Message in a Bottle
The Conversation That Just Won’t Die

imageWe hear endless conversations about books in our store, but there is one literary debate that can never rest. Even fifty years after its publication, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein still fires people up with passionate opinions. As evidence, I present to you this recent article that appeared in The New York Times. People are still hotly debating the meaning of the book. Is the tree selfless or self-sacrificing? And is the boy reasonable or selfish? Most importantly, what are my kids going to think of the tree and the boy?

The messages we take away from children’s books has been on my mind. Overnight, my twin babies have turned into walking talking two-year-olds bursting with personality. All of a sudden, they have opinions about what we are and are not going to read. They will throw a book across the room if I make a suggestion of something they find distasteful. For some reason, Goodnight Moon is a victim of constant rejection lately. Can anyone explain how that’s even possible? Are we reading it the wrong way?

Along with all these strong displays of preference comes a noticeable application in real life. Thanks to Leslie Patricelli’s Yummy Yucky, I now know exactly which foods on their dinner plate are acceptable and which they find revolting. Thanks to Alice Schertle’s Little Blue Truck, every time we see a blue truck on the road my son screams “Beep! Beep! Beep!” at the top of his lungs. And so on—the point being that they are taking away more than just “pat the bunny” from their reading material these days.

imageOne of my favorite children’s books lately has been Ant and Grasshopper by Luli Gray. This is a fable I can get on board with. The hardworking and curmudgeonly ant shakes his head at the frivolous grasshopper, who spends his summers singing and enjoying the beautiful outdoors. But when winter comes and the ant finds the grasshopper shivering and hungry in the snow, he feels ashamed and brings the grasshopper inside. The grasshopper finds new appreciation for the ant’s resourcefulness at the same time the ant opens his heart to laughter, music, and friendship.

Ant and Grasshopper is a perfect story for siblings, who inevitably are different and need to learn how to appreciate each other for the strengths instead of shortcomings. It also demonstrates a reciprocal relationship, but like The Giving Tree, the exchange can be interpreted in different ways. Is music and friendship a suitable exchange for food and shelter? Or, like the tree, is the ant contributing far more to the relationship? Does it matter?

At the end of both The Giving Tree and Ant and Grasshopper, the characters have all found contentment in their relationships. Both the tree and the ant have given away their most precious resources, while the boy and the grasshopper have given their time and friendship. Are they healthy relationships? 

Regardless of the answers, the way these books raise the questions makes for valuable discussion topics with our kids (and obviously, between adults).  As our kids grow and learn to negotiate the challenges of connecting with others, fables that make them consider how much to give and what’s appropriate to take make for important conversations. 

But I’m not ready to navigate the darker issues these stories raise with my toddlers. When we do read them, I emphasize the names of objects in the photos, and how the characters are friends and love each other just as our family does. We can discuss the other questions in another decade. After all, for many kids books, it’s all in the way you read the story to them. 

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—Miriam

A Place to Visit and Something to Hold

This past summer I finally got around to reading Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin’s award-winning novel from the mid-’80s. It takes the form of an anthropological treatise on the civilization that will replace ours once we’ve finished screwing up the planet, and the book is pretty well unmatched in the way it fleshes out an entire culture—the society she depicts is as complete and convincing as any real one you could study in the here and now.

The Kesh people aren’t perfect, but Le Guin’s vision of them is certainly Utopian, and one of the most remarkable things about the book is how positive and productive their relationship is with the landscape in which they live. Despite the far-future setting, Always Coming Home is very much a novel of place, and it’s impossible to think of it without visualizing the valleys of northern California.

Thing is, I will always associate the book with the south of France. I was fortunate enough to read it on vacation, so for me the Kesh reside in what was once America and also exist on a Mediterranean beach. Lucky Kesh, I know. Somehow the act of carrying that book, taking it in and out of my bag, and squinting at it through the sun etched it permanently in my mind. I may forget the details of what happens in the narrative, but I know I’ll forever remember where and when I read it.

This is one of the unsung powers a book possesses, the way it can capture memories not only of the story that it tells, but of the circumstances experienced by the reader who turns its pages. It’s the physical aspect of the process that enables this, or so science suggests. I became convinced of this myself back when I was taking notes in class. It was helpful not because I had them to look at later, but because the very act of jotting them down made facts stick. What was true about writing is just as true about reading.

Scientific American ran an article last year that summarized several studies, quoting Abigail Sellen of Microsoft Research Cambridge in England and co-author of The Myth of the Paperless Office: "The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realized … I don’t think e-book manufacturers have thought enough about how you might visualize where you are in a book." Not to disparage e-reading, but I simply don’t have the same relationship with a text when I’m flicking a screen.

Whether it’s currently being read or not, there’s a tangibility to a book that establishes a presence. My Le Guin novel still gives off a whiff of sunscreen and has sand in the binding, for example. Even without that, though, having the spine in sight on a shelf, peripherally or otherwise, triggers something in me. Every time I glance at it, I’m transported back to the beach and relive my summer vacation in some small way.

I still remember my ninth birthday party, when I sat at my kitchen table and a classmate named Greg gave me a beautifully illustrated hardcover copy of Treasure Island. I leafed through it then, but the nineteenth-century language didn’t grab me at the time, and I didn’t read it until much later. I lived with it for years, though, boxing and unboxing it when my family moved to a new house. Turned out to be a great story, of course—I’m sure Long John Silver would live in my imagination whatever my book looked like or however I acquired it. But I guarantee that I wouldn’t remember the details of that party, and probably wouldn’t remember poor Greg at all, if my Treasure Island weren’t a real thing that existed in the real world.

I download ebooks from time to time and certainly will do so more and more often as the years go by, but for the most part I want to have the same connection to my reading as the Kesh do to their homeland. A book is even better when it’s held in the hand as well as in the mind.

—James

A version of this piece was first published at bookriot.com.

Last Saturday night was our first fall PJ Story Time, and this year, the bookstore twins are finally old enough to get something out of it. Mercer Island’s beloved Nancy Stewart was our guest of honor, and as you can see from the video above, she had everyone laughing and moving the first time she strummed her guitar.

What began as Nancy’s pilot project in September 2012 has turned into an island phenomenon. She’s built a strong community of parents, grandparents, and children who all come together for her events and support her mission to promote early literacy and love of music. Did I mention she’s always full of surprises? Who knew Nancy was one of the voices singing nursery rhymes for that old Mattel See ‘n Say toy?

imageThe turnout for the event was good and I hope it will continue to increase. Our children’s librarian Miss Linda offers wonderful daytime story times at the library, so the Saturday night bookstore event is a nice variation on that. Our story times feature a variety of guests, and the nice thing about the time is that working parents are usually free to come with their kids. My husband even had the great experience of chasing both twins around the story while I ran over to the QFC for frosted animal cookies. (It wouldn’t be a successful evening without those cookies as the grand finale.) He rarely gets to watch them at a story time event and it’s just too cute to miss. I also like that it’s right before bedtime, so my 2-year-olds were dead tired by the time we tucked them in.

I love many things about living on Mercer Island, especially all the kid-friendly places and people. There was such a nice community feeling at story time that reminded me how lucky we are to have this kind of local resource. 

For the closing song all the children danced around with colorful scarves, tossing them in the air and watching as they floated gently to the ground. (Or in the case of my daughter, attempting to hoard all of them for herself.) All the parents smiled at each other, happy to see our children tucked into this safe haven of pure fun.

If you’re a long time reader of this blog, you might recall that Nancy wrote about a special story time last April with special guest Norm Brecke. Norm is a second grade teacher in the Renton school district and has been a regular at our story times. For several years he has hosted an after school storytelling club which has produced some good tellers. Our PJ Story Time next month is an hour long with Norm telling and singing to open and close the show and about five kids ranging from ages from ten to fifteen will tell classic spooky tales. This is all happening on Nov 1st, the day after Halloween. It is unique in that kids telling stories to kids is a powerful and wonderful thing to see. The evening will hold an appeal to older grade school kids more than our usual show. I hope to see you there next month!

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—Miriam

Nobody’s Perfect

We spend most of our time here talking about how great Island Books is (and it is) but I thought it might be interesting for a change to talk about a couple of our (rare) failures, times when we couldn’t seem to find what a customer wanted.

Marni, whose customer service ethos was first formed when she worked at Nordstrom’s, legendary for its willingness to go above and beyond, had the following experience a few days ago: A 15-year old boy needing to do a book report came into the store asking for a recommendation. His only parameter was that the book had to be exactly 250 pages long because his teacher requires “at least” 250 pages and he didn’t want to read one page more than that. “Wounds my soul,” she said when she recounted the events, and as someone who has five books lined up for every book he reads, I felt the same way.

The mission, then, was to convert this reluctant reader. He said he liked war stories, so she first tried Tim O’Brien’s brilliant Vietnam novel The Things They Carried. It’s gripping and accessible, a perfect introduction to adult literature for a teen, but in this case, no dice. Turns out to have just 246 pages, and he insisted there was no flexibility on that point.

Marni offered dramas, adventure books both real and fictional, magical fantasy in the vein of Harry Potter, which he claimed to have loved. She pulled out classics that centered around disenchanted youth—no good. She presented sports memoirs and tales, she pushed surefire page-turners from John Grisham and Dan Brown. ALL KINDS OF NOPE. Everything was either mildly interesting but had too many pages, or he would look at the cover and drop it like it was contaminated. I’d have given up long before she did, I must say. Maybe tell him just to take one of those too-long books and slip him the Cliffs Notes for it on the side. Though she persisted, all her efforts were for naught, and the kid went home empty-handed.

I was there on the field a few days earlier when we dropped another ball a customer was trying to throw our way. A man came into the children’s section looking for a gift for a five-year-old girl’s birthday. When Roger asked if he could help, the guy said, “I don’t think so. I’ve been looking around and you have stuff for two-year-olds and for eight-year-olds, but nothing in between.” Roger tried to steer him in the right direction, and I, thinking myself something of an expert by virtue of having a four-year-old girl of my own, did the same.

              

Seemed easy enough—we have books galore for five-year-olds, whether they’re already reading on their own or still being read to. Olivia? Madeline? Amelia Bedelia? Ramona? Pippi Longstocking? Heck, the list of powerful princess picture books we ran in our last eNewsletter could by itself cover a year’s worth of kindergarten parties. And aside from books we have a slew of stuffed animals and puppets, Papo figurines, LEGO Friends sets, craft kits, and games such as Hisss and Zingo, all smash hits with the younger set. Nonetheless, the guy walked out right past me, remarking on how ridiculous it was that we didn’t have ANYTHING appropriate. It cast a pall over the whole afternoon.

I suppose I’m being disingenuous when I refer to these incidents as failures, because when looking back on them and talking them over with my colleagues, I feel as if we did our job the best we could. I’m not by any means saying we’re perfect—maybe someday I’ll write a post on all the actual mistakes we make (and they are legion). But in these situations I think we were dealing with people who didn’t want to find what they said they were looking for. The backstory to the book report search was clear to Marni: “I knew what was going on—the boredom and disaffection was so staged and studied. It was necessary he convey his immediate disdain at being made to do something he didn’t want to do, and nothing I suggested was going to change his mind!” I still have a little bit of teenager in me, so I sympathize. As for the gift-seeking guy, well, I don’t know what his problem was. It’s one thing not to like what you’re shown, but it’s another to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

I guess I was taken aback by these two encounters for a couple of reasons. First because they really are rare. It’s vastly more common for people on both sides of the counter to leave our store feeling better than they did when they came in. Customers discover books that make them happy, and we get to have a hand in creating that joy. It’s invigorating for me every time it happens, and it happens a hundred times a day.

The other reason is that when I think of bookstores, I think of a phrase coined by playwright Christopher Marlowe: “infinite riches in a little room.” It’s almost impossible for me to walk into a bookshop, ours or anyone’s, without spotting something I’m interested in. I may not find exactly what I’m looking for—or know exactly what I’m looking for—every time, but I consider that a temporary setback. There’s always another shelf to peruse and another treasure to unearth when my mood changes. Some people (a very few, thankfully) are just looking for disappointment and insist on finding it, even at the end of the rainbow.

—James

The Secret Place by Tana French

imageOne way you can tell how hard a writer is working is by how well you know their cast of of supporting characters. In Tana French’s fiction, we learn all the details: the manner in which a minor character cocks their head and exactly what they intend by the expression, what a detective resents most about their job, and why the friend of a murderer might feel compelled to spill their secrets. As good as French is at plotting a mystery, she’s even better at developing her characters. Nowhere is that more evident than in her latest novel, The Secret Place.

French’s books have a clever conceit. She takes a minor character from the preceding novel and makes them the new protagonist. We already know them through the eyes of others, now we have the chance to learn how they see the world. It’s part of the reason her development of the supporting cast is so important. Any one of her minor characters could end up at the center of a murder mystery the next go-around.

Originally minor but memorable characters, Stephen Moran was a hungry up-and-coming detective and Holly Mackey was a child witness who Moran questioned in French’s earlier (and possibly best) novel, Faithful Place. Holly is also the daughter of Frank Mackey, the jaded older detective at the center of Faithful Place. At the start of The Secret Place, we see that Stephen has failed to fulfill his potential and is stuck working cold cases. Stephen is dying to get back on the murder squad, and the opportunity presents itself when the now-sixteen-year-old Holly shows up at the office asking to see him. Holly attends an elite girls’ boarding school now. She remembers Stephen as the kind detective who questioned her when she was a child.

What brings Holly to Stephen is an unsolved murder that took place her school the previous year. A popular and attractive boy from the neighboring boys’ academy was found dead on school grounds. Holly comes bearing new evidence. She discovered an anonymous note posted on a community bulletin board (called “the secret place”) claiming to know who committed the murder.

Stephen knows this is his big chance to get back on the murder squad. Teaming up with the one female detective on the squad (who also has something to prove and a huge chip on her shoulder), he heads over to the school to reopen the case. During a day of intense questions, Stephen and his partner Antoinette narrow their suspects down to eight girls in two rival cliques. Holly is one of them.

For readers who prefer the grittier Dublin atmosphere and complex adults in French’s other novels, here is where this narrative becomes problematic. French’s depictions of the teenagers are as incisive and intelligent as always when she’s talking about them through the eyes of others, but when she  lets their dialogue creep into the narrative, the repeated use of “like” and “OMG” makes them irritating and clichéd. There’s depth and complexity to their struggles and motivations, but purely from an age standpoint they’re not nearly as compelling as the older and more deeply wounded adults in French’s other works.

Early on, readers will hope to see a showdown between Stephen and his old boss Frank Mackey, and they will get it. Frank has to show up and protect his little girl, and Stephen will have to fight to keep Frank from derailing his investigation. It’s the politics vs. justice struggle between Frank, Stephen, and Antoinette that makes for the most compelling twist of all. As in French’s other books, the solution to the crime isn’t the brilliant or most compelling part of the story. It’s these relentless and damaged characters who keep us turning the pages.

This isn’t my favorite French novel because of the plot and setting, but I still couldn’t put it down. She remains one of my favorite contemporary writers.

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—Miriam

What We Read When We Think About Reading

I spent the other morning with my daughter at I-LABS, the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. She’d been tapped to be part of a study to see how typical preschoolers socialize and share, so I got to sit in an adjacent room watching on closed circuit TV while she and another little girl played games, pushed buttons, and divvied up little plastic bears under the guidance of a researcher. The other girl’s dad and I were equally tense about whether our kids would be generous with their bears (they were—whew) and equally fascinated by the mundane protocols of the experiment. Was it significant that the girls rode the swings in unison? Were the grad students aware that some four-year-olds will fork over an infinite number of blue bears but cling like misers to one precious purple bear? We didn’t understand everything that went on, but we were happy our girls could add to the sum of human knowledge in a small way. And they were happy that they got to keep their bears.

At home alone that afternoon, having dropped my daughter off at preschool, I subjected myself to a scientific experiment of my own. By reading a book, naturally. I didn’t have to be attached to an EEG machine or anything, I just sat in my usual chair and turned the pages as I usually do. There was a whole lot going on between my eyes and my brain, though, and I was aware of it all because of Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read.

Mendelsund is a graphic designer by trade, one of the leaders in his field. His area of expertise is the creation of book jackets, so he’s the perfect person to tackle the topic of how we visualize our favorite characters and the actions they perform. Every book lover is familiar with the vivid pictures that words can create in the mind’s eye, but Mendelsund gently coaxes us to examine what we’re really “seeing,” pointing out the tentative, fragmentary nature of these images. A mere word or two is all we need to create something that’s in one way as solid and memorable as our own living room, and in another as insubstantial and mutable as smoke. This balance between specificity and vagueness, an effect that requires a participation between author and reader that’s unlike any other artistic relationship, is well worth examining, especially with Mendelsund as the teacher. He’s light and amusing, suggestive rather than authoritative, and can be quite profound. Some of what he says will affirm what you already know, but much of it will alter your perspective radically.

The best thing about What We See When We Read is how simply its creator gets his points across. His prose is honed, direct, and clear. And as a designer, of course he’d make his book beautiful and illustrate it heavily. Sometimes he’s merely being decorative, but on a dozen or more occasions, he produces an image that plays off the text and snaps a complex idea into your head in an instant. Understanding comes so suddenly and perfectly that laughter and applause seem the only appropriate responses.

If you’ve ever wondered about how differently two people respond to the same story, or mentally cast a movie version of your favorite novel, or thought about reading at all, do yourself a favor and give Mendelsund a try. At the very least, you’ll look at the next book you read in a whole new light.

—James

Q&A With Local Author Jennifer Longo

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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!

—Miriam

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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!

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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

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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.

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—Miriam

Counting Down to The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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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.

—James

Bookselling in France

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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!

—James

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.

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—Miriam

On Recommending Books

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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.

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—Miriam

Salut!

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.

—James

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.

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—Miriam

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.

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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.

—James

This piece was first published at bookriot.com.

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