Message in a Bottle
Kingsley Amis: Past, Present, and Future

imageIf Kingsley Amis is remembered today, it’s probably as one of the UK’s original Angry Young Men (thanks to his 1954 debut novel Lucky Jim) or as the aged, dissipated shadow of his former self (thanks to a lifelong drinking habit). Between that initial success and his death in 1995, though, Amis displayed wide-ranging writing talents, and New York Review Books has been doing an admirable job of bringing them back to light. They’ve recently re-released a pair of his mid-career novels that are as fresh and provocative as anything newly written for 2014.

The first of these was originally published in 1969 at the leading edge of a fictional wave that would dominate the next decade. The Green Man helped launch a fad for supernatural horror that was carried on through the 1970s by the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz and continues today. The setting for Amis’s story is a country inn outside of Cambridge that gives the book its title; the innkeeper of the Green Man is Maurice Allington, who’s trying to juggle the demands of a business, a new younger wife, an uncommunicative teenage daughter, and his crotchety 79-year-old father. To Allington, the old legends about ghosts who occupy the inn have always been mere titillation for travelers, but during four stressful days, the long-dormant spirits start to awaken dangerously. Farce veers swiftly into dread (the comedy is actually funny and the spookiness is legitimately hair-raising—a combination that’s unique in my experience). image

Allington is at the center of all the action and makes a charmingly reprehensible protagonist. He lubricates the creaky machinery of his life with enough booze to float a battleship, and during a family funeral is mostly preoccupied with seducing his wife into a threesome with his new mistress, but he does these things with great panache. His flaws are essential, really. The book would be far less interesting if it pitched a perfect saint against the forces of darkness. As critic Michael Dirda points out in the introduction, “A ghost story initially needs to convince the reader not in the existence of ghosts but in the existence of the normal, the familiar, the ordinary routine into which the ghost obtrudes.” It’s at this that Amis excels. He creates a convincingly human hero and a reality that’s wholly satisfying even before he introduces a single otherworldly element.

The second re-release is The Alteration, which first appeared in 1976. It posits a world in which the Protestant Reformation never happened and the papacy never lost its hold on the reins of government.* Modern society is imagetherefore a Christian theocracy; scientific development is severely retarded, but the arts, at least those that glorify religion, are ascendant. Into this milieu steps Hubert Anvil, a ten-year-old chorister with an angelic voice the likes of which hasn’t been heard for generations. Luckily, the Pope wants to bring him from England to Rome to become a singing celebrity. Unluckily, the Pope insists that such a heaven-sent voice must not be deepened by the onset of puberty, so he schedules Hubert for a minor surgical—gulp—alteration.

If the boy declines this opportunity to become a heralded castrato, he’ll be defying all social conventions as well as political authority, which doesn’t leave many avenues for escape. (American readers will be pleased that an imaginative version of England’s New World colonies factors into Hubert’s plans.) The counterfactual realm Amis builds is meticulously arranged and described, but as in The Green Man, it’s his traditional storytelling skills that make it all pay off. Expert pacing, sharp dialogue, and fully-fleshed characters—whatever attributes one might hope for in a realistic novel are present in spades.

It may seem strange to some that a distinguished literary novelist would dabble in science fiction and fantasy, but Amis had great respect for those genres. Employing their tropes added considerably to his arsenal of expression and enabled him to write works that function on multiple levels, novels of ideas as well as entertainment. Few so-called serious writers of his time shared this attitude, and even now some barricades remain standing between literary artistes and their pulpier peers. Amis still has a trick or two to teach his descendants, and his fiction will stay contemporary for years to come.

—James

* Before I picked up a copy of The Alteration, I was ready to tar Amis as a plagiarist—the scenario of a modern-day England trapped in a kind of ecclesiastic medievalism was pioneered by a lesser-known writer named Keith Roberts in his excellent 1969 novel Pavane. All was forgiven by the time I finished The Alteration, though. Roberts makes something of a mystery out of his alternate world, allowing the true nature of it to sneak up on the reader, while Amis makes everything clear at once. The two books couldn’t be more different in tone and purpose. More to the point, Amis acknowledges Pavane's precedence by having one of his characters read a secular, scientific alternative history by an author named … Keith Roberts.

Under The Wide and Starry Sky

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Life with a toddler (or two, in my case) is not all that different from living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One minute they’re cute and happy as can be, and the next there’s a howling monster in the room. So it comes as a surprise that Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, never had biological children of his own. He had a philosophical view of human nature that perpetuates his work, and knowing his life story enhances the experience of reading his fiction. He spent a great deal of his life confined to a sick bed, and the restrictions on his health allowed him a great deal of time to explore his imagination. Nancy Horan’s new work of historical fiction, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, envisions Stevenson’s life and that of his intrepid wife, Fanny, and their life story is as colorful and broad as the classic novels Stevenson penned during his lifetime.

I liked Horan’s last novel, Loving Frank, about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his scandalous affair with a married woman, and that’s what drew me to Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Besides The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s best known work was Treasure Island. That classic adventure story about pirates and buried treasure has delighted children forever, but I can’t say I felt an overwhelming curiosity about the author. Horan did something smart by beginning with the story of Fanny Osbourne, whose life provides far meatier subject matter than that of her famous husband. For those who enjoyed The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (as I did), the angle is similar. Who was the woman behind the man, and what was her role in his work?

When Stevenson meets his future wife, she is already married and living in France with her children. Her first husband’s repeated infidelities drive her to a separation, and so she leaves him behind in California and takes her kids to Europe to study art. The long journey takes a toll on Fanny’s youngest son, and he falls ill and dies shortly after they arrive in Paris. With her daughter and other son, she retreats to an artists’ colony to grieve. It’s there that she meets the young author, who courts her fervently despite her reluctance.

The course of true love does not run smooth, however, and Fanny’s husband reappears and convinces her to reconcile. She moves back to California with him and leaves Stevenson behind, heartbroken. After a time, she writes and begs him to come to her, so he follows her to California and falls dangerously ill along the way. (The moral of this story seems to be to never travel between California and Europe via boat.) Having always been in poor health, the trip nearly kills him and he appears on Fanny’s doorstep on his last legs.

That’s essentially part one of the book. They marry, of course, and afterwards his poor health drives the rest of their adventures. Roaming from place to place searching for a climate that will help his lungs, the Stevensons spend time in Scotland, Switzerland, England, California, and eventually the south seas. Stevenson’s health is at its most robust at sea, and so a great deal of their later life is spent on a boat. Eventually they build a home in the tropical land of Samoa. They never raise children of their own, but Fanny’s two kids from her prior marriage, especially her son, make up the rest of their family.

The undercurrent of tension in the marriage has to do with Fanny’s own failed aspirations as an artist and writer. She knows she will never be as talented as her husband, and he subtly enforces that opinion, essentially turning a formerly fiery and vivacious woman into his lifelong caretaker. Both their characters change over the course of their lives and they were a strong influence over each other.

Some of the most compelling parts of the novel are when Stevenson is in the process of writing some of his masterpieces. He has a habit of reading his day’s work aloud to his family each night, then stays up to incorporate their feedback. He sleeps at odd hours and works diligently from his bed. While Under the Wide and Starry Sky doesn’t delve into the subject matter of his novels, the energy invested in creating them is on full display.

Imagining the lives of famous writers seems to be a literary trend nowadays. Often the great ones are characterized as lotharios, drunks, and egomaniacs. That’s not the case here, and Fanny is no shrinking violet of a wife. This one is not a short read, nor does it race along at a quick pace, but it covers a full and arduous lifetimeand romancewith great care and elegance.

—Miriam

A Dance to the Music of Time: Hearing Secret Harmonies

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Jenkins receives a visit at his country home from a group of young people that includes Isobel’s niece Fiona. They are neo-nature cultists in thrall to Scorpio Murtlock, who is leading his party to some nearby standing stones called the Devil’s Fingers, evoking memories for Jenkins of Trelawney’s mysticism of fifty years before. Watching TV news that evening, Jenkins and Isobel see Widmerpool, lately returned to England after almost a decade in the US, being installed as a university chancellor; during the procession he is doused with paint by two students, the twin daughters of J.C. Quiggin and Ada Leintwardine. Some time later, Jenkins serves on the judging committee for the Magnus Donners Prize for biography, led by Gibson Delavacquerie, which selects Gwinnett’s newly published study of X. Trapnel as the winner. Widmerpool arranges an invitation to the award ceremony and attends with the Quiggin twins. The committee’s fear that he intends to confront Gwinnett about his affair with the late Pamela Widmerpool is not realized. Instead, the disheveled Widmerpool makes a speech about embracing the counterculture and rejecting all convention; his performance is interrupted by an exploding stink bomb set by the twins. Time passes, and Jenkins encounters Gwinnett near the Devil’s Fingers. The American academic has been documenting bacchanalian rituals enacted by Murtlock and his followers, now including Widmerpool, who has left the university. Delavacquerie sees his relationship with Polly Duport deteriorate as he becomes transfixed by Fiona while trying to extricate her from the cult. Despite his assistance, she rejects him and marries Gwinnett. Interest revives in the paintings of the long-deceased Deacon, and Jenkins attends a gallery showing of his work, there meeting the widowed Jean Duport Flores and her ex-husband. They are accompanied by the newly-married Polly and Delavacquerie. A drunken Bithel arrives with a valuable Modigliani drawing, snatched from a fire set by Murtlock to dispose of Widmerpool’s belongings. Bithel reports that Widmerpool, heavily stressed by various sexual degradations at Murtlock’s hand, has died while exerting himself during an ecdysiastic Trelawney-style morning run.

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Three thousand pages ago, Nicholas Jenkins watched some workers warm themselves around a fire bucket on a street corner. The image of snow falling into the flames “brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons [in Poussin’s painting], moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.” Now, having spent a liftetime observing and participating in that tumultuous dance, he stands alone in front of a bonfire as stillness finally descends: “Even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence.” Powell completes his full circle so neatly that it seems almost blasphemous to break that silence, but I have to say something, so blaspheme I will. Closing the book, I can almost picture Powell as Christ on the cross, hanging his head and uttering, “It is finished.”

That’s also blasphemy regarding the Dance itself, I think. Though the whole project has a clear ending (as does each part within it—there are endings galore), beginnings are equally emphasized. Even as threads of plot are cut off, new ones become visible, so you can’t reach a conclusion without first talking about the latest novelties. And what could be more novel and unexpected in this series than hippies? I never imagined when I began it that Powell would, as Spinal Tap advised, listen to what the flower people say. He and his stand-in Jenkins certainly aren’t personally sympathetic to the counterculture, but it’s a testament to their artistic neutrality that they don’t judge the younger generation more harshly than their own. Outré fashion and rebellion don’t seem shocking to someone who remembers Victorian-era dandyism and pre-war licentiousness.

That historical perspective is nicely underlined in the scene at the gallery, when Henderson tries to explain Deacon’s importance but can’t process that Jenkins actually knew the man. The business of calling him Bosworth rather than Edgar is a typically deft Powell touch.

I must admit I don’t quite know what to make of Widmerpool’s involvement with the cult. In some ways he seems to have achieved an apotheosis of ridiculousness, but he may also have finally attained some enlightenment. Is his need to atone to Bithel and Akworth sincere? Are we to interpret all his prior actions as driven by repressed homosexuality? Is his death a self-sacrifice or a final failure?

The marriage of Gibson and Polly reminded me of Wuthering Heights, oddly enough, specifically the way Heathcliff engineers a relationship between his and Cathy’s offspring. I couldn’t help thinking of the practical-minded poet Delavacquerie as a younger incarnation of Jenkins, so it seems more than a coincidence that he’d end up with the daughter of Jenkins’ first love.

Gwinnett remains a fascinating puzzle. There’s more than a suggestion that beneath his superficial placidity he’s actually a necromancer of sorts. Though the Dance is primarily a realistic chronicle, there’s another fictional level on which the dark forces that Murtlock, Mrs. Erdleigh, and others are aware of actually function. Whether or not Gwinnett is an evil magus, I like him, largely because we currently share the same obsession: Jacobean drama. The allusions to Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher, and their ilk are among the most apposite in the whole series. The references give me a chance to play the pedant, too. Although Gwinnett (and Powell) think that Cyril Tourneur wrote The Revenger’s Tragedy, today’s scholars know that Thomas Middleton was the true author. Drop that little fact at your next cocktail party and you’re sure to impress.

Speaking of literary references, the long quotation from Burton near the very end was absolutely marvelous, all the more so in context. It almost makes me think that works like the Anatomy exist only so they can have their meaning enhanced by being mined and repurposed in other books.

Can you tell that I really don’t want to end this? Even the internet doesn’t have room for everything I’d want to say about these books, so I have to wrap up somehow. I’ll give you a little more to read before I go, though, in the form of an interview Powell gave to the Paris Review. I can’t believe I didn’t run across it until now, partly because it introduced me to the useful concept of the Dance as prosopography—“the social and intellectual history of a loosely connected group.” That’s the only ten-dollar word in there, I promise. It’s actually quite entertaining and insightful.

To those of you who’ve made it this far, congratulations on your accomplishment and thanks for taking the trip with me.

Next up: I don’t know. Anyone want to tackle another big reading project in 2014?

—James

Previous installments:

The Nutcracker

imageIsland Books might be one of the only stores that doesn’t play music from The Nutcracker. The ballet is nearly synonymous with Christmas, and everywhere you go this time of year you’re bound to hear the plink-plink-plink of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation. While the music is familiar to everyone, the story of The Nutcracker is not quite as straightforward. It’s actually somewhat nonsensical and confusing. A girl receives a nutcracker for Christmas who comes to life and battles an army of mice, then turns into a prince and whisks the girl off through the land of snow and into a magical kingdom made of sweets? Huh?

I spent fourteen holiday seasons of my life appearing in various productions of The Nutcracker. I’ve danced almost every female role in the entire production. My childhood holiday memories are filled with moments in the ballet, from the little boy who played Fritz puking onstage to swallowing paper snow in the snow scene to executing a perfect triple pirouette as the lead Marzipan shepherdess to hardly being able to breathe after the Sugar Plum Fairy’s grand pas de deux. When I hear the music, I see the ballet in my head. Most dancers don’t consider The Nutcracker to be a “real” ballet, since the only true dancing happens in the second act and the kids are the highlight. Yet productions endure, especially because they’re cash cows for most ballet companies.

As far as I’m concerned, this time of year is synonymous with The Nutcracker. My favorite book about The Nutcracker when I was young was A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz, which is unfortunately out of print and difficult to find. It followed a student at the School of American Ballet who played the lead role of Marie in the New York City Ballet’s production. While that book might not be readily available, there are other good options. Whether you’re taking your child to see the show or they’re dancing in one themselves, a book can both clarify the plot and enhance their enjoyment of the holiday classic. Whether a kid has seen the ballet or just heard the unforgettable music, The Nutcracker will be on their mind already. Here are some good choices:

imageNutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman, pictures by Maurice Sendak: Here’s the book I recommend for older children and adults. It’s not a picture book per se, more like a coffee table book. First of all there are the fantastic Sendak illustrations (inside you’ll find nine full pages of illustrations alone without any text!). Then you’ll find a story that goes beyond the ballet version, including the background about how the nephew became the Nutcracker.

imageThe Nutcracker by Susan Jeffers: This is my favorite version for younger children. The illustrations have a great deal of warmth, and by simplifying the text and sticking with the ballet storyline (rather than introducing darker aspects of Hoffman’s original fairytale), Jeffers makes the story accessible for little ones. She captures the innocent excitement of a young girl on Christmas Eve and will charm readers of all ages. It’s the perfect book to read before you take a child to see the ballet for the first time.

imageThe Nutcracker Ballet by Mara Conlon: This one is as much a toy as a book. Kids can use the paper dolls to act out the scenes themselves, either as you read the story to them or on their own. Plenty of the ancillary characters are included, so you can stage the entire snow scene and such with corps de ballet dancers, setsthe whole shebang. This isn’t my favorite choice for illustrations, but it does make a great interactive gift and conveys the story well.

imageThe Pacific Northwest Ballet Presents: Nutcracker by Pacific Northwest Ballet Association: This one is perfect for our local customers who have enjoyed Pacific Northwest Ballet’s unique production for more than 20 years. Rather than admiring his illustrations, in this book you can appreciate Maurice Sendak’s skill at stunning production design. The photographs of what he created for PNB demonstrate why their production is a gem unlike any other. Angela Sterling does much of the photography for PNB, and her work here is evidence of her skill at capturing dance images. For those that grew up watching PNB’s Nutcracker, this beautifully designed book will feel like coming home.

—Miriam

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Father of Santa Claus

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'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads …

You recognized those lines immediately, I’m sure. If “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known these days as “The Night Before Christmas,” isn’t the best-known poem in English, it’s darn close. The image of Santa Claus that most of us carry in our heads and hearts comes straight from these fifty-six lines of light verse, particularly this section:

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself …

imageThe cherubic cheeks, the twinkling eyes, the white beard, the fur suit, and the overstuffed belly and toy bag all stem from this source, a poem first published anonymously in a Troy, New York newspaper, the Sentinel, in 1823. Other than a growth in stature (how does he fit down those chimneys now that he’s not quite so elfin?), Santa looked the same when cartoonist Thomas Nast first drew him in 1863, and he hasn’t really changed since.

What poet painted this timeless picture? Most sources say it was Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy professor of divinity and languages born in Manhattan in 1779. That’s why his name is on all the different editions that are currently in print. He didn’t claim ownership of the poem until 1844, though, long after it had become a frequently republished classic. Supposedly, he didn’t want his name associated with a frivolity, concerned about maintaining his scholarly reputation (established in such fascinating articles as “Observations upon Certain Passages in Mr. Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, Which Appear to Have a Tendency to Subvert Religion, and Establish a False Philosophy”).

There’s a strong argument that another writer deserves the credit, however. The children of Henry Livingston, Jr., a Poughkeepsie native a generation older than Moore, started saying as early as 1859 that their father, who died in 1828, was the true creator. The best case made on his behalf is probably the one in Don Foster’s 2000 study Author Unknown. The circumstantial evidence includes Livingston’s considerable track record with upstate newspapers (he was a frequent contributor of amusing poetry and drawings) and Moore’s lack of same (other than “St. Nicholas,” his work is entirely academic and moralistic), but the most compelling evidence is stylometric.

Forensic linguists such as Foster use stylometry to analyze writerly habits both overt and subtle, all in an effort to determine the likely authorship of disputed texts. Does the vocabulary in a given passage sound like a known author’s work? What are the idiosyncrasies of spelling and punctuation that it displays? It’s not an infallible practice, but it’s far more systematic and far less impressionistic than it seems. Reading the “Yes, Virginia, There Was a Santa Claus” chapter of Author Unknown left me completely convinced that Livingston was the man who heard the Christmas muse.

On the other hand, there are compelling arguments on the other side. Even knowing that some Moore partisans have a vested interest in maintaining the value of original (“original?”) manuscripts doesn’t detract from the credibility of their case. So at this point I don’t know who to believe.

My older child is in the same boat. He’s eight this Christmas, and for at least the past four years he’s been asking where his presents come from. I’ve never come right out and promised that Santa Claus is real, but when he’s tried to poke holes in the myth, I’ve simply agreed that the details are a little suspect and left it at, “What do you think?” He’s far too much of a pragmatist not to doubt, but he’s also too happy with the status quo to make a big issue of it. Fear of an empty stocking? Partly, but he’s also aware that it’s more fun to pretend. Which is fortunate, because his little sister is three, and this is the first year she’s fully understood and participated in our reindeer games.

imageIt’s a bit odd to find myself encouraging the ruse. I didn’t grow up believing in Santa, and in most other areas I’m a proponent of hard facts and facing the truth. But as I’ve written before, the holidays give us the perfect chance to put adult complications on temporary hold in favor of childlike idealism. I love knowing about the controversy behind the famous poem, and I’d stand up and cheer if long-gone Henry Livingston were to be definitively vindicated by some nit-picking Knickerbocker historian. More important than naming the person who wrote the poem, though, is the elf himself. Santa is bigger than the story. What’s amazing to me is that one human being, whoever he may be, can scribble something on a page that captures the imagination of the world so completely that his words become real. That’s the magic I believe in.

—James

Our Year of Eclectic Reading Suggestions

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It’s best of the year time, so let’s take a moment and review some of the best book lists we assembled in 2013. We’re in the home stretch for holiday gift-giving now, and if a straightforward best-of list hasn’t satisfied all your needs, these eclectic and typical-Island-Books-quirky collections might be of some help.

Tell Me A Story: Even if you don’t have time to read an entire book, you can still escape to other worlds with these stirring short story collections.

The Library of Forgotten Books: To commemorate the International Day of the Book on April 23rd, we shed a light on some titles that had been hiding in the corners of the store, waiting patiently to share their stories with you. As they say in Catalonia, “a rose for love, but a book forever.”

Self-Help: Who Needs It?: Every January, a chorus of voices, including our own consciences, tell us it’s time to renew, reassess, and remodel ourselves. That gets tedious. At a certain point, you have to take Popeye’s motto—“I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam”—to heart. You’re not so bad the way you are, you know?

For Fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette: We know a book succeeds when the ending comes far too soon and all we want to do is keep reading. It’s like driving at full speed straight off a cliff. Better to find another scenic road rather than fall into the abyss, because when readers get that kind of momentum going it would be a shame to stop. So if you read the delightful Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple and are already hungering for something with the same witty flair, here are some suggestions.

(You might also want to explore our recommendations for fans of Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan and Winter of the World by Ken Follett.)

Book Club Combos: A good novel often piques interest that extends past its back cover, like when a war novel inspires you to pick up a history book. We think you’ll want to read these pairs together.

James and Miriam Read Chocolates For Breakfast: It wasn’t a book list, but James and I read and discussed this shocking coming-of-age novel written in 1956 by then-eighteen-year-old Pamela Moore. (Part II of the discussion is here.)

A Dance To the Music of Time: For denser book club reading, James led the way for a massive literary undertaking this year. There’s a book, or series of books, by Anthony Powell that he’d had his eye on for a while. Collectively the work is known as A Dance to the Music of Time, and it consists of twelve books that were published separately between 1951 and 1975. It’s all designed to hang together as one long story, and looked at in that light, it’s one of the longest novels ever written. Powell surveys the London social scene between the world wars in such amusing style that Time magazine referred to his opus as “brilliant literary comedy” when adding Dance to its list of the best fiction of the 20th century. He has the sophisticated eye for manners of an English Proust, but also a masterly sense of episodic pacing—the eagerness to find out what happens next in his writing is as pronounced as it is for fans of cultish, cliffhanger-filled TV shows such as Mad Men or Game of Thrones. If that doesn’t sell you, how about this? An acquaintance at another bookstore described her time with the series as “the greatest reading experience of [her] life.”

James’s 2013 Anthony Powell marathon will wrap up with a final installment on Boxing Day, so it’s not over yet.

—Miriam

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu

imageMy daughter woke me at 2 a.m. the other night, babbling about strange and frightening dreams. As soon as I touched her forehead, I realized that a fever was talking for her. After some soothing and a tiny dose of acetaminophen, she went back to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. Instead I returned to my own fever dream, which was still sitting on my nightstand where I’d left it.

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu is, on one level, about not very much. A young man (also named Mircea) studies the skyline of his native Romanian metropolis and narrates his thoughts: “I used to watch Bucharest through the night from the triple window in my room … I, a thin, sickly adolescent in torn pajamas and a stretched-out vest, would spend the long afternoon perched on the small cabinet in the bedstead, staring, hypnotized, into the eyes of my reflection in the transparent glass.” He can’t make sense of his surroundings without understanding himself, so those thoughts turn inward, the nutshell of his room giving way to the infinite kingdom of his mind. Through memory and speculation he relives his childhood under Communist rule, his parents’ separate lives before they met, and the history of the city itself. Blinding turns out to be about a great many things indeed.

What it’s mostly about is the sheer power of the human imagination. The events and situations the narrator describes have a basis in the external world, but as he continually reminds the reader, they don’t really exist except on the page. Humdrum scenes of domesticity spin off into hallucinatory fantasies of almost unbelievable richness. Thanks to details that remain vivid and concrete, however bizarre they become, there’s something solid and functional underneath it all, and what the story loses in logic it makes up in metaphorical resonance.

To give one example, Mircea recalls a visit to the village of his peasant grandparents, during which he sleepily ponders how his ancestors first made their way into Romania. He envisions an older village in the snowy wilds of Bulgaria, where tradition is disturbed when Romani travelers (called gypsies in those less enlightened times) introduce the residents to the opium poppy. The besotted villagers abandon their chores and descend into orgiastic debauchery, neglecting to make their ritual food offerings to the dead. The starving corpses and their devilish henchmen (“[d]ragons and werewolves, locusts with human heads and humans with fly heads …”) rise from the cemetery in the night, laying waste to the community and forcing a handful of survivors to take refuge in the church, defended by the priest who was the only one to resist the poppy’s charms. He calls down a host of angelic warriors to drive the demons back, and the small party makes its way to salvation across the frozen Danube (the waters of which are stocked with giant aquatic butterflies) into a new country. They create a new life, says the narrator, “all without ever imagining that, in fact, they weren’t building houses, plowing land, or planting seeds on anything more than a gray speck in a great-grandson’s right parietal lobe, and that all their existence and striving in the world was just as fleeting and illusory as that fragment of anatomy in the mind that dreamed them.”

That summary doesn’t come near doing justice to Cărtărescu’s baroque creativity. This set piece, like dozens of others in the novel, is an insane, profane, spectacular performance, like a jazz solo in words. When I finished reading that chapter, I had a strong urge to commission a stand-alone, hand-printed letterpress edition of it, and if Gustav Doré were still alive to illustrate it, I might really have done it.

I can hear my boss now—“Great, an obscure European postmodernist. Why don’t you write about something regular people enjoy?”—but I’m going ahead with this self-indulgence anyway. It’s a really busy time of year and he might not even notice. I know that Blinding won’t be to every taste, as even its author acknowledges: “Maybe, in the heart of this book, there is nothing other than howling, blinding, apocalyptic howling …” But I also know that there’s an audience that will devour it whole, licking up every verbal crumb on its 460-plus pages. Fans of Gabriel Garcia Márquez who aren’t afraid to walk down the the shadier paths of the magical realist garden, perhaps? Or obnoxious literary grad students for whom Pynchon is too, too jejune? Anyone who appreciates that all works of fiction are ultimately nothing more than dream palaces projected in print? Maybe you?

—James

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Creative Genius

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One of the most surprising books I read this year was Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things. It’s a massive and triumphant work of fiction, tracing the life of an extraordinary female botanist during the 19th century. The protagonist, Alma Whittaker, could be the female version of Charles Darwin. In fact, she develops her own similar theory about survival of the fittest, right around the time Darwin published The Origin of Species. Rather than the ecosystem of the Galapagos, the behavior of Alma’s large variety of mosses leads her to the same revolutionary conclusion. She just doesn’t publish it ahead of Darwin.

Alma’s father was Henry Whittaker, an Englishman who became the richest man in Philadelphia. He was an enterprising botanist and thief who made his fortune by selling his revolutionary plant samples to a pharmaceutical distributor. His story is the precursor to Alma’s and sets the stage for her scientific pursuits.

A spinster until the age of 48, Alma is not the kind of woman who would have ever read Gilbert’s bestselling memoir of self-discovery, Eat. Pray, Love. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the Elizabeth Gilbert we met in Eat, Pray, Love created this bold and science-driven character. The only thing the two appear to have in common is they both went on long and arduous journeys to different countries to seek out truth. The narrator in Eat, Pray, Love was looking for meaning, self-knowledge, and love throughout her journey, but Alma is merely looking for facts both large and small, from the truth about her deceased husband to the secrets of the universe. She already knows who she is, and her sense of identity and self is never truly in question.

I’m a huge Gilbert fan, especially after meeting her several years ago right after the publication of Committed (the follow up to Eat, Pray, Love). She’s just as lively, charming, and compelling in person as she is on the page. I could feel all her warmth and energy pouring off the pages of The Signature of All Things, but I would never have expected her to write it. How did she go from her past work to this utterly unique and different novel?

The explanation came to me by chance. I stumbled across Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk from 2009, “Your Elusive Creative Genius." Gilbert talks about the notion that genius might come from a higher being, and that knowing that might give artists the confidence to get up every day and do their work without fear of failure. She takes the responsibility of success off the artist’s shoulders and encourages them to keep hacking away. Gilbert’s father was an engineer, and as she explains, he never felt frozen or terrified to do his job each day. Most people don’t stop working because they fear they won’t make a masterpiece, so why should artists have to wallow in the crazies?

Gilbert wasn’t preaching God here, don’t misunderstand me. What she was trying to do was validate an artist’s right to consistently do their work as an occupation and a craft. Coming off the tremendous success of Eat, Pray, Love, she must have struggled greatly with the expectations when people suggested her best work might already be behind her.

In the context of her TED talk, it makes sense that Gilbert matured into a writer who would create a heroine far stronger and more self-assured than the person who appears in her own memoir. She obviously found herself long after she thought she’d “found herself” during that big journey that became such a bestseller.

Her TED talk is motivational, but what’s truly inspiring is Gilbert herself. Not only has she continued to reinvent herself and grow as a writer, but she keeps showing up to do her job. And by doing that, she is making sure that her best work isn’t behind her. If The Signature of All Things is any indication, her writing will only continue to ripen and improve with age.

—Miriam

Best of the Rest? No, the Rest of the Best

Another year brings another set of Top Ten lists and another reminder that those lists are supposed to be about the quality of the books rather than the number of them. That is, we like compiling our Best of the Year lists in fiction and non-fiction (and for the first time this year, in children’s and tween/teens) because it gives us a chance to look back over the last twelve months and remind ourselves how great the books we read were. The ten titles we listed in each category are our collective favorites, but it’s not as if we can really argue that they’re measurably better than the eleventh- and twelfth-best ones. Different readers (or the same readers in different circumstances) will have other favorites, which is why we always like to talk about the books that almost made the cut.

For example, The Infatuations by Javier Marías and The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez were among the last titles knocked off our fiction list. The first is a slowly unspooling mystery set in Spain and written wiith great psychological acuity by an author we’ve previously trumpeted as a potential Nobel laureate; the second is a novel that deals with decades of drug trafficking, not by explicitly detailing it, but by showing the after-effects on the next generation of Colombians. Both are intelligent, even brilliant works, but there didn’t seem to be room for them alongside Daniel Alarcón’s At Night We Walk in Circles, which addresses political violence in Peru. Could we have included all this great Hispanophone fiction? Sure, but we felt like that would have unbalanced the list, so out those last two went.

That kind of horse-trading forces a great many excellent books off the winners page on our website, but fortunately, we have room on Message in a Bottle to give them their due. The rest of the best fiction of 2013:

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  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: There’s no truth to the rumor that we dropped this marvelous novel of romance between two Nigerian immigrants from our list because we were afraid to type the author’s dauntingly long name. We can prove that it’s false: Emma mentioned the book on our blog earlier in the year.
  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: It’s hard to believe that fifty years have gone by since Pynchon first published. He remains as inventive, energetic, and in touch with the zeitgeist as ever.
  • Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal: Sparkling wit and emotional resonance don’t often walk hand in literary hand, but Segal marries them like no one else. James rhapsodized about her on the blog just recently.
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: The youngest-ever Booker Prize winner also wrote the longest-ever Booker Prize winner, concocting a rich historical stew that updates the 19th century for 21st century audiences.
  • & Sons by David Gilbert: A great novel for book lovers (aren’t we all?) about a genius writer who’s a sub-par father.
  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride: Winner of this year’s National Book Award (and author of the beloved memoir The Color of Water), McBride has outdone himself with this tale of a young boy, born a slave, who must pass as a girl to survive.
  • And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Another success for Hosseini, long a favorite of island readers. Miriam took keyboard in hand some months ago to tell us exactly how good it is.
  • All That Is by James Salter: We don’t always trust the jacket flap to tell the real story, but in this case we do: “[A] young naval officer in battles off Okinawa, Philip Bowman returns to America and … finds that he fits in perfectly. But despite his success, what eludes him is love. Romantic and haunting, All That Is … is a dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition, a fiercely intimate account of the great shocks and grand pleasures of being alive.”
  • The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: A great discussion sparker, Messud’s novel provoked strong feelings that Miriam expressed in yet another blog post.

Great non-fiction that deserves a mention includes the following titles:

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  • Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr: Can you imagine the meals M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Julia Child, and all their other friends cooked when they were together in the south of France? You don’t have to imagine them when you read Barr’s vivid history.
  • Mercer Island History by Jane Meyer Brahm: Local kid Brahm makes good. As the only book of its kind, anyone around here must obtain a copy. As a really tremendous book, all considerations about geography aside, you’ll be ecstatic to own one.
  • Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson: What was a “sideshow of a sideshow” in World War I, the carving up of the Arabian peninsula, set the stage for the most important geopoliticking of the current age. Anderson’s account is the best imaginable explanation of how those times led to today.
  • The Lost Carving by David Esterly: Our staff, but especially Roger, is interested in any book that deals with real work and the struggle to maintain a sense of authenticity in our increasingly plastic, ersatz era. Esterly’s memoir of self-education, about teaching himself the techniques of the master woodworkers of the 1600s, is riveting.
  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai: Her story has often been told in the media, but not so well, nor so inspirationally, as she tells it herself.
  • Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander: This is a very difficult book to summarize, but James gave it a shot earlier in the year.

You probably have other books in mind, and we’d love to hear about them. There’s always room on our blog for comments, and we love to read your emails too, so don’t hesitate to share your opinions with us and your fellow customers.

—James

A History To Be Thankful For

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The traditional Thanksgiving menu is the same every year: turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pie. This year, instead of my usual apple pie, I tried to spice things up with a salted caramel apple pie. The recipe sounded amazing, but at the end of the day it didn’t taste all that different from my usual version (which is always good to begin with). Next year will be much of the same, whether I try a new recipe or not. When I think of that menu, I think of the store, which also remains a constant with only slight variations.

We’ve been guilty of putting a great deal of store nostalgia on the blog this fall, so I solemnly promise this will be the end of it for awhile. But as everyone poured out their hearts on social media this past weekend, waxing poetic about the things they’re thankful for, I couldn’t help but resist sharing three last pictures that sum up our gratitude at Island Books.

Above you’ll see a photo of our children’s section, and if you look in the upper right hand corner you’ll see this picture is circa 1985. It doesn’t look all that different, does it? Today, some of the books on the shelves have gone from apple pie to salted caramel apple pie, but basically it’s the same slice now as it was back then.

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Here’s the chalkboard we prepared for our recent anniversary celebration. On it, you’ll see the names of every Island Books employee over the last 40 years. It’s not that big of a list, and what’s particularly unusual in today’s work world is how long most of these people worked for Island Books. When you don’t have much turnover, the list of employees remains small.

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Here’s my favorite picture. Do you recognize these characters? The menu of booksellers hasn’t changed much. I don’t know the exact year offhand, but Roger’s hair is significantly less gray. This is not a recent picture. Does anyone else know the year and can you name them all?

This year, we’re thankful for making it through 40 years of doing what we love best. The books that flow through our shelves may change, but our passion for reading and bookselling remains as steadfast as ever.

We hope you had a warm and memorable Thanksgiving.

—Miriam

A Dance to the Music of Time: Temporary Kings

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A decade has passed since the events of the previous volume, and Jenkins has reestablished his writing career. He travels to Venice for a literary conference, there meeting an American, Russell Gwinnett, who is at work on a biography of X. Trapnel, and learning of the death in London of Ferrand-Sénéschal. Rumor connects him with Widmerpool, lately elevated to the House of Lords, the two allegedly sharing a taste for sexual depravities; press reports scandalously link Pamela Widmerpool with the death of the French philosopher. The attendees visit a palazzo where Pamela is a guest, along with Louis Glober, an American impresario, to view a painted ceiling by Tiepolo depicting the fable of Candaules and Gyges. Gwinnett, seeking information about her relationship with Trapnel, pursues an encounter and she becomes infatuated with him. Jenkins visits the studio of Tokenhouse, an old friend of his father’s, and sees a troubled Widmerpool there, involved in some kind of shady political dealing that may involve espionage across the Iron Curtain. Upon return to England, Jenkins attends a military reunion, discovering more details about Stringham’s death in a Japanese POW camp and listening as Sunny Farebrother relishes the possibility of Widmerpool’s arrest. Gwinnett is also in England, immersing himself in Trapnel’s milieu and alternately resisting and inviting Pamela’s advances, which include haunting his hallway in the nude in the middle of the night. Later, Odo Stevens and his wife, the former Rosie Manasch, host a charity concert. An ailing Moreland conducts the orchestra, and the audience is filled with faces from the past. Widmerpool, having somehow escaped indictment, is also in the crowd and one of the last to depart. In doing so, he is involved in a near-melee incited by shocking insults from Pamela and by her revelation that Ferrand-Sénéschal died in flagrante with her as Widmerpool watched. Months go by, and Jenkins engages in a few final conversations with the dying Moreland in his hospital room. We learn through this epilogue that Pamela has killed herself via overdose in Gwinnett’s hotel room, Gwinnett has fled to the Mediterranean, and Glober has died while racing vintage cars in France.

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We’re ten years further into the story, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Powell took that much time between writing the last book and this one. But no, his clockwork-like regimen stayed on schedule, and Temporary Kings came out in 1973, just a couple years after Books Do Furnish a Room. It’s not as though his style had time to change in between, but it feels to me as if it did. He seems freer and more direct than before. (He’s certainly more expansive, this being the longest installment in the series.) Is this reflective of the narrator’s aging and maturity, or of the changing mores of the era? Or both?

Jenkins, now in his fifties, may well be readier to show his cards, and England itself is considerably different than it was. The economy has improved, and a distinctive new culture is on the ascendant. It’s hard to imagine Powell listening to skiffle music, but he does mention the Teddy boy movement, and we know that skirts are about to shorten and that London is about to start swinging. Maybe that’s why things that used to be hinted at in the text have become explicit: “He produced a pair of nail-scissors from a small red leather case. He told me he carried them round with him in case the need arose.” Those who’ve read the book will recognize that quote, and know why my marginal comment on it was “!!!!” And that’s well before Pamela gets wound up and starts telling it like it is.

Even the artistic metaphors that used to lie quietly on the page without explication are now spotlighted. Candaules, his nameless wife, and Gyges are roles played by various characters in the book as well as the subjects of a fictitious fresco. Jenkins has always loved to drop allusive references, and Moreland and Jenkins have talked in the past about how specific pieces of music and writing can comment on the people around them, but I don’t recall it happening to the extent it does with the Tiepolo mural in Temporary Kings. This shared interest in the intermingling of art and life is what bonds the two friends so closely, come to think of it. The saddest moment in the Dance may occur when Jenkins says, “That morning was the last time I saw Moreland. It was also the last time I had, with anyone, the sort of talk we used to have together.”

That’s not the only lament for the past in the book, by any means. One of the subjects of Temporary Kings is nostalgia, and half of the text seems to serve as a trip down memory lane. In addition to Moreland, a host of other characters who haven’t been seen for a while take cameo turns on stage, apparently just to catch us up on what’s happened to them. Rosie and Odo show off their jointly assumed respectability, Mrs. Erdleigh casts a spell or two, Matilda breezes through a party, and more peripheral figures such as Stripling, Carolo, and Norma (Barnby’s waitress/muse) act as spear carriers. Even Jean has a ghostly presence, seen in the person of her daughter Polly. These appearances are rewards for consistent readers, but must be baffling to anyone who picks up this book cold. I suppose Powell shouldn’t be expected to worry about wooing new fans in the eleventh book of his twelve-volume series, so I can’t really criticize him here.

I expect a bit more wrap-up in the final volume, but beyond that I’m not sure what’s coming. On the one hand I’d love to have this symphony end with a grand climax, but that wouldn’t really be in keeping with the Dance as a whole. It’s impossible to imagine that it can end at all. Powell may have stopped writing, but life will just go on for all his characters, won’t it?

Next (and last) up: Hearing Secret Harmonies on December 26th. Available as part of Fourth Movement or separately as an an ebook.

—James

Previous installments:

A Conversation With Tom Nissley, Author of A Reader’s Book of Days
imageThis Saturday is Small Business Saturday, and we have the good fortune of having local writer Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days and Jeopardy! champion) as our guest bookseller. We started the conversation with him here, but if you come by the store on Saturday between 2 and 4pm, you can pick it up yourself where we left off. He’ll be gracing the store with his amiable presence and all kinds of literary recommendations. Don’t miss it!

Island Books: A Reader’s Book of Days is essentially a literary calendar and merges two worlds: the history of great writers as well as fictional characters. Are there particular authors who used detailed dates in their novels, and do you think they based their fictional dates around events in their own life?

Tom: I had never really paid attention to how novelists used dates before, but once I started working on this book I suddenly started to care about that very much! Some of my favorite novelists (Marilynne Robinson, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf) rarely tell you what day it is in their stories—and you wouldn’t really want them to. But some novelists are maestros of the date, and use them to great effect. Nabokov has dates all over his books—Lolita was born on January 1, for instance—and so do Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and H.P. Lovecraft. I think part of what makes the Sherlock Holmes stories so effective are all the specific details: the London street names, the kinds of cabs Holmes and Watson take, and the exact dates when, say, the five orange pips arrive (January 4) and the Red-Headed League is disbanded (October 9, 1890).

As far as tying stories to their own lives, the classic example is James Joyce, who chose June 16, 1904, for Bloomsday, the day Ulysses is set, because it was the day he went on his first outing with his future wife Nora Barnacle. But I loved discovering some other connections between authors and their books, like the way Toni Morrison used her birthday for the opening scene in Song of Solomon and Maurice Sendak hid his in the background of In the Night Kitchen. And of course Harry Potter shares his birthday, July 31, with his creator, J.K. Rowling.

Island Books: When is your birthday and what noteworthy events happened on that day? Was that the most interesting day for you to research? If not, what day was?

Tom: I’ve always been disappointed that my birthday, June 24, has never been much of a day for famous birthdays or events, so I was particularly happy when I read back over Annie Proulx’s story, Brokeback Mountain, and saw that perhaps the central moment in the story, when Jack and Ennis see each other again after four years and are drawn together so violently Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth, takes place on June 24. And I was even more pleased when I went through the story and did the math and realized that it had in fact taken place on June 24, 1967, my exact birthday.

In general, I ended up being more interested in the stories I found to tell—no matter what date they fell on—than the dates, but one thing I did like doing was taking some of the most iconic dates in our history and coming at them from a way you might not expect. November 22, 1963—whose fiftieth anniversary we’re celebrating this month—was not only the day Kennedy died, but C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley too. There’s a story in the book of Huxley’s wife wanting to give him a last shot of LSD to ease his way into the afterlife (in keeping with his long interest in psychedelic experimentation) and wondering why the doctor and nurses in their house were watching the TV instead of their patient. And September 11, 2001, was also the day that Calvin Trillin’s wife Alice died in another part of Manhattan, and the day his fellow New Yorker writer Ian Frazier came to the end of the cross-continent trip he describes in Travels in Siberia and found out what had happened at home when he called his wife at home in New Jersey.

imageIsland Books: Have you become superstitious about certain dates after researching the book?

Tom: I’m not too superstitious to begin with, but I think if anything writing this book has made me less so: I realize that wonderful and terrible and just flat out weird things can happen in writer’s lives on pretty much every day.

Island Books: Tell us about your PhD in literature. What did you write your thesis on?

Tom: Do you really want to know? My dissertation did get published as a book about ten years ago, but as far as I know the chair of my PhD committee and my mother-in-law are the only people who have read the whole thing. It’s called Intimate and Authentic Economies: The Self-Made Man from Douglass to Chaplin, and even at the time I couldn’t have summarized it very well for you. But I did make sure that most of the writers I wrote about for it—Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown (the author of another well-known slave narrative), Benjamin Franklin, Horatio Alger, Nathanael West, James Weldon Johnson—made it into A Reader’s Book of Days too. (I especially like the Alger story, about the first biography of him, which was written as a joke and a hoax—making up all kinds of things about his life—but was taken as fact for decades.) The last chapter of my dissertation was on silent movies—I didn’t have a chance to include any of those in this book, but I’m writing a novel on that fascinating subject…

Island Books: Your love of trivia radiates from RBOD. Did you begin thinking about this book before or after you became a Jeopardy! champion? How much would you say your Jeopardy! experience influenced the book?

Tom: I was thinking about writing a book like this before Jeopardy!, although I didn’t come up with the format until afterwards. But I have always loved a certain kind of book—a book that looks like a reference book, but is really an idiosyncratic book of stories rather than an organized book of facts. The Book of Lists, one of my favorite books as a kid, was like that, and I had a couple of others in mind as I wrote this one: David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film and Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract. Neither of them would be the first place you go if you just wanted to look up a fact, but if you wanted to get caught up in browsing and learn a hundred things you didn’t even know you didn’t know, they are perfect.

I’m not sure if my Jeopardy! experience affected the book itself very much, but it did make me a little more confident that people might read it.

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

Tom: I have lots of different kinds of favorites, but for the last few years there are three books that I’ve thought of as the Triumvirate that rules my imaginative world, in part because they are just fantastic novels, but in part because they helped me figure out the kind of fiction I want to write (and am slowly trying to write): Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. Just weird, brilliant books, which are quite willing to tell as much as show in a very imperious way, which goes against everything writing students have been told to do for ages.

Island Books: Why do you think you’d make a good bookseller at Island Books?

Tom: I’ve always wanted to be a bookseller! One of my favorite days every year has always been when I go to a bookstore some time in December and spend hours browsing through the aisles looking for the right books for all the people on my holiday lists. I love surprising someone with the right book for them (especially if they didn’t even know it existed). I also feel like I’m reading the books vicariously through them—either a book I’ve been intrigued by but haven’t had time to get to myself, or one I love and like to imagine them enjoying for the first time, or one I’m not even sure I’d like but think they might!

—Miriam

More New Children’s Titles

The children’s section is so full of goodness right now that we’re afraid it’s going to burst. Our only hope is to pipe the overflow onto the blog and hope the valves hold. One post from Miriam wasn’t nearly enough, so now I’m doing my part, and we may have to post more before the flood subsides. Stand back.

imageThe Silver Button by Bob Graham: For my money, Bob Graham is the best in the business at depicting real life in print. Despite his relatively sparse, cartoonish drawing style, his characters come across as individuals and his settings seem like physical locations, not backdrops. Even when the subject is fanciful, as in April and Esme: Tooth Fairies, a sense of verisimiltude pervades. Those fairies may live in a tree stump, but you can see that there are chores required to keep the household running, and that their mission to collect a tooth isn’t a lark, but part of an ongoing career.

In his most recent book, The Silver Button, Graham’s eye for detail is as sharp as it’s ever been. Which is fortunate, because he’s stripped almost everything else away—there are no plot pyrotechnics on display, and no protagonist to follow. Instead he elevates daily life and brings it to our full attention. Things begin in an apartment that’s both typical and particular, as an older sister draws a duck and her younger brother rises to take his first step. The camera draws back page by page to show how much else is happening at exactly the same moment: kids play in the park, a bird finds a worm, shoppers visit stores, and so on. It’s a whirlwind tour of an instant in time that winds up back in the room where it starts, with a proud new toddler and a budding artist eager to show mom their new skills.

Where kids’ books are concerned, I’m as big a fan of wild imagination as there is, but I also savor those that hold a mirror up to children’s lives. Which, by the way, are mostly lived in cities these days. There’s nothing wrong with portraying farms and fields, but I prefer an urban emphasis for accuracy. Graham gets that, and that’s why The Silver Button is a triumph of the quotidian.

imageBattle Bunny by Jon Scieszcka and Mac Barnett: Scieszcka has long been a champion for young male readers, realizing that a lot of boys aren’t too crazy about books. He has a real knack for finding subjects of interest to boys and shares their sense of humor. He and his co-author have done it again with this project, although the illustrator, Matthew Myers, should be considered at least their creative equal here. The concept may belong to the writers, but it’s the perfect execution of the art that makes Battle Bunny work.

When you pick up a copy, you’ll think at first that you’re holding a vintage picture book that tells a rather saccharine tale. The forest creatures are preparing for their friend’s birthday. But some bored, imaginative kid has defaced the pictures and altered the text to his liking. The Birthday Bunny has become the Battle Bunny, out to rule the woodland as a dictator: ”Crow swooped down. ‘I am saving shiny pebbles for my Sparkly Nest the forest from your Evil Plan. And I have will just finished you off my collection with my megatron bombs!’”

Before it’s over, ninjas, rocket ships, and a robot squirrel appear, but only the graffiti artist himself can ultimately defeat Birthdayattle Bunny. It’s an absolutely convincing presentation and great fun to read. Kids well past the usual age for picture books will find it highly amusing.

imageSnowflakes Fall by Patricia MacLachlan: This is another joint production—illustrator Steven Kellogg worked closely with the author on the creation of this book, which makes the uniqueness of snowflakes a metaphor for childhood: “Each one a pattern / All its own— / No two the same— / All beautiful.” The pictures that accompany the text show kids delighting in wintry scenes, and in the realization that the melting of the snow will bring new growth as the season changes. To a child, Snowflakes Fall is an unclouded, joyful celebration of nature and youth, a pure pleasure to read aloud with a parent or grandparent.

Adults see through different eyes, however, and may be moved by this book in ways kids don’t need to understand. Kellogg has lived for decades near the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, and Snowflakes Fall is his and MacLachlan’s response to the terrible event that took place there last year. For them the book is a memorial, almost a prayer, and a way to retain hope while processing grief.

It may sound strange to use a children’s book as the medium for dealing with these issues, but don’t be put off. The knowledge of what happened at Newtown remains where it belongs, entirely external to the pages. It can only enrich, not intrude on, your appreciation of the book. Anyone of any age who wants to employ Snowflakes Fall as a tool for coping with loss will find that it unlocks emotion and understanding with admirable simplicity. I can’t imagine a more graceful tribute.

—James

New Children’s Titles

The Bookstore Twins are 14 months old now (don’t ask me where the time is going). Between the hours of 7am and 7pm, you won’t find me reading any of that delicious fiction and nonfiction I recommended over the last two weeks. I’m only allowed to touch those goodies right before bed, as long as I can stay awake.

If I’m not hauling the kiddos off to store or library story times, or letting them drive Roger and Co. crazy by dismantling bookshelves at Island Books, I’m encouraging their interest in reading right on our living room rug. With children’s books, illustrations are everything, especially as I’m trying to teach my toddlers a vocabulary. If kids aren’t captivated, they won’t focus.

Goodnight Moon is the standby and they can’t get enough of it, but honestly, I’m tired. Pat the Bunny has been chewed to pieces. For my own sake if not for the munchkins, it’s time for something new. Fortunately, Hanukkah and Christmas are on the way. Here’s what my kids will be unwrapping.

imageFriends by Eric Carle: Every parent loves Eric Carle thanks to The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This year he’s sharing a more personal side, with a story based on the loving bond Carle shares with his wife. In Friends, a boy’s best friend moves away and he embarks on a journey to find her. The kids only appear in the beginning and end of the book, and the middle includes vibrant pictures of the river he swims across, the meadow he walks over, and the flowers he picks for his friend. Their reunion makes for a satisfying ending.

Carle’s latest is obviously perfect for my boy/girl twins, but the story has a nice message for everyone about the effort we make for those we care about and the transcendent nature of friendship. Another strength of Friends is the colorful illustrations that are so clearly Carle’s. Kids will look at the book long before they’re able to read or even understand the text and recognize the style. It’s apparent these creations belong to the same world that Carle’s caterpillar and brown bear reside in, and because of that, opening the pages feels like returning to visit a landscape we already know.
imageThe Tortoise and the Hare by Jerry Pinkney: I love this cover so much that even if I didn’t know anything about what was inside or that Pinkney won the Caldecott for his other fable, The Lion and the Mouse (also a magnificent cover), I’d still be hooked. What gets me about Pinkney’s illustrations are the eyes. He manages to convey so much personality in the animals’ expressions that the story tells itself with very little text. And is it just me, or does that tortoise look just a little bit like Roger Page?

Slow and steady wins the race, and beneath that tired and I-am-not-amused expression gleams wisdom gained from experience. This sporting event happens surrounded by cacti and the landscape of the southwest, and the country flavor of the spectators’ clothing adds humor and charm. The watercolor illustrations are gorgeous and will keep kids studying the same pages over and over.

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Cinders by Jan Brett: Much like Pinkney, Brett is a master of setting and atmosphere. Her chicken Cinderella story takes place in Russia, and it’s the wintry nature of each page that gives the book a chilly yet glamorous mood. The ice-covered buildings and elaborately-dressed chickens are sumptuously illustrated.

This is a humorous fairytale, and the chickens are filled with personality and ridiculousness. Keeping chickens is popular in the Seattle area, and if your kids spend any time around the real thing, they’ll crack up seeing their goofy animal friends as part of the story.

—Miriam

Barnes and Bender

Barnes and Bender—sounds like a cut-rate law firm or an old-time vaudeville team. In fact, those are the names of two completely different writers, one an American woman just starting to make a name for herself and the other a British man in his late sixties who’s winding up an acclaimed career. They’re connected here only because they’ve both recently published books that push productively against the restraints of form and function.

imageJulian Barnes is a Booker Prize-winning novelist, the author of Flaubert’s Parrot, Arthur & George, and The Sense of an Ending. His latest work isn’t really fictional, though. It combines history, observation, speculation, and reflection to produce something intensely personal, which makes Levels of Life a long essay, I suppose. Whatever it is, it makes for remarkable reading. 

Of all things, Barnes has joined the history of ballooning with thoughts on love. He acknowledges the incongruity in his very first lines: “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” Quirky, driven characters from the past, such as the flamboyant actress Sarah Bernhardt and early aeronaut Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar, appear in various anecdotes that seem whimsical at first, however informative they may be. We learn about early exploits in the clouds, and about the growing usefulness of lighter-than-air craft, as when the Prussian army surrounds Paris but intrepid balloonists carry messages over the military lines. These stories gradually accrete deeper meaning:

[H]ow did those besieged Parisians of 1870-71 get replies to their letters? You can fly a balloon out from the Place St.-Pierre and assume it will land somewhere useful; but you can hardly expect the winds, however patriotic, to blow it back to Montmartre on a return flight. Various stratagems were proposed: for example, placing the return correspondence in large metal globes and floating them downstream into the city, there to be caught in nets. Pigeon post was a more obvious idea, and a Batignolles pigeon fancier put his dovecote at the authorities’ disposal: a basket of birds might be flown out with each siege balloon, and return bearing letters. But compare the freight capacity of a a balloon and a pigeon, and imagine the weight of disappointment. According to Nadar, the solution came from an engineer who worked in sugar manufacture. Letters intended for Paris were to be written in a clear hand, on one side of the paper, with the recipient’s address at the top. Then, at the collecting station, hundreds of them would be laid side by side on a large screen and photographed. The image would be micrographically reduced, flown into Paris by carrier pigeon, and enlarged back to readable size. The revived letters were then put into envelopes and delivered to their addressees. It was better than nothing; indeed, it was a technical triumph. But imagine a pair of lovers, one able to write privately and at length on both sides of the page, and hide the tenderest words in an envelope; the other constrained by brevity and the knowledge that private feelings might be publicly inspected by photographers and postmen. Although—isn’t that how love sometimes feels, and works?

Flight, romance, and sorrow intertwine:

We live on the flat, on the level, and yet—and so—we aspire. Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art; others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash.

An even more succinct summation comes a little later: “Every love story is a potential grief story.” When you learn that Barnes’ long marriage ended in 2008 with the death of his literary agent wife, the subtextual shadow that’s been hovering at the edge of your vision, adding sneaky potency to Levels of Life's early chapters, moves to the center of the frame. It's a dark subject, but a captivating one. You won't want to look away.

imageAimee Bender’s The Color Master is a bit brighter in tone, as its title suggests, and it doesn’t really break new formal ground—it’s a traditionally structured collection of short stories. In terms of content, though, it’s all over the map. Many of the stories (such as “Lemonade,” which centers on teenage awkwardness at the mall) are straightforward and realistic, but a few are far more mind-bending. “Tiger Mending,” for example, doesn’t have a metaphoric title; in it a woman (and her tagalong sister) are hired to restitch the pelts of living tigers. “The Devourings,” a kind of contemporary fairy tale, starts out with this opener: “The ogre’s wife was a good woman.”

In this context, even the simpler stories take on a refreshing frisson of estrangement. When a normal-seeming character suspects something out of the ordinary is happening, she may not be unhinged, she may be right. Not knowing which opens up imaginative possibilities for the reader that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

Wherever on the weirdness spectrum the stories fall, they feel satisfyingly true to modern life. Bender’s mundane details are as accurate as her fantasies are wild. Take “Wordkeepers,” in which she provides trenchant commentary on the many ways that smart phones can substitute for relationships. And she’s witty. From one of the more or less down-to-earth tales, “Bad Return,” a co-ed speaks:

I had located within two weeks every single soulful gentleman on campus who wrote poetry. I found them by the length of their hair or the wear of their jeans …  [Most] were not really poets but just had volumes of very nice leather-bound, nearly blank poetry books given to them by parents who were trying to be supportive … It took me until senior year to find a poet who actually wrote poetry, and he took off my clothes very gently and spent nearly an hour on my neck and back, and when we were done and I felt all my waiting had been worth it, he explained that part of his education as a poet was to meet as many women as possible, and so this was now to be goodbye. He suggested I pretend he was going off to war in a boat. “What boat?” I said, clutching the blanket. “We live in Ohio.” He left a leaflet on my bed torn from a three-ring binder. Your breasts are fortune cookies, full of small wisdoms, he wrote. I read it multiple times. I almost notified the English department.

I was once a soulful gentleman on campus (though I have never possessed a book of my own poetry, blank or otherwise—you’ll have to look elsewhere to find an authentic versifier), so perhaps I’m biased, but I think it’s worth notifying English departments about that passage, and about the rest of The Color Master.

—James