael Crichton thriller—Blindness is a literary masterpiece.



On Recommending Books


We had visitors from Portland at our house last weekend. My friend and her husband left Seattle about four months ago and she took a job at a sportswear company. I used to share an office with her, and our book-related roles led into a friendship that has long outlasted that period of employment. We were paid to discuss books (the far most interesting of our designated tasks), and that habit also long outlived the job.

The first thing my friend said to me was, “I desperately need something to read.” Although her new job offers plenty of athletic gear, her access to endless free books is a perk of the past. I happily led her to our study and began pulling titles off the shelves.

"Here," I said, "Try the new Tana French. It’s not out yet but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.” (Don’t worry, faithful readers, I’ll review it closer to the September pub date.) She started to crack it open but I was already piling more on top of it. Here’s The Weight of Blood, one of my favorite debut novels this past year. And you’ll like this old Anita Shreve. What about We Were Liars? You’ll probably like Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments. And of course there’s always my never-fail recommends, A Fine Balance and American Wife…”

Flooded, she smiled and thanked me. The next morning, I found her sitting on our couch with my copy of Courtney Robertson’s I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends. Sheepishly I thought, who am I to shove books on a seasoned reader?

Yes, as booksellers it’s our job to point people towards the right titles. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from a fair number of years in this business, it’s that most people gravitate towards the right books on their own. All we can do is point in a general direction and hope for the best. It’s similar to fixing up friends on a blind date. Sometimes it can go very wrong. Like the time I suggested my mom read American Wife. While she greatly enjoyed the book, I completely regretted the recommendation after she expressed her shock over a particular sex scene. It just wasn’t worth my embarrassment.

It’s in my nature to recommend books, so I’ll keep doing it. But I’ll also continue to keep my expectations low. I suspect my friend will get around to reading at least one or two of the books I tossed at her, but ultimately, I was just happy to see her curled up with a book I enjoyed. Who cares how it fell into her hands? I just led her towards the options and the connection was made, just like any good friendship.




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

image  image  image  image

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.



blog comments powered by Disqus