Message in a Bottle
Why Is This Night Different?


Why is this night different from all other nights? If you’re Jewish, that’s one of the famous four questions your youngest will be asking at tonight’s seder. Yes, Passover is here again. I’ve written about this holiday before, but this year I’ve been thinking less about Haggadot and more about fiction that allows us to reflect on Passover, probably thanks to Peter Matthiessen’s powerful new book, In Paradise. His death less than two weeks ago will no doubt add another layer of the silent reflection needed to process his final work.

imageA three-time National Book Award Winner, Matthiessen liked to address difficult subjects like the destruction of nature and peoples by the hands of men, the American Indian movement, and men wrongly convicted of murder. He enjoyed speaking for those who couldn’t speak for themselves.

In Paradise tackles perhaps the toughest topic of all: the Holocaust. The plot centers around a meditative retreat at the site of a former Nazi death camp. Matthiessen was a Zen Buddhist, and said that he had long wanted to write about the Holocaust but refrained because he wasn’t Jewish. The protagonist of In Paradise, Clements Olin, seems to be a fictional version of the author. Olin was born in Poland to a Jewish mother, but taken to America as an infant and baptized. In the book, he returns 50 years later with a faded picture in his pocket, to search for his mother in the place where she may have died.

The cast of characters is a mixture of Buddhists, Jews of European and Israeli descent, priests, nuns, the offspring of Nazis, aging survivors, etc. There is a simmering tension between them as they go about their daily meals and tours and meditations. Olin grows ashamed of his infatuation for a nun, but the pessimistic tone of the entire narrative turns when a cantor leads the group in a Hebrew prayer for peace. The participants join hands and start to move in a circle, inspired to dance. Someone cracks a smile, and suddenly many of the reservations about the retreat start to dissipate.

It’s at this scene that Matthiessen begins to play out the controversy that the novel might incite among readers. How should the characters approach their death camp retreat? They experience the same mix of emotions that readers might feel approaching fiction about the Holocaust. Is it exhilarating or is it profane? Is there redemption through suffering or is it simply horrifying?

Passover celebrates how God freed the Jews from slavery and led them out of Egypt. Each year we tell the story of how the Jewish baby Moses was found and brought up by Egyptians, how Moses saw God in a burning bush, and how God brought ten terrible plagues on the Egyptians to convince Pharoah to let the Jews go free. In the story of Passover, suffering leads to redemption. We rejoice in our freedom and remember how hard it was to achieve.

That seems to be the purpose of Holocaust fictionto remember suffering and be grateful for the outcome. It’s human nature to try to find a reason for pain. In retrospect we often choose to see justifications for horrors that just don’t make sense otherwise. So when we stop to ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” remember that the answer (not the one written in the Haggadah; the personal one) is probably a little bit different for everyone. It all depends on how you see a tragedy.


Italian Experiments

"They’re coming from every direction. The barbarians, that is." So opens Alessandro Baricco’s book-length essay on "the mutation of culture" that’s happening all around us. His complaint sounds overly familiar at first—the inhabitants of the 21st century are slaves to technology who have no sense of history, they value spectacle over substance and quantity over quality, etc.—but don’t write him off as a reactionary crank just yet. His book’s title, The Barbarians, is actually rather tongue-in-cheek. 

imageBaricco does think that the world we’re entering has been fundamentally altered, subjected to changes “radical and profound,” but he’s not condemning it, just trying to understand: “[P]erhaps those we call barbarians are actually a new species who have gills behind their ears and have decided to live underwater. Obviously to us, with our pathetic little lungs, it all looks, from the outside, like an imminent apocalypse. Where they breathe, we die. And when we see our children gaze longingly at the water, we fear for them and blindly lash out at the only thing we can see—namely, the shadow of a barbarian horde on its way.”

These happy mutants swim in every sea, of course, but Baricco chooses to sound the depths of just a few in his attempt to explain how their new world works. Being Italian, he starts with the topic of wine. It’s consumed in more places by more people than ever before, but the most popular varietals are less sophisticated than they once were. As accessibility increases and complexity of flavor declines, is the total amount of pleasure produced going up or going down? Are things getting better or worse or just … different?

The case of books is similar, and one that Baricco, who’s a highbrow novelist when he’s not penning polemics, can’t neglect:

The idea that the world of books is currently besieged by some of the barbarian hordes is so widespread nowadays that it has almost become a cliché. In its popularized form, this can be said to rest on two pillars: 1) people don’t read anymore; 2) the people who make books these days think only of profits, and make them. Put this way, it’s paradoxical. Because if number 1) were true, then clearly number 2) wouldn’t be the case. So there’s something in need of clarification.

Yes, quality books seem harder and harder to find, but that’s only because they’re camouflaged amid the gargantuan landscape of publishing. More great books are being written than ever, but even more of everything else is, too. Baricco crystalizes a contention I’ve long held, that most mainstream bestseller lists are filled with “books that aren’t books … books that wouldn’t exist if they didn’t start from a point outside the world of books. These are books that have had films based on them, novels written by television personalities, stories set down on paper by people famous for one thing or another.” But he concedes that this is “not at all vulgar.” The so-called barbarians are perfectly entitled to reject a book that relates exclusively to book culture, instead gravitating toward one that’s a “small piece of a much broader mosaic.”

Perhaps the best evidence that Baricco isn’t fighting a rear-guard action, covering our retreat into the past, is that his essay was originally serialized on the website of an Italian newspaper. As installments appeared there, comment and discussion ensued that Baricco incorporated in subsequent chapters. The book wouldn’t exist in the form that it does without the beneficial assistance of water-breathing mutants, a fact that he acknowledges. If The Barbarians doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace our modern age, at least it honestly reflects it. While reading it, I felt at times that I was in the ivory tower and at others that I was one of the slavering hordes outside, which is exactly the kind of sympathetic experience I want from an essayist (and from his translator, Stephen Sartarelli, whom it would be barbaric not to mention).

coverInspired by Baricco’s example, I next sampled the work of another backward-looking, forward-thinking Italian writer. Back in the 1960s, Nanni Balestrini composed Tristano, a contemporary take on the legendary love story of Tristan and Isolde. It’s a short novel of ten chapters, each comprising twenty paragraphs. Balestrini’s notion when he wrote it was that the paragraphs within a given chapter could be read in any order, such that there would be limitless paths a reader could take through the story. Nearly fifty years later, his dream has been realized. Every copy of Tristano (translated by Mike Harakis) that’s now being published is unique. Mine begins with some picturesque scene painting: “There are vistas of olive groves vineyards lush valleys and mountain peaks at every turn.” Yours might start differently: “He lit a cigarette and threw the match out of the car window.” Even the covers are distinct, numbered separately as they’re printed. In all, there are 109,027,350,432,000 possible permutations to be read, far more than the number of stars in our galaxy.

Obviously, this is experimental writing that’s not for every taste, but I find the project fascinating. Balestrini conceived something remarkable, and half a century on, print technology made it real in a very old-fashioned way—black ink on white pages. Evanescent binary bits have helped preserve and present an ancient tale in an altogether new way. No two Tristanos are alike, and yet they’re all somehow the same inside. Has it ever been more apparent how much books and human beings have in common?


The Library Book Sale and the Pleasure of Whim Reading


The Friends of the Mercer Island Library book sale took place last week. I often take my kids to the weekly toddler story time, so afterwards we wandered over to pick out one or two children’s books. It should come as no surprise that the next thing I knew, I was walking out of the library with a stack of books higher than my head.

Because the book sale consisted of local donations, browsing through the stacks felt like raiding the libraries of my neighbors. There’s something to be said for seeing your community through the lens of their bookshelves. If these are the books the people around me are reading, I’m perfectly content to be here.

Not surprisingly, my pile consisted of titles like Dora’s Potty Book and Curious George at the Zoo. But once I’d stocked up for the kids, the whole experience turned into a game of “I always meant to read that! It’s only two dollars….” I had to force myself to put back the massive tomes I knew I’d still never get around to reading, like The Son by Philipp Meyer. I was getting overwhelmed.

imageThe one book I grabbed that wasn’t a meant-to-have-read was Sea Glass by Anita Shreve. I knew nothing about it except that I’ve always enjoyed Shreve’s books. It had also been ages since I bought a small paperback that looked like a beach read. Sea Glass ended up being the only adult book I didn’t put back.

At home, my overburdened nightstand glared at me when I added this used novel published over ten years ago. When would I have time and energy for such an obvious indulgence? Beneath it were all the books I’d been trying to read, everything from advanced copies of upcoming novels to books about my children’s developing brains. With over twenty books in my stack and life’s myriad of obligations pressing down on me, not to mention two demanding toddlers, what do you think I did?

It wasn’t the laundry, that’s for sure. That very night I crawled into bed at ten and stayed up two more hours to read my guilty little pleasure. Sea Glass is the story of a marriage that starts out well and goes on to face great challenges, set during the Depression in a textile mill town. As she always does, Shreve describes her characters so vividly that you can nearly visualize the way they walk, talk, think, and feel.

The ending, which I polished off the second night, left me sad and uplifted at the same time. I closed the book and sighed the same way I do after a last bite of chocolate cake.

Sea Glass is exactly the kind of book I can see myself donating to the Friends of the Mercer Island Library book sale come next year. And it’s exactly the kind of book someone else should buy there. Some books are meant to stay on our shelves, to be read once and then admired for what they represent as much as what’s inside. But others are for passing on, not necessarily something to brag about reading, just a fleeting escape like a warm bath.

That’s why a book sale like the one at our library is so important. While Island Books is the perfect place to buy a gift, an eagerly anticipated new hardcover, or that huge bestseller everyone is talking about, it’s nice to have a place to pick up an old two dollar paperback to enjoy and then pass along. If you can make the time, reading on a whim is an indulgence I highly recommend.



Bookstore Books


You’ve noticed, I’m sure, how something can be ignored for years and then suddenly become a media darling. Hardly anyone gave a thought to zombies since the B-movies of the 1950s, for example, and then they started shuffling into magazines and onto TV shows, first as single spies and then in stinking, decaying battalions. For whatever reason, they were having a moment.

In that respect, bookstores are like zombies. We’re brainier, more vital, and better-smelling, of course, but we’ve also become the focus of increased attention. As we all hurtle into a confusing future that comes faster every minute, shops like ours have become a symbol of sorts. Traditional, authentic, and operating on a human scale, but also engaged with the life of the mind and therefore open to novelty, freshness, and innovation—no wonder everyone is talking about us.

imageimageThe charm of the independent bookshop has been described dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the years (the platonically romantic 84, Charing Cross Road is an ur-text) but the current fashion may have begun with the publication of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in 2012. We’ve written previously about the pleasing blend of high-tech caper and paean to print that author Robin Sloan produced, should you want to take a spin through our archives. Other recent books on the topic include Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore, about a Parisian shop that stocks only masterpieces, and Deborah Meyler’s The Bookstore, which features an engaging cast of clerks who rally to support a young pregnant woman in Manhattan. More offbeat and serious stories have come from overseas of late, such as Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina out of Guatemala, about a haunting book thief, and Tahar Djaout’s The Last Summer of Reason from Algeria, in which a steadfast bookseller resists theocratic vigilantes out to suppress art and human expression.

I’d been thinking for a while that it would be a good idea to write about these and other titles, but those thoughts, like so many of mine, stayed idle and vague. Until another new book arrived, that is. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin hit the shelves this week and immediately became the poster child for everything I’ve been discussing. “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World” is the perfect motto of the bookshop at the heart of this ingratiating new novel. I’d tell you more about it, but there are at least two people better equipped than me to do so.

The first is Gabrielle Zevin herself, who’s going to be here at Island Books at 10 a.m. on Monday, April 7th. She’s on a whirlwind tour, so this will be a quick meet-and-greet; come early if you want to say hello and take home an autographed copy. The second is our own Emma Page, who is the ideal audience and mouthpiece for The Storied Life, as you’ll see below.



imageIt was a bitter Massachusetts day in early March when I was handed a copy of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and noticed that it has a very personal connection. The title character is a widower and the owner of a small independent bookstore called … Island Books. He is also a man with very particular tastes. Early in the novel this prematurely curmudgeonly bookseller grumpily informs a young publisher’s rep that he does not like “postmodernism, post-apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magical realism … literary fantasy … children’s books … debuts … poetry, or translations.” As a fan of all of those things, I wasn’t sure that A.J. and I were going to get along very well. To make matters worse, The Storied Life makes heavy use of one of my own literary pet peeves. I usually can’t stand books about books. As a bookseller and a college student studying literature, I’m always wary of becoming one-sided. Usually I want what I read to broaden my horizons, rather than just feeding me comfortable images of other bibliophiles doing what we do best.

Normally, then, I wouldn’t have even picked up Zevin’s book, which has more than just a nod or two to the reading public. But I was already pining for Seattle, so despite few indications that this was going to be my kind of story I snagged a copy for purely sentimental reasons. After devouring the entirety of Storied Life on a plane ride home from Boston I was feeling conflicted. Yes, pandering, but oh how lovely to be pandered to so effectively. I felt as though someone had opened a window into my life, changed a few names and important details and written it all up as a sweet, quirky love story. When a mysterious package abandoned in the store turns out to be a baby girl named Maya, Fikry decides he’d rather take on the challenge of raising the child than see her disappear into the foster system. Later, she ponders her unusual childhood:

Maya knows that her mother left her in Island Books. But maybe that’s what happens to all children at a certain age. Some children are left in shoe stores. And some children are left in toy stores. And some children are left in sandwich shops. And your whole life is determined by what store you get left in.

I wasn’t abandoned on the doorstep of Island Books, but know just what Maya means. Zevin tells us that “The store is fifteen Mayas wide and twenty Mayas long. She knows this because she once spent an afternoon measuring it by lying her body across the room.” I’ve never measured Island Books, but I can date my memories by how much I had to duck to enter the playhouse in Children’s, or how high the counter looked as I peered up at my parents. I know exactly how long it takes me to walk from the front counter wrapping station to Garry’s shipping desk in back on a crowded December day, and which letters of the alphabet I’ll need a step stool to shelve in Young Adult. Zevin writes that “the place Maya loves most is downstairs because downstairs is the store, and the store is the best place in the world.” I didn’t grow up above Island Books, or even on Mercer Island, but that sentence speaks to me as much as anything I’ve ever read. I’ve always known that The Bookstore is the best place in the world, and Gabrielle Zevin has confirmed that I’m not the only one who feels that way. Although I hope fate treats our own curmudgeonly shopkeeper more kindly than it does Mr. Fikry, I’m happy just knowing that our store means as much to so many as his does.


Swindlers, Liars, and Pranksters

It’s April Fool’s Day this week, which means The Onion will wreak their annual havoc, Google will reach new creative heights, and my mother will celebrate her birthday. Despite these amusing and upbeat events, April Fool’s Day isn’t the innocent holiday it appears to be. A day dedicated to making people fill stupid and gullible has a definite dark side. With that in mind, here’s a short list of books that seem appropriate on April 1st.


The Great Brain Reforms by John D. Fitzgerald: There are eight books in The Great Brain series, but this one is my personal favorite. Set in a small Mormon town in southern Utah, the series chronicles an ordinary boy named J.D. and his life alongside his big brother T.D. (aka “The Great Brain”). The Great Brain is known for tricking people out of money, but in The Great Brain Reforms, T.D. supposedly repents and tries to correct the error of his ways.

While you need to read the other books in the series to fully appreciate The Great Brain Reforms, what’s different about it is that this is the part when J.D. realizes that T.D. isn’t as great as he thought he was, and worse, his big brother’s crimes aren’t as harmless as he once thought. So J.D. takes it upon himself to “fix” the Great Brain. The town children put T.D. on trial and he’s finally contrite. Despite the Great Brain’s repentance, at the end J.D. (and we) come to realize that despite the temporary triumph, T.D. will never change. And honestly, readers would never want him to, because as long as he’s not playing tricks on us, he couldn’t be more entertaining.


Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong by Juliet Macur is new on the shelves, and if you’ve followed Armstrong’s long career and felt as deceived as most did when his true nature came to light, this book is worth a crack.

Macur did her research, and what came out of her exhaustive interviews is an account that reads like a thriller. She gives both a sympathetic and heartbreaking portrait of the man at the center of one of the most scandalous stories in sports history. Armstrong’s lies were no April Fool’s Day joke, but he sure pulled the wool over our eyes like no one else in recent history.

The Hoax by Clifford Irving became a 2007 movie with Richard Gere, but the book is even more compelling than the film. Here’s a caper to end all capers, written by the perpetrator himself.

imageBack in the 1970s, Clifford Irving and his friend Dick Suskind convinced a major New York publishing house that they were writing the definitive biography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Irving claimed he had unparalleled access to Hughes, assuming that the recluse would never draw attention to himself by denying their claims. Irving and Suskind forged letters, hoarded private documents in the name of research, and fabricated interviews. Irving’s wife laundered money and helped them in their deception.

What’s especially entertaining about The Hoax is Irving’s attitude and near-gleeful joy at what he nearly managed to pull off. His writing is heartfelt and astute, and charming enough to make readers forget he’s a bluffer of outrageous proportions.

The Great Brain Returns, Cycle of Lies, and The Hoax offer some upbeat and some more serious deceptions to shock and amuse us on this not-so-innocent holiday. But if you tire of reading about other people’s bad behavior and decide to play a trick of you’re own, you can always stop by the store and ask Roger for some ideas. Something tells me he might have a trick or two up his sleeve.


Less Is More: Watson & Kestin

Bearing in mind my inclination toward the loose, baggy monsters of literature, a friend once quoted John Barth to me as a corrective: “Much can be said for minimalism.” I’ve never found the source for that remark (though it may be a distillation of things he wrote in a thirty-year-old New York Times article), but I think of it often. If you know Barth’s massive novels by reputation, it may sound like hypocrisy, but if you’ve read him you know that he can be terse when it’s necessary. And sometimes it is.

In a dry climate, a trickle of water over the dam can bring life while a flash flood can kill. Less is more. Maybe that’s why all those movie cowboys keep their mouths mostly shut. So I’ll take a lesson from Johns Wayne and Barth, skip the digression I’d planned about how the word laconic comes from the name for ancient Sparta, and get right to the point. Which is that reading something simple and straightforward can be a bracing tonic when you’ve stuffed yourself with words. I’ve been on just that kind of cleanse this week.

imageI first prescribed myself a copy of Larry Watson’s latest, Let Him Go, which turned out to be a perfect choice. It tells the story of the Blackledges, ex-North Dakota ranchers and now town dwellers. George and Margaret have lost their grown son, and their widowed daughter-in-law has taken up and taken off with a shiftless, mean-spirited new man. A tolerable situation, except that the only Blackledge grandson has gone with them. Margaret persuades the hesitant George to head west with her into Montana to find the boy and convince his mother to return him to their care, but the new husband’s clannish family is none too eager to oblige. What starts as a test of marital bonds turns into a dangerous thriller.

Watson’s spareness with description lends the story an elemental quality. It takes place in the early 1950s, but it could as easily be set in the 19th century or in the present day. The novel is lean and hard, just like his protagonists, who exemplify that taciturn Western style I mentioned above. When they say something, they mean it:

Think this through, Margaret. What you’re aiming to do—

I’ll do. You ought to know that by now.

They’ve been through life’s trials and come out stronger for it, and they’re a completely convincing team. I can’t remember the last time I rooted for two characters as much as I did the Blackledges. Wait, I do—it was the father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Watson’s book is more realistic and relatable, and perhaps even more powerful. It’s superbly done.

imageNext up was a novel by Hesh Kestin called The Lie. It stars Dahlia Barr, a left-leaning Israeli lawyer who defends mostly Palestinian clients against accusations of terrorism. In a PR move, the government taps her to lead the committee that authorizes so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques, which she begrudgingly does, intending to put a stop to state-sanctioned torture. No sooner than she takes the job, though, her soldier son is captured by the Lebanese Hezbollah, and her most deeply felt personal and political beliefs come into conflict.

The set-up is swift, and once it gets rolling, the plot moves even more quickly than Watson’s. By the time elite commandos begin a cross-border raid, the action, like the reading, is impossible to stop. Kestin was a journalist in the region for decades as well as being a longtime member of the Israeli Defense Forces, so he really knows his stuff. His understanding of military operations would make Tom Clancy proud, and his eye for telling cultural details is absolutely authoritative. By the end of The Lie I felt as if I’d crammed a semester-long seminar on the Middle East into a single day, with plenty of cliffhangers to keep things interesting.

After a week of clipped, economical prose, I may be ready for something a little more lyrical. I still want something short and sweet that really packs a punch, so I’m thinking of giving an anthology a try. Namely, one edited by Anthony and Ben Holden entitled Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. We’ll see how hard-bitten and flinty I really am.


Novels That Predicted the Future

imageHere’s something I don’t believe in: fortune tellers. But this recent story from The New Yorker gave me pause. It appears that Vassily Aksyonov’s 1979 novel, The Island of Crimea (unfortunately out of print), envisioned Russia annexing Crimea, in a situation where the citizens bring the invasion upon themselves. Basically, the same thing that happened this past week. But I still maintain that authors aren’t fortune tellers. I will, however, concede that their suggestions might plant seeds. You never know what people will take away from a book.

Science fiction in particular loves to envision the future. Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story presented a future in which the United States defaults on its debt, economic chaos ensues, and China scolds us for being irresponsible. Sound familiar? Speculative fiction has a good chance of being right if the author assumes that things will always get worse.

Another quirky one is Robert Heinlein’s invention of the waterbed. His 1961 novel Stranger In a Strange Land contained a detailed description a bed filled with water. His vision was so precise that when Charles Hall invented the modern waterbed in 1968, he couldn’t get the patent until 1971 because Heinlein owned the intellectual property. Heinlein claimed to have had the idea as far back as the 1930s.

imageTom Clancy’s prescience is positively scary. His 1994 novel, Debt of Honor, portrayed an attack similar to 9/11, and his 2010 work, Dead or Alive, chronicled the capture of a sadistic criminal similar to Osama bin Laden. H.G. Wells did us no favors either with The World Set Free, which described the atomic bomb and may have been the original inspiration for all kinds of atomic weapons.

Politics, economics, and espionage aren’t the only areas touched on by prophetic authors. Technology is a big one too. Doesn’t this paragraph from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 science fiction novel 2001: A Space Odyssey describe something very similar to the iPad?

"When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug in his foolscap-size newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers…Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-size rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination…"

This is all very well and good, but we can rest easy that the events and devices described in these examples have already come to pass and we are still alive and well. The bigger question is, what hasn’t happened yet that some visionary author has already put to paper? As much as I enjoyed Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle about an imaginary tech company that basically takes over the world, let’s hope we aren’t in for living our lives under 24/7 mass video surveillance.

Can you think of some other novels that predicted the future? If so, share them below.


The Man in the Snow


A man is standing in the New England snow. He is paunchy and bald, of below-average height, wearing only unflattering white briefs. His eyes are closed. He is The Sleepwalker, a hyperrealistic statue devised by artist Tony Matelli and installed out of doors on the Wellesley College campus. He is part of, and an advertisement for, a Matelli exhibition at the college’s Davis Museum, and though the museum director, Lisa Fischman, has described him as “vulnerable and unaware against the snowy backdrop of the space around him … not naked … profoundly passive … inert, as sculpture,” he’s caused a considerable kerfuffle.

Many, perhaps even most uninitiated passers-by have at first assumed him to be a living person. A number have them have been disturbed by his presence and worse, alarmed. One student has circulated a petition citing him as “a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for many members of our campus community.” Hundreds have signed it. I’m a straight, cisgendered white guy, so I have to squint just slightly to see through the eyes of the signatories, but I do respect their view. Still, I wonder why more people aren’t first worried about the sleepwalker himself. I am, but that’s probably because he reminds me of someone.

Robert Walser was born in Biel, Switzerland in 1878 and by the early part of the 20th century had achieved some fame as a writer in the Germanophone world. Kafka and Hesse, among others, were devotees. Walser’s work was noted for its rueful comedy (as a bookseller myself, I’ve always been particularly fond of his novel The Tanners, which opens with a “young, boyish man” entering a bookshop and declaring that he’s well-suited to the work because he’s “not so foolishly honest” as he might appear) and for extolling the virtues of the flâneur. Walser, like many of his characters, best contemplated the world on foot; the first of his books translated into English was a novella entitled The Walk, in which he says that in the absence of regular strolling, “I would be dead, and my profession, which I love passionately, would be destroyed.”

Despite his accomplishments, life proved too difficult for Walser. After episodes of intense anxiety, including possible hallucinations, that began in 1929, he was institutionalized. He thrived in the sanatorium, exhibiting no symptoms and continuing to write for many years without publishing. He wrote in pencil, completing entire stories on scraps of paper no larger than a business card, using barely-legible letters only a millimeter tall. He lived this way until Christmas Day, 1956 when his body was found lying in the snow some distance from the institution. He had died of a heart attack on one of his typical lonely rambles.

Walser’s had a revival in the past decade, with much of his work finally being brought into English, largely at the behest of New Directions. Their facsimile edition of Microscripts is just one example. Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee has championed him as an unsung genius of modernism, and he significantly influenced W.G. Sebald, himself no stranger to apparently aimless wandering. As much as the work, though, it’s Walser’s death that has made him an icon.

Post-mortem photos show him as he was found in a field, alone and on his back with one outstretched arm, in a tableau that looks like a pastoral version of one of Weegee’s gangland crime scenes. It’s a sad, solitary, somewhat cryptic setting—Walser’s face is turned away—that inspires pity for the plight of the writer and perhaps for the Writer. South African novelist Ivan Vladislavić uses the pictures to inspire a fragmented meditation on mortality and the blank page called “The Last Walk” in his collection The Loss Library: “What about the story the writer would have written on the day after he died?”

Does the man’s life say anything? Does his death? Coetzee concludes his appreciation of him by asking:

Was Walser a great writer? If one is reluctant to call him great, said Canetti, that is only because nothing could be more alien to him than greatness. In a late poem Walser wrote:

I would wish it on no one to be me.
Only I am capable of bearing myself.
To know so much, to have seen so much, and
To say nothing, just about nothing.

If Matelli’s sculpture were housed in a gallery, that poem might serve as a caption for it.

The Sleepwalker is still standing in the snow. He hasn’t finished his sentence.


Photo from the Davis Museum. This piece was originally published by the web magazine Full Stop.

Reading My Way Back to Ireland


With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon, I am reminded that my Irish passport is due for renewal. You may wonder why a girl from Walla Walla who married a bookseller from New England even has an Irish passport and you wouldn’t be alone. The short, logical answer is that Ireland is generous in bestowing citizenship rights on the descendants of its residents.

The longer, more personal answer started in an old farm house on the edge of town where I could turn left and walk a mile through tree-lined streets to St. Patrick’s Grade School or borrow the always available pony from the neighbor lady and ride straight out through the green fields of the Palouse. And if I rode that pony far enough in a northwesterly direction, I would land right on the fields that my Irish great-great-uncles and their sister homesteaded long ago. The very mention of their names and the whole idea that homesteading conjured up in my young mind made me think that was all ancient history. Then one day in my late teens an Irish cousin just my age appeared in my life and those ancient times got a whole lot closer.

imageimageOver the last thirty years, I’ve gotten to know more of my relatives and heard many of their tales (and I’ve received many St. Patrick’s Day cards exactly on March 17th—now that’s the luck of the Irish). Their stories aren’t unusual, just American immigrant stories like so many others. Nearly every Irish writer that I have read describes a character just a degree or two off from the ones in my own family. The books, of course, tell about them so much more beautifully than I ever could.

When I read William Trevor’s Lucy Gault or Sebastian Barry’s Secret Scripture the families making their living off the sea and land in Skibbereen come to life. Their stucco farm houses exist on rolling fields that could be placed in the landscape of eastern Washington. The ground in both places is as green, but the ocean is a good bit farther away from Walla Walla, mind.

imageimageWhen Irish fiction turns to America, I recast the starring roles with actors I know. Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn may ostensibly be about a young immigrant to New York, but for me it’s really about my great aunt Ann and her friend Peggy who as young women left the farm for the big city of Cork then decided to really bust out and head for the States. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, which I read for our book club last month, was really about my grandmother, Mary O’Donovan, who was brought to Boston at age 15 for a better life with her cousins. Like Kline’s protagonist, my Irish lass headed west, sent by her uncles Dan and Con down the rails to the wide Palouse.

imageimageFast-forward through history to my most recent visit to the old homeland where cousin Danny, father now of young adults, looked at me and said “We were poor when you came last, and we’re poor again.” He was speaking of the ten-year span when Ireland was known as the Celtic Tiger, when its economy soared and an entire generation was raised like American children, privileged and entitled, thinking they were invincible and the world was their oyster. Kevin Barry is the voice of these now thirtysomething children in his collection of short stories, Dark Lies the Island. Anne Enright in The Forgotten Waltz reflects on the adult lives torn apart when the boom times were followed by the fall of the housing market. And of course, Roddy Doyle’s expertise with dialogue puts me right into contemporary Dublin; he revisits the rollicking band we first met in The Commitments, now in their declining years, in his latest novel, the funny, poignant The Guts.

imageimageIn Mink River by Brian Doyle it seems that all of my experiences of Ireland and Walla Walla come full circle. Doyle writes about life in a small coastal Oregon town populated by Northwest loggers, Irish immigrants, and Salish storytellers. With a beautiful narrative voice enlivened by just a touch of magic (there’s a speaking crow) and a setting not so different from Skibbereen or the town where I was born, I am there again in my ancestral lands. Perhaps I don’t need that passport renewed after all. I can read my way home.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day to you all.



An Open Letter of Praise and Supplication (with Free Stuff at the End!)

AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, held its annual conference in Seattle two weeks ago. Ten thousand authors, teachers, students, publishers, and book-lovers descended like a cloud of bespectacled locusts, and for several days the city held a near-monopoly on the world’s supply of canvas tote bags. I didn’t attend any of the educational panels (which included “The Joys of Teaching Composition at a Two-Year College” and “Who Wears Short Shorts? (We Do): Revitalizing the Fiction Workshop”) but I did drop in on a few satellite events (read: cocktail parties).


One of these was co-sponsored by New York Review Books, one of my favorite small presses, and there I grabbed an advance copy of The Gray Notebook by Catalan writer Josep Pla, a sprawling journal of life in coastal Spain and Barcelona that’s due in April. It looks great, and I’m really hoping it makes Pla a household name, mostly because I can’t wait to find out how the literati will make him into an adjective: “You must read this—it’s so Plavian!” “Oh? I thought it more Plaotic.”

At the soiree I also got to meet Nick During, the press’s publicity manager, and tell him how much I like NYRB’s work. They regularly republish out-of-print classics and introduce new ones, and they’re proudly eclectic, choosing books from all eras and locations. Take this pair of opposites: Gregor von Rezzori’s An Ermine in Czernopol and David Stacton’s The Judges of the Secret Court. The former appeared in German in 1958 and is a simultaneous mockery of and tribute to the faded glories of post-imperial, pre-WWII Mitteleuropa, while the latter is as American as apple pie, a fictional look at John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln assassination. Nothing at all in common but quality.

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Or consider The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, which was something of a sleeper hit for us. In it, a cantankerous grandmother and her willful six-year-old granddaughter spend long vacation days together on a remote island, learning to see the world through each other’s eyes. It’s comic and tender, but also pragmatic and frank. The only thing it shares with its stablemates is a distinctive cover aesthetic. When you see that brightly colored title box you might not know exactly what you’re getting, but you know it’ll be good.

When I told Nick what a fan I was and how much his books had meant to our customers, he was very appreciative and told me he’d be happy to help however he could. “Let me know if I can send you any books,” he said. I calmly agreed to get back to him, but I was downplaying my giddiness when I did it. I wasn’t kidding about being a fan—NYRB books are to me what Sinatra was to the bobbysoxers. I’m not sure of the number I own, but I know it’s more than forty, and I have at least a dozen more on my wish list. Those aren’t the books I think in passing would be cool to own, mind you, but the ones I actually have plans to obtain. Before I even left the party I was mentally calculating how many I could cadge and how to use Message in a Bottle to justify my greediness.

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I wrote some time ago about my hopes for reading more women’s writing. If I got hold of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, Tatyana Tolstaya’s White Walls, and Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A House and Its Head, I’d be able to make an excellent progress report. Or I could expand on my earlier post celebrating the Netherlands by covering Nescio’s collection of Amsterdam Stories. The political situation in Egypt might prompt conversation about Albert Cossery’s Cairo novels, including Proud Beggars and The Jokers. Maybe I could work Dezso Kosztolányi’s Skylark, Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy, and Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica into some kind of tribute to oddball adventure tales. I could pull all that off, right?

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Less selfishly, I could spread the wealth around. This month marks the US publication of a travel memoir that some have awaited for decades. The author, Patrick Leigh Fermor, died in 2011 at the age of 96, but as a young man he walked across Europe, roaming from the English Channel all the way to what was then known as Constantinople. As a middle-aged man he recounted the beginning and middle parts of that trip in two legendary books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, and at last the final leg concludes in the posthumous The Broken Road. Fermor was an amazing man (if you don’t believe me, just read his biography; his military exploits alone will astonish you) and his final book deserves your attention. Few people want just the third volume of a trilogy, of course, so maybe we can work out a deal. Anyone who purchases The Broken Road from Island Books before the end of March will be entered in a drawing to win free copies of the first two books. Assuming that Nick agrees that this is a good idea.

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Whaddya say, Nick? Will you kick in a couple of freebies so that I don’t have to reach into my own pocket to make good on the offer?


UPDATE: He thinks it’s a great idea! NYRB is donating two pairs of books, so TWO lucky buyers of The Broken Road will end up with full Fermor sets. Don’t wait—come in today to enter.

Counter Intelligence: The Weight of Blood

imageEvery so often, a fairy tale happens. The Weight of Blood may be a dark and foreboding novel, but author Laura McHugh’s story is as happy as they come. She deserves everything good that comes her way, because The Weight of Blood is simply outstanding. I haven’t experienced such a strong sense of atmosphere in a book in years.

McHugh grew up in Iowa and various small towns throughout the Ozarks. She loved to write but never knew how to pursue it in a practical way, so she spent ten years working as a software developer. Right around the time she sold her second short story, she became pregnant and lost her job. Her husband encouraged her to use the time to work on a novel. She did everything the hard way, the way that seems impossible to most aspiring writers. She wrote her novel, sent queries to agents, and as soon as people started reading the manuscript they went crazy with excitement. Her story never got buried in the slush pile, and soon agents were fighting over the right to represent her. Housewife from the Midwest with no MFA and nearly no publication history sells her first novel in a competitive international auction. It was just that good. A Cinderella story.

The plot centers around the disappearance of two young women in the fictional town of Henbane, Missouri. It’s been seventeen years since Lucy’s mother Lila, a newcomer in the tightly-knit community, arrived and soon mysteriously vanished, and recently Lucy’s mentally disabled friend, Cheri, was found brutally murdered. When Lucy takes a summer job at her uncle Crete’s restaurant, he sends her out on a side job to clean out a trailer in the woods. There she finds signs of a struggle and a necklace she had given Cheri, which pushes her to find out what really happened to her friend.

Meanwhile, the novel shifts to the past, when Lila first arrives in Henbane to take a job with a much younger Crete. Her beauty and mysterious past as an orphan makes her a compelling figure in the small town, and soon both Crete and his brother Carl develop feelings for her. But Crete is angry when Lila prefers Carl, and his revenge reaps terrible consequences.

imageAs Lucy pursues her investigation into Cheri’s murder, she discovers secrets about Henbaneand her relativesthat will make her question just how deep family loyalty should run. Lucy’s revelations shed light on what happened to her mother more than a decade before, but the truth unmasks a truly horrifying underbelly of a seemingly benign small town.

What makes this psychological suspense novel stand apart is McHugh’s vivid and luminous writing. Her ability to evoke a local vernacular and cloak the scenes with the lush Ozark setting creates a world all its own. She deftly layers a ruthless evil beneath the niceties of a small and isolated community, and the result is a page-turner that will haunt you long after you finish reading. I can’t wait to read McHugh’s next book. She left me wanting more.



Searching for Souvenirs of the Vast Dying Sea


Garrison Keillor shared the poem below, “Searching” by Billy Collins, the other day through his Writer’s Almanac, and it struck a chord because it reminded me of myself.

I recall someone once admitting
that all he remembered of Anna Karenina
was something about a picnic basket,

and now, after consuming a book
devoted to the subject of Barcelona—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—

all I remember is the mention
of an albino gorilla, the inhabitant of a park
where the Citadel of the Bourbons once stood.

The sheer paleness of her looms over
all the notable names and dates
as the evening strollers stop before her

and point to show their children.
These locals called her Snowflake,
and here she has been mentioned again in print

in the hope of keeping her pallid flame alive
and helping her, despite her name, to endure
in this poem where she has found another cage.

Oh, Snowflake,
I had no interest in the capital of Catalonia—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—

no, you were the reason
I kept my light on late into the night
turning all those pages, searching for you everywhere.

I read a lot (because there’s so much great writing out there) and I often read too quickly (did I mention how much great writing is out there?) so the details of books, however enthusiastic I am about them, tend to get fuzzy pretty fast. For example, I loved the phantasmagoric novel Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu and wrote about it only a few months ago, but pressed to describe it today, only the scene where terrifed villagers ride on sledges through the snow springs clearly to mind. The rest is a kaleidoscope of scattered images and phrases.

The book about Barcelona that Collins mentions is likely Barcelona by Robert Hughes, although there he incorrectly calls the animal “Snowball.” Some research must have preceded the publication of this apparently offhand verse. The admission of forgetfulness about Anna Karenina that Collins recalls comes from author Nicholson Baker. He writes about the failures of literary memory in his idiosyncratic tribute to John Updike, U and I:

Almost all of literature capsizes and decays in deep corrosive oceans of totaled recall. I remember almost nothing of what I read. What once was Portrait of a Lady is now for me only a plaid lap-blanket bobbing on the waves; Anna Karenina survives as a picnic basket containing a single jar of honey; Pnin is a submerged aquamarine bowl; The Rock Pool's cab meter still ticks away, showing a huge sum, but the Mediterranean has taken over the rest of the resort town of Trou-sur-Mer; an antelope from some otherwise blank Christopher Isherwood short story springs wonderfully up out of oblivion “like a grand piano”; the ample landfall I think I have sighted in Paradise Lost turns out to be the “scaly rind” of the Leviathan in the first book; and even Alan Hollinghurst’s stunning The Swimming-Pool Library, which I am right now in the process of reading, haven’t yet finished, have no excuse for forgetting, already hangs suspended in my inhospitable memory merely as a group of “sodden sticking plasters” fluttering, as he describes them, like an undersea plant near the grate of a water filter. My quality of recollection may be more atomistically image-hoarding than some, yet the twice-ten-thousand-cavern-glutting expanse and depth of the “vast dying sea” of the once read, over which we all permanently and cheerfully row and pole and sail according to our talents, unless our sense of a particular work is stimulated by review writing, the commemorative essay, teaching, an imminent exam, or the hasty once-over that a dinner guest seems to feel is necessary before he or she meets the writer after a long interval, is the most important feature of all reading lives.

Need I say that this passage is almost the only part of Baker’s oeuvre that lingers strongly in my mind, existing alongside a Joycean snowfall of sugar packets from his novel The Mezzanine?

Looking at literature this way, as nothing more than a florilegium of disconnected phrases, would seem to diminish its importance, but I don’t agree. The rich, immersive experience of reading isn’t invalidated because books don’t stay complete in memory like mammoth carcasses in tar pits. You can’t clone a dinosaur from an ancient bone, but the fossilized fragments of our reading, even single words, can bring books back to life or something like it. Florilegium is a case in point; I learned it from Baker, and now every time I encounter it he appears before me, arms full of odd-sized volumes, like a bearded, beatific ghost.

Marco Polo didn’t undertake an adventure of two dozen years’ duration just to bring back a single souvenir, but that would be enough motivation for a writer to make the trip. The journey is its own reward, and a cheap memento is a bonus. In Springer’s Progress, David Markson interrogates himself about what he hopes to gain from his writing and answers, “With luck a phrase or three worth some lonely pretty girl’s midnight underlining." You say ambition should be made of sterner stuff? Nah. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? If I pass through a Paradise of pages in a dream and have just one flower presented to me as a pledge that my soul had really been there, that’s enough.

By the way, though “Searching” refers to “she,” Snowflake was in fact a male gorilla. An intentional mistake by Collins to further emphasize his poem’s truth? I wouldn’t put it past him.


Nancy Talks Story Time at Island Books

Nancy Page sent the email below to James and me yesterday morning. And yes, now I feel lame for staying in last Saturday night and missing all the fun.



Hi James and Miriam,

Not only are you the great wordsmiths of Island Books, but you are most importantly the parents of young children and I thought how much you all would have enjoyed the storyteller event last night at the store.

You know that we have been hosting the Seattle Storytellers Guild members for more years than I can remember; I’ve come across 30-year-old story time flyers with some of the same tellers that come around today. I inherited the job of scheduling the tellers about 10 years ago, but long before that, I brought my babies, Emma and Lewis, to sit at the knees of some of the same tellers who are the mainstay of our program. To this day, Emma still recalls Pat Peterson in her colorful pinafore pulling felt animals from her pockets. But over time there has entered a new generation, like Norm Brecke, a guitar-toting kindergarten teacher from Renton, who last night brought yet the next generation of tellers to entertain the little ones and all of the adults too.


Norm’s after school storytelling club has been chugging along for over 3 years and these kids ages 9-11 can tell a story like the best of them, using dramatic hand gestures, changing their voice inflection, and engaging the audience to participate. Each and every one walked off to laughter and hearty applause from the audience. It was one of those moments at Island Books that money can’t buy. In an organic way, in my mind that started back with baby Emma in the circle. Now we find ourselves hosting a young generation of storytellers who have picked up the mantle and carry on the storyteller’s tradition. In part we have continued to host storytellers just because we believe in it and value it, hoping to do our part to keep it alive. I can see that it isn’t going away any time soon. Roger asked if we can have them return some time this spring, so you may have a chance to see them too.

I’ll send you a photo from my phone of the grand finale with Norm and the kids singing.

See ya,


Inside Inside Llewyn Davis

The Academy Awards are being handed out in a few days, which makes me think of a movie that isn’t in the running. Well, not for much. Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ tribute to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s, was nominated for its cinematography and sound mixing, but even if it wins, those aren’t the prizes anyone will be discussing around the water cooler the next day. Given the film’s critical reception, it’s a bit surprising that it didn’t get a Best Picture nod, or at least one for its star, Oscar Isaac, who embodies the title role as though he were playing himself.

Llewyn Davis is both a disappointed and a disappointing figure. He’s a talented performer who can’t bring himself to make the compromises necessary for commercial success, and he responds to life’s obstacles unpleasantly, antagonizing even the people who most want to help him. His knack for fouling his own nest is so pronounced that one of his closest friends refers to him as “King Midas’s idiot brother.” When he sings, he transcends his troubles, but the rest of the time he staggers from one minor catastrophe to another, making as little progress as a skipping tone arm on a hi-fi.

The main inspiration for the movie was the life of a real folk legend, Dave Van Ronk. Davis shares a number of surface details with the late singer, but their essential characters couldn’t be more different, and some have taken issue with the way they’ve been overlapped in the media. Van Ronk was a generous soul apt to offer his own couch to a stranger rather than mooch accommodation for himself, and he tells his own story in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, probably the single best evocation of the Greenwich Village coffee house era.


Inside Llewyn Davis is a production of the highly literate Coen brothers, so of course Van Ronk’s memoir isn’t the only bookish antecedent for the film. As were the characters in their earlier musical tribute, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Davis is on a mock epic quest to find a home, so Homer’s Odyssey is again a touchstone work. Sartre comes into play, too, partly because his Existentialist philosophy suits the zeitgeist of the period, but especially because of Davis’s refusal to be pigeonholed by his fellow human beings. “Hell is other people,” as the play No Exit says. And Davis’s inability to escape the circular rut he’s created for himself gives a hint of Eliade and his concept of The Myth of the Eternal Return.

Sounds like heavy stuff, but it’s all hidden in the subtext. Since their last allegory of the sensitive artist, Barton Fink, the Coens have learned something about subtlety. Watching Inside Llewyn Davis, you’ll mostly be impressed by its austerely beautiful wintry atmosphere (remember that cinematography nomination?) and by the music. Rarely have songs been so integral to a film as these. Naturally, you can pick up a copy of the soundtrack at Island Books to find out for yourself.



Potty-Training by the Books


If my title didn’t stop you from reading further, this is your second and final warning that this could get dirty. Yes, I’m going for a potentially messy topic today: potty-training books. Not the ones for adults. The ones for kids.

The bookstore twins are only 17 months old, but I’m running out of energy with this never-ending diaper routine. We change about 8 diapers a day at this house. It’s expensive. And exhausting. And frankly, odoriferous.

I’ve been reading up, both books and online, and taking advice to prepare myself for tackling this daunting parenting task. I’m told with twins, rewards are a terrible idea. If one sees the other winning M&Ms all day and can’t manage to earn one, it could get ugly. The only reward that makes sense is that if they sit on the potty, we read them a book. Thankfully, for my kids reading is a reward. They want to be read to all the time. So I must be doing one little thing right (and dozens wrong, but at least the book thing is covered). Or they just have my genes.


A friend told me to keep a special stack of “potty books” right by the toilet that they only get to read when they’re up on the throne. So I’ve started collecting a few. The first one is Potty by Leslie Patricelli. She writes a series of adorable toddler books that are all worth taking a look at, especially No No Yes Yes, which we particularly like because there’s a picture of the baby eating dog food out of the dog disha serious problem in our house. I’ve read the kids Potty once so far (just on the floor, to test run it for this blog), and they loved it. The text is minimal but it’s all about the pictures. I actually could make up plenty of extra text to go along with them. The storyline in all these potty books is pretty much the same (no surprise endings with brown stuff on the walls, please!). The cute little baby has to go and doesn’t want to go in his diaper. He studies what the dog and cat are doing. He goes and sits on the toilet with his diaper on, realizes his mistake, and takes it off. Then he sits, and sits, and waits, and waits, and once the dog and cat fall asleep he finally does his business. Everyone shouts hooray and he finally gets big kid undies. My kids loved the undies picture the best, who knows why. But the book is an undeniable hit. They’ve been leafing through it over and over while I write up this review. I even had to stop to break up a tussle as they grabbed it away from each other. Always a good sign for a book’s merit, if not for my sanity.

I picked out three other books: Where’s the Poop? by Julia Markes (they are crazy about lift-the-flap books), Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi (this one cracks me up because it’s both silly and scientific), and Diapers Are Not Forever by Elizabeth Verdick (straightforward, sweet, and enthusiastic). They’re stacked up nicely by the toilet. Now we just have to see how many times I can stand to read them. That’s the true test of a children’s book anyway. Can the parent sustain reading it 40 zillion times? If the answer is yes, we should probably give that author an automatic Newbery. (It goes without saying that parent deserves an award too.)

There’s probably a fairly limited amount that can be done with this sort of book, but it’s a category that never goes out of style. These are the books I never noticed until these kids took over my life. I laughed about them before, and I’ll laugh about them after, but while I’m potty-training this is no laughing matter. Could getting the right potty book be the difference between weeks and months of diaper dependence? Probably not, but you never know with parenting and we’re all doing our best to get it right. So if anyone else out there has a favorite in this category, by all means, speak up. As the lovely smell of a child who has not used the potty wafts past me, I can easily say that I’ll be sincerely grateful for your recommendations.



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