Message in a Bottle
Mere Realism Doesn’t Thrill Me At All

As I sit in the wood-paneled study atop my ivory tower, hemmed in on all sides by esoteric works of fiction, I begin to wonder how I came to this place. On one wall are slim volumes that refract and reflect each other like a Borgesian hall of mirrors, and on another are fat epics of Pynchonian complexity overstuffed with arcane and useless learning. In between are multi-authored novels in verse that make myth out of the Golden Age of Hollywood; plays that shift their characters achronologically through times past, present, and future; histories that masquerade as novels masquerading as histories; unfinished fragments by sickly Latin American geniuses; and futuristic stories told by narrators so unreliable that they call into question my existence as well as theirs.

Why must everything I read be so damn tricksy, and why am I not satisfied with simple tales straightforwardly told? After much self-examination I’ve come to realize that the foundation of the baroque structure that is my literary taste was laid quite early, and not by my own hands. The reader I am today is built entirely on two books given to me when I was barely out of the crib. It’s not my fault, in other words. I blame my parents.

They couldn’t have known the damage they were causing, of course. What harm could lie behind the shiny binding of a Little Golden Book? There were clues, though. What normal story can’t wait for the first page to start, instead beginning right on the cover? The Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover plunges you immediately into the maelstrom. Before it’s even opened, the grinning title Muppet is already greeting his soon-to-be acolytes with a friendly “Hello, everybodeee!” Before you’ve had a chance to take in the title page, Grover is already commenting on it as “very dull.” And things get slipperier from there.

Suddenly shocked by his recollection of the title, Grover fears what he’ll encounter at the end of the book and begs the reader not to go on: “Oh, I am so scared of monsters!” He constructs ever more intricate barricades of rope, wood, brick, and steel, but even a toddler knows that these are only ink on paper, no obstacles to a a determined page turner bent on reaching the dramatic conclusion. The pleas grow more impassioned and the suspense ratchets up until the ultimate twist arrives—the dreaded monster is Grover himself. Relief and chagrin ensue for the protagonist, along with a heady swirl of ideas for at least one young lap-bound listener. The fourth wall shattered! Identity destabilized! The once-transparent page made glaringly visible! The step from sunny Sesame Street to the darkness of Barth’s metafictional funhouse was a short one.

Perhaps I could have turned from that path if not for P.D. Eastman. His Go, Dog. Go! fatally fed my appetite for complexity and experimentation in prose. Even the name of his book is elaborately punctuated, for the love of Melville! What chance did I have? G,D.G! begins with deceptive simplicity, as a reportorial account: “Dog. / Big Dog. / Little Dog. / Big dogs and little dogs.” But the facts accumulate exponentially as dogs of all hues parade dizzyingly past, until a blooming, buzzing, hyperreal confusion is achieved. The dogs play and work, swim and ski, drive cars and fly zeppelins (are those goggles and scarves steampunk prototypes?). They ride roller coasters and wander through labyrinths. Yes, labyrinths. This is no mere picture book, but a phantasmagorical encyclopedia, the Ulysses of its kind.

David Markson described his own work as “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like,” but he might well have been talking about Eastman’s. Instead of a single storyline there’s a series of continually interrupted scenes written in different styles and registers. Two dogs meet cute and enact a near-Beckettian playlet about a displeasing hat. Optimistic dogs enjoy the sun; pessimistic ones complain about the heat. The driving dogs stop for repairs. A new hat fails to impress. Three dogs have a party on a boat at night that’s so sad and comic it would make Padgett Powell laugh and Charles Portis cry. The cars approach a mysterious tree. The hats grow grander and the rejections more stinging. And then the threads join in a spectacular, colorful, climactic snarl, a two-page spread that rivals Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in imaginative detail. What a dog party!

After that, the deluge. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, they say, so drink deep or taste not the postmodern spring. I slaked my unholy thirst by swigging from The Phantom Tollbooth, and then things got blurry for a while. I woke up in a pile of Barthelme shorts and it was like I didn’t care any more. My habit got so bad at one point that I could get through a brick of Gaddis in a weekend. I tried to wean myself off the stuff by switching to the Russians, but Tolstoy and Chekhov led to Bely and Bulgakov and I was right back where I started.

It’s not so bad here in the Library of Babel, really. It’s not crowded, for one thing, so I don’t have to fight for first dibs on that new novel by the obscure Romanian with the unpronounceable name. Still, I sometimes wish my folks had made different choices for me. Dick and Jane, perhaps? Then maybe the straight dope would be enough for me.

—James

This piece was first published at bookriot.com.

Better to Read Bestsellers or Avoid Them?

imageA recent article by Shane Parrish in The Week posed this intriguing argument: that serious readers should avoid bestselling books. The reason being that most bestsellers are forgotten in a few years, and offer minimal help educating us on long-term issues. They also encourage us to think like the masses, potentially smothering our creativity.

I have mixed feelings about his argument. On the one hand, I strongly believe that people should read for pleasure as much as for education. If reading is a chore, it can take on a negative association and feel like one more thing on our endless to-do lists. There’s a great deal of joy to be found in reading what others are reading. A good book can be the seed of meaningful conversation; the kind of conversation that builds relationships and brings people together. It can also help us understand multiple viewpoints and know each other in a way that just living daily life along side someone doesn’t always reveal.

In favor of Parrish’s argument is my dread for those who read only to announce their reading list to others. I agree that reading should be an internal pursuit. And people are different. My father, for instance, reads the most obscure books on religious history and philosophy. Often he can’t even find the titles he wants to read because they are so obscure they go out of print sooner rather than later. I read plenty of bestsellers, but you can also find my nose in a ballet book or an advanced copy of a first novel that someone I know in publishing is excited about. Those often don’t become bestsellers, but some, like The Weight of Blood (which I discussed here awhile back) register on my list of recommendations for years. 

imageParrish agrees that reading what others are reading feels good, but he claims that’s a terrible way to build knowledge, especially since many hits are a flash in the pan. I don’t agree. There are plenty of bestsellers that impart meaningful knowledge that endures. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, for instant, is a spectacular history lesson about crucial moments in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. And how about What To Expect When You’re Expecting? I wouldn’t pass on Goodnight Moon just because others are reading it. No to The Joy of Sex? The Joy of Cooking?

I’ll just modify the argument to “read whatever you want, bestseller or not.” Articles suggesting what to read are always welcome and will reach their intended audience even if the suggestions aren’t for everyone. But articles telling people what not to read? Not my cup of tea. Read for education; yes. Read for conversation pieces; yes. Read for pleasure; yes. Read to pass time; yes.

If it interests you, read it.

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—Miriam

Was His Father the Zodiac Killer?

imageTrue crime is one of those genres that either repels or fascinates readers. I don’t seek these books out, but two that have stayed vividly in my mind for years are In Cold Blood (not because of the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie, although that was excellent) and Helter Skelter (the Manson murders). Those two are the gold standard of investigative nonfiction in that arena, and downright chilling.

This past week, news broke of a surprising and bizarre new true crime account. The book comes from HarperCollins, a respected but sometimes exploitative publisher that was originally supposed to publish O.J. Simpson’s offensive pseudo-confession, If I Did It. Although not quite at the same shock level as that monstrosity, HarperCollins brings us a puzzling premise that was successfully embargoed. No one knew this book was coming until it hit the shelves. In The Most Dangerous Animal of All by Gary L. Stewart, the author lays out twelve years of research that led him to the conclusion that his biological father was the infamous Zodiac killer.

The Zodiac killer was known for five murders in Northern California in the 1960s. He taunted police by sending coded messages to the local media. No one ever cracked the case, despite thousands of tips. The film Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood, was loosely based on the case. In 2007, Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. starred in Zodiac, which chronicled the investigation. For more than 40 years the identity of the Zodiac killer has remained a mystery.

There have been red herrings. In 2012, former police officer Lyndon Lafferty published The Zodiac Killer Cover-Up, which claimed the now-in-his-90s killer was living in northern California. Lafferty’s book was widely criticized for factual errors and ultimately did not name the suspect.

A 51-year-old owner of an industrial cleaning company in Louisiana, Stewart isn’t the first to claim his late father was the killer. In 2009, a mother of five, Victoria Perez, announced that her late father, Guy Ward Hendrickson, was the Zodiac killer. She also told the media he took her along on killings and that she was the author of coded messages sent to the media. Although taken seriously at first, Perez lost her credibility when she later tried to claim she was the illegitimate daughter of President John F Kennedy. Some people will do anything for media coverage.

That invites the question, is The Most Dangerous Animal Of All a cry for attention, a delusion, an incorrect conclusion, or could it bethe truth at last? Stewart interviewed handwriting specialists, forensic scientists, and over 500 others who were either experts or somehow connected with the case. HarperCollins claims the manuscript has been carefully vetted by their attorneys. But why is Stewart bringing his claims forward in this manner, with an embargoed and dramatic book? Stewart tells the media he spent ten years unsuccessfully begging the San Francisco Police Department to compare his DNA with what’s in the Zodiac killer’s files. So maybe this book is a way of strong-arming that to finally happen. It will be interesting to see.

Now, the book itself. Truth be told, I couldn’t read the whole thing. The book opens with the author’s family history (he was adopted) and the writing style didn’t grab me. And, despite the evidence presentedsome flimsy (his father liked codes) and some more convincing (his father’s striking resemblance to the police sketch)the element of doubt remains present, especially considering other past attempts to claim the case had been solved. I wish the book had come out after the DNA comparison had been done. It seems to me a careful publisher would have demanded that kind of evidence prior to publication.

If you’re fascinated by the Zodiac killer, I’d watch the 2007 movie Zodiac before investing in The Most Dangerous Animal of All, at least until Stewart’s claims have been forensically proven. But if it’s just a good true crime account you’re after, I stand behind my recommendations of In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter. You can’t go wrong there.

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—Miriam

Judy Bordeaux and the Joy of Authorship

It was 1979, and I was visiting my parents and watching TV with my dad. A new made-for-TV movie, All Quiet on the Western Front, came on starring Richard Thomas, the man who had played John-Boy on The Waltons. Together we watched the film begin: first a shot of the cover of the book and then a hand opening the book and in beautiful script autographing the book: “Erich Maria Remarque.”

My dad gasped. “I’ve seen that! I’ve seen that man write that name in a book!”

“What are you talking about?”

While the television went to commercials and then back to the movie, my dad shared with me his experience. It was as if he were remembering it for the first time in over forty years. He was a boy, working or playing on the family produce farm in what is now north Seattle. A well-dressed man approached him and asked him if he could get his father to change the flat tire on his car.

While my dad sat on the fence, my grandfather graciously changed the tire, and when the man tried to pay him, he refused the cash. My dad recalls watching the man open his trunk. It was full of books: copies of All Quiet on the Western Front. He took one out, and in beautiful script wrote, “Erich Maria Remarque.”

“I wonder whatever happened to the book?” my dad mused. My Swedish-immigrant grandmother didn’t have much time for reading with five young children, and her husband, my Japanese-immigrant grandfather, couldn’t read English. (And that history is a whole other story!)

My reaction that night in 1979? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a trunk full of your own books? Opening the back hatch of my car last week to take out some copies of my new book The House on Sylvia Street, I could answer. Yes, it is.

—Judy Bordeaux is the author of the recently published The House on Sylvia Street: 30 years, 300 Medically Fragile Foster Children, and a Whole Lot of Sock Monkeys, a nonfiction book of humor and hard truths shadowing one year in the life of a career foster mom and the seven medically fragile foster children and young adults in her house. She will be reading from and signing copies of her memoir at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 22nd at Island Books.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

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The life of a bookseller is not typically glamorous, but a couple of months ago I got to attend what for me was the equivalent of a star-studded, blockbuster Hollywood premiere. It was an invitation-only preview for a forthcoming novel, attended by more than a dozen colleagues from all over Puget Sound. We gathered to meet the author and share a drink (or two or three) with him and a few of his friends, who included John Vaillant (author of The Tiger and The Golden Spruce), Annie Proulx (author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain), and Sherman Alexie (author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Blasphemy). I got some great tips about the NCAA basketball tournament from Alexie, heard gossip about junkets of yore from legendary editor Gary Fisketjon, and caught up with Nancy Pearl's latest reading recommendations. It was quite a night. The idea behind the whole thing, of course, was to get us booksellers excited about the new book so we'd share it with our customers when it came out, which is exactly what I'm doing. Don't tell the publishers, but they didn't need to wine and dine me to get me to do it. I loved the book anyway.

Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda is set in the 17th century in what is now Canada, and its plot is set in motion when Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary there, is captured by a Huron warrior named Bird. The priest is carried back to the Huron village along with a young Iroquois girl named Snow Falls, and each of the three takes it in turn to narrate the story from a very different point of view. Christophe is desperate to stay alive, but even more desperate to save savage souls; Bird wants to sustain and protect his people, whether by negotiation or by force; and Snow Falls must find a way to maintain her personal and cultural identity in an enemy land.

These characters bond and break and reconnect with each other in a series of shifting alliances driven by external events. There’s ongoing political machination by the French colonial government, drought that threatens food supplies, and inter-tribal hostility, but there’s also friendship, familial affection, and the shared pleasures of village life during an idyllic season. It’s a complete, thoroughly researched look at a fascinating time and place that’s just past the edge of familiarity.

What’s so refreshing about the novel is the way it normalizes the historical way of life of its First Nations characters. Their native culture is a basic ground against which the European interlopers seem bizarre and exotic, just as they must have at the time. Boyden captures a sense of the past much better by having his characters speak in a simple, almost contemporary conversational style rather than with the archaic, oracular diction that is the stock representation of “Indian-ness.” They aren’t a homogeneous bunch, either. Their beliefs, personalities, and opinions are as rich and varied as those of any group of people you’d meet in real life.

That clear, direct style makes The Orenda a fast-moving read that’s hard to put down, but be warned that it isn’t always pleasurable. It’s filled with episodes of brutal violence and torture that are all too historically accurate. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that these horrific acts aren’t gratuitous and that those who perpretrate them don’t come off as monsters but as complex human beings. Their values may be far removed from our own, but they’re intelligible nonetheless. The darkness Boyden unflinchingly examines makes his novel all the more illuminating.

—James

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

imageJoshua Ferris made a splash back in 2007 with Then We Came to the End, his wry-yet-profound satire on office life. Somehow he managed to put his finger on the one thing all workplaces have in commondistractions. The bagels, gossip, and desk chairs of his fictional advertising firm became universal symbols of how difficult it is to be in the present when you’re muddling through a workday.

In 2010 Ferris brought us The Unnamed, an overly self-conscious story about a man who literally could not stop walking. The Wall Street lawyer who suddenly finds himself walking out of meetings and away from his family is just the kind of man who longs to be in that office from Then We Came to the End. He wants distractions, but his body won’t let him have them. The walking disease ruins his life, and while the metaphors and meditations on modern life offer up plenty to think about, the protagonist never found a direction and neither does the reader. By veering off into too many subplots and existential tangents, Ferris lost us. The Unnamed was a textbook case of sophomore slump.

As a reader who had adamantly believed in Ferris’s talents after his debut, I was sorely disappointed by The Unnamed. Enough so that I almost didn’t pick up his next effort. But I did, and it’s with great pleasure that I assure you his new novel coming this month, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, returns to his first brilliantly funny, original, and complex chord and follows through on the promise of greatness we first saw in Then We Came to the End. Readers: I, for one, am so glad that Ferris is back.

While you might not think you want to read a story about a dentist (one who nags all his patients to floss, no less) and his peculiar case of identity theft, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour transcends this bizarre and strangely clever premise. Paul O’Rourke runs his own Manhattan dental practice on Park Avenue and spends most of his time considering how his life could either be much worse (those bums on the street) or much better (those gorgeous urban women rushing by in high heels that don’t give him the time of day). Anxious and brooding, Paul is utterly unable to just be and has a pattern of completely losing his own identity in relationships. He’s an atheist but longs for religion if only so he can have the experience of belonging to something. Paul refuses to have an online presence despite the growing need to sustain and advertise his practice, and instead spends his free time obsessing over the Red Sox or making pathetic late night phone calls to his ex-girlfriend (who is also his employee and office manager).

So imagine Paul’s shock when someone mysteriously sets up a website for his business. From there, the identity theft continues with the appearance of a Facebook page and Twitter account. Whoever has created Paul’s online identity has done a good job with one bizarre exceptionthey’ve turned him into a religious man. The “About Me” section on his website features what looks like a biblical quote. Soon this online religious identity has people so fooled that even Paul’s ex-girlfriend wonders if he’s become his online persona.

Ferris is an tremendous fan of Thomas Pynchon, and the emulation of style and ideas is evident here. This is a book rife with inner monologues and razor-sharp dialogue, and it’s dense. The themes of belonging, family, religion, and the absurdity of our world run by technology are both thought-provoking and daring. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour will challenge your intellect. You will need energy to read through the dense territory of O’Rourke’s world, but you won’t be disappointed.

image—Miriam

High Flight

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The Renton airport will be visited by a pair of senior citizens this weekend, both officially retired but still extremely active and looking sharp. Streamlined, too, if I may say. One is an original B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, and the other is a P-51 Mustang fighter. They’ve been brought into town by a private organization that maintains the planes and keeps them in service as flying museums. And as profit generators—you can sign up to take a flight in one or the other, but it’ll set you back at least $450. Not bad as once-in-a-lifetime experiences go, but there are cheaper ways to find out what it’s like to pilot one of these vintage military machines. I mean by reading about it, naturally.

The first place to start is the well-known poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee. I had to memorize it when I was a freshman in high school, and not a month goes by even now that lines from it don’t pop into my head:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, —and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of —wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Magee was an American pilot who signed on with the Royal Canadian Air Force before the United States entered World War II; he died in a mid-air collision during a training exercise over Lincolnshire, England in 1941.

imageBy coincidence, the same aircraft whose cockpit held Magee is the subject of tribute in a new science fiction novel I was reading just last night. Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent is set almost a century from now and deals with climatic disasters, quantum entanglement, doppelgangers, and death rays, but it still finds time to dip into the past and examine the historical roots of all these futuristic developments. There’s an extended sequence set in the war years of the 1940s, and in it, a British mechanic named Michael listens to a Polish cargo pilot who has escaped the Nazi invasion of her homeland. Krystyna rhapsodizes at length about her dream plane:

"I want one day to be given the job of flying a Spitfire. It is the most beautiful aircraft ever made….The Spitfire XI is the best, the most beautiful of all Spitfires. It is not a fighter. It is built for photo-reconnaissance, so all it carries is high-powered cameras. To save weight it has no weapons, and to give it range it carries auxiliary fuel tanks. It can fly so high it can never be seen, and it is so fast that no other aircraft can catch up with it." She had stopped walking and was standing in the middle of the narrow lane, waving her hands with excitement. "It is a work of art, Michael! To see a Spitfire flying overhead has the same effect as fine art: you feel altered, improved by being close to it. I sometimes think that even if this war is in the end lost to the Germans, everything will be justified by the fact that the British designed and invented the Spitfire….Sometimes I lie in my bed and I imagine myself strapped into the cockpit of a long-range Spitfire, flying it high and fast, away from this war, far away, into the clouds and then above them, across the blue, scraping the roof of this world, flying forever, no Germans, no enemies, just the free air and the sky."

imageThat passage emphasizes the liberation of flight, as does Magee’s poem, but the novel The Hunters focuses more on the dangers in the sky. This early work from acclaimed writer James Salter draws heavily on his actual experiences as a combat pilot during the Korean War, so its depiction of aerial jousting between F-86s and Soviet MiGs is as vivid and accurate as anything you’ll ever read, fictional or not. The book is most memorable, though, as a character study. The threats Salter’s heroes face don’t come only from enemy pilots, but from a self-imposed culture of competition and machismo, patriotism and pride. It’s an excellent reminder of the mental and physical costs incurred by the people inside those glamorous planes you’ll see overhead this weekend.

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—James

Organizing Your Home Library

imageNo, this is not a picture of Island Books (thank goodness). This, my friends, is what happens when you tackle some home reorganization. Far too many of your possessions get shoved into the home office.

Don’t be misled by the bookshelves. That’s only a fraction of the books in my house. The rest are in boxes or scattered randomly across the room. But my purpose today is not to complain about the mess that is my house, because eventually we’ll get it put back together again. Instead, I’m here to pose a question. How do you organize your bookshelves?

As I watched this mess pile up, I took note of where my books have been living. When we originally moved in in 2010, it made some sense. My husband’s books were mostly separated from mine. His were mostly medical journals, history, classics, narrative nonfiction, and science. Mine were mostly literary fiction, thrillers, more classics, ballet books, and some young adult. By keeping our books separate we had some categorical clarity.

I did try to keep books by the same author together, so we had sections for  Stephen King, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and the Nancy Drew set from my mother-in-law’s childhood. But that’s where the organization ends. As the years went by things disintegrated. Gardening books were tossed sideways on top of Tana French psychological thrillers. Advanced copies of books I’ve never gotten to were crammed in by memoirs like A Beautiful Mind and The Glass Castle. Worst of all were the bottom shelves, which you can’t see in the picture. My two innocent-looking poodles had gotten to those books. Besides the various chew marks, there was a giant urine stain on the side of Three Cups of Tea. They must have been mad about the inaccuracies and financial impropriety that tainted Mortenson and Relin’s bestseller.

The state of my home library is causing more guilt and distress than the state of my house (it’s a disaster). Island Books is a haven. At the store, books are lovingly and beautifully organized, deliberately placed on shelves according to category and the alphabet. While these books aren’t in their final home, they are there waiting as nicely as a groomed puppy in a pet store window. (Confession: It’s not just my books’ lives that degraded after leaving the store. My dogs need a haircut too.)

So, fellow book lovers, I need some feedback. The time is coming to clean up this mess, and this time I want to do it right. How do you organize your home library? Alphabetically? By subject? Cover color (just kidding)? If this mess ever gets organized again, I swear I’ll keep putting things back where they came from and add new books appropriately. But don’t hold me to it.

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—Miriam

Basewood by Alec Longstreth

imageIt’s been too long since we talked about comics here on Message in a Bottle, and it’s a particular pleasure that someone close to Island Books has given us a great reason to do so. Alec Longstreth is a born-and-bred Mercer Islander, and his new graphic novel Basewood is currently dressing up our shelves quite handsomely.

At first glance, it seems like classic comic kid stuff, as Longstreth’s own description suggests: “Adventure! Mystery! Tree houses! A Wolf-Dragon! Basewood tells of a young man who wakes up in the woods with no memory of how he got there. The reader follows along as our hero tries to uncover the details of his mysterious past.” Perfectly accurate, and yet there are deceptive depths here, ones that can be summed up in the difference between the words “simple” and simplistic.” The amnesiac protagonist is seeking a self and a home, and his story has all the resonance of an ancient epic or a fairy tale quest. As such, it’s great for all ages. There’s nothing in it that’s out of bounds for kids, who will love the action and derring-do, but it’s adults who will most appreciate the timeless underlying themes involving the balance between domesticity and freedom.

Comics are a perfect medium for this kind of elemental storytelling. It’s often assumed that comic book characters are drawn in such basic style because it’s more difficult to depict them realistically, but that’s not the case. By simplifying them, the artist makes them more archetypal and more relatable—a series of photographs with added speech balloons isn’t a graphic novel and doesn’t get the narrative job done the way comics do. They have a special syntax that’s easy to follow but not at all easy to create. Longstreth arranges his panels and alternates his point of view beautifully, a textbook example of clarity. Maybe this is because he’s an instructor at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, the nation’s only institution of higher education dedicated to comics. Or maybe he’s just talented.

Even if you’re not a habitual reader of this still-marginalized art form, it’s rewarding to try a comic from time to time. Enrich your sense of what reading really is. Basewood is an excellent place to start.

—James

Long Live the Dragon

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My 19-month-old twins like Mercerdale and Luther Burbank, but their favorite outdoor play spot on the island is Deane’s Children’s park. It’s my preference too because the lush surrounding trees and ferns mean they can’t take off running as easily.

There’s another big reason to love this gem: the dragon. The original 50-foot, six ton dragon was created in 1965 by an artist named Kenton Pies. Just this past year, the Parks and Recreation Department tracked down Pies in Montana and commissioned him to rebuild the dragon. Late last fall, the new and improved structure made an impressive debut. Generations of families who grew up playing on the old dragon brought their own kids to make a tradition out of the new one. My kids love crawling through the stomach, playing peek-a-boo around the jaws, and cautiously sliding tummy-first down the tail.

As you can imagine, the real-life dragon has inspired much talk about dragons beyond the park. Now when we read books with dragons in them, we can ask the kids, “Where’s the dragon?” and they can point to it, even if they aren’t saying the word yet. The best is when we are walking towards the park and I ask them where the dragon is. They know exactly what I mean, and the fingers immediately point and a bunch of unintelligible baby-gibberish comes pouring out (which I translate to: “Yay! Dragon! Yay!”). Basically, dragons are a hit.

My children aren’t the only ones who love dragons, as James will attest. As soon as he saw the subject of this post he jumped in with such a long list of dragon books that I nearly choked on my coffee. Not surprisingly, James’s spunky 3-year-old daughter loves dragons too. So after some careful culling, here are some favorite dragon books from both of us to fuel the fire:

imageDragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin: Kids always laugh out loud at this silly one. You don’t want to know what happens when the dragons eat hot salsa. Not a good mix with fire-breath.

imageWhen a Dragon Moves In by Jodi Moore: Word to the wise: don’t ignore your kid at the beach. The hero of this story builds a sandcastle while his parents tune him out. Lo and behold, a dragon moves into his creation. When no one believes the boy’s warning, the dragon runs amok.

imageThe Best Pet of All by David LaRochelle: Unable to convince his parents to get him a dog, a boy negotiates a pet dragon if he can find one. Well, he does, and the dragon is a terrible pet. When the dragon won’t leave, they have no choice but to scare him offwith a dog.

imageHush, Little Dragon by Boni Ashburn: This one is a take-off on the lullaby “Hush, Little Baby,” and features a mother dragon catching various humans to serve as her baby dragon’s bedtime snack.

imagePuff the Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow: No dragon list would be complete without Puff, of the song of the same name. Yarrow found a cute way to make the potentially sad ending more upbeat, so no need to fear the final pages. Sing your way to Honalee.

imageEast Dragon, West Dragon by Robyn Eversole: Two dragons who are scared of each other are forced to meet and overcome their fears. Great illustrations and a nice little message about friendship.

imageHave You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light: Here’s the newest dragon book on the shelf. This is much more than a counting book. It’s impossible not to laugh at that bright green dragon doing goofy city activities.

imageLovabye Dragon by Barbara Joosse: This sweet story about a girl and a dragon who love each other makes dragons look about as scary and dangerous as teddy bears.

image—Miriam

Making the News

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Journalism (excepting that branch of it that involves reporting from war zones while ducking sniper fire) doesn’t appear to be especially difficult. Most of the time it seems fairly straightforward, but it’s actually a tricky business. Even if you’ve figured out which questions to ask which people to find out what you want to know, you have to assemble the answers like puzzle pieces. You can tell how hard it is to make the picture come out right when you read an article about a subject you know well. That’s what happened last week when little old Island Books popped up in the New York Times.

We saw a noticeable spike in traffic on our website and blog after the story first ran (above the fold on the NYT home page, no less). Roger likes to make fun of my extremely esoteric essayistic excursions into experimentalism, but he said he was grateful I’d gone highbrow that weekend. It sounds apocryphal to me, but he swears at least a half-dozen bearded, tweedy professor types strolled in looking for the obscure Italian books I’d just covered. For a change, he was proud that we’d showed off our intellectual bona fides to those snobby east coast elites who read the Times. He’s secretly one of those, of course.

All in all, it was a great piece that brought deserved attention to a number of positive developments in the local book scene. The general point was that indie retailers are thriving, and the central evidence was what’s happening over in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, where former Amazon editor (and current friend of Island Books) Tom Nissley is taking the reins from longtime bookseller Carol Santoro, who’s retiring next month. “Tech Exec Reinvents Self, Reinvigorates Phinney-Area Retail,” in other words. True enough, and news worth sharing. Somehow, though, this information, along with passing remarks from an Elliott Bay Book Company manager and our own Roger Page, was spun into a suggestion that Amazon itself is aiding the indie resurgence. Huh? The reporter correctly identified all the trees, but missed the forest entirely.

Yes, it’s true that some Amazon employees shop with us and with other small businesses, and we appreciate them for their support as we do all of our beloved customers. But frankly, best estimates indicate that Amazon employs about 15,000 people in a metropolitan area with a population north of 3.5 million. Even considering that Amazon workers may be more bookish than average, the numbers don’t add up to more than a drop in the bucket. The idea that Amazon is helping “bolster” our coffers in any significant way is ludicrous even before you factor in all the negative effects of their practices. However tempted I might be, I won’t go into detail about those. As an ex-Amazonian myself, I can get pretty exercised on the subject, unlike my boss, who’s quite evenhanded when he discusses it. I was surprised to see the Times reporter incorrectly refer to the way Roger “fulminated,” but with all the cutbacks newspapers have to deal with these days, maybe I shouldn’t have been. They might not be as concerned about misusing words as we are on our blog.

At least one media outlet gets it. Just this morning NPR broadcast a piece about how mom-and-pop shops are successfully competing against the big-box behemoths. They do it the way we do, by providing things the big guys can’t: “Local flavor,” “wisdom,” a staff that’s “knowledgeable … passionate,” service that’s “personalized.” It sounds like marketing talk, but it’s really just what you get when you do something you love for the benefit of the human beings in your own community. The best books and the best people on both sides of the counter—that’s the real bottom line.

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—James

Photo credits: Sage old bookseller by Yelp contributor Edy K., energetic new bookseller by Matthew Ryan Williams for the New York Times

The Case of the Kid Mysteries

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Dragons, time travel, and magic bake shops dominate the middle grade reader display month after month. For the most part this collection of silly, magical, and not-too-scary stories does the trick for the kids who look to me for advice at the Island Books counter. But occasionally a real mystery fan comes along, or more often a kid trying to cover all the required genres for a school reading list. There’s a reason that category is always left to the end, namely because there just hasn’t been a very good selection of mysteries for kids in a long time. Nancy Drew, Harriet the Spy, and the Hardy Boys can only go so far, though they are the real deal when it comes to good whodunits.

The mysteries I manage to recommend are usually imbedded in a fantasy adventure book or a piece of good general fiction, when a slightly unknown piece of plot business becomes clear at the end of the story. So imagine my surprise and pleasure at seeing our newly curated collection of middle-grade readers literally piled with straight-up mysteries for kids:

  • Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald, in which Theodora Tenpenny accidentally uncovers a painting that may be a Renaissance masterpiece. Great news, except that it may have been stolen by her grandfather, who was once a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She’ll need all the friends she can gather to sort out this caper. Fans are comparing it to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Chasing Vermeer, and Kirkus Reviews says Fitzgerald has created a fast-paced Da Vinci Code for middle-graders.
  • Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells is another art-related whodunit that features Eddie, a kid with a photgraphic memory and a knack for sketching. With his parents down on their luck, he lands himself a job with the police department (not typical for sixth graders, but just the sort of thing they’d love to do if they could), helping to track down the Picasso Gang.
  • Poached by Stuart Gibbs centers on a crime I bet you haven’t encountered in fiction before—koala theft. When an animal vanishes from the zoo, suspicion falls on Teddy Fitzroy. He was only hiding in the enclosure to avoid a bully, but now he has to solve the case to get himself off the hook.
  • Swim That Rock by John Rocco. Jake’s dad is missing after a fishing boat accident, and loan sharks are circling the family business in this coming-of-age story set on the picturesque Rhode Island coast.
  • The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage finds Miss Lana the inadvertent auction winner of a decaying inn occupied by a ghost. She calls in Desperado Detectives Mo and Dale to figure out who the haunt is and what it wants. What will the two kids get out of the deal? Hopefully some extra credit in their history class. Who knows more about the past than a ghost, after all? And who knows more about mixing mystery and comedy than Sheila Turnage?
  • Timmy Failure: Now Look What You’ve Done by Stephan Pastis. Timmy returns to crack the biggest case of his generation: a school competition to find a stolen globe. It’s his ticket to bringing home a $500 prize, which is guaranteed to set him up for life. If he can remember to get his entry form in on time, that is.

Now I have a full selection of real mysteries to recommend, including art heists, murders, and tales of true detection. Who knows, perhaps we can actually start a Children’s Mystery Section at Island Books one day soon. Step aside, dragons, Harriet and Nancy aren’t alone anymore!

—Nancy

Ma Belle-Mère d’Algérie

imageMy mother-in-law is staying with us this week, which sounds like I’m setting up a rather stale joke. I’m not coming on all Henny Youngman, though—I very much enjoy her visits. First of all, they make my wife happy, and second, my mother-in-law is no mean chef. If you haven’t tried her couscous or her lapin à la bière et aux pruneaux, you’re missing out, let me tell you. More than that, listening to her talk about her life is better than watching whatever premium cable TV show currently has you on the edge of your seat.

She grew up in Blida, Algeria, part of a nuclear family that we’d all recognize, though her own mother was born into a polygamous household with sixteen siblings. My mother-in-law thus has more cousins and other relations than I can count, maybe more than a hundred. She describes what sounds like a fairly idyllic childhood, playing at the foot of the fruit trees her father planted in their courtyard and outrunning the boys down the street in her bare feet. She had pets, too, of the usual kind. You know, like a baby gazelle and a fennec fox. She also kept a lamb at one point, although I don’t think it followed her to school.

imageShe did go to school, which wasn’t a universal practice for girls in that place at that time. Her father was by all accounts a thoughtful, gentle man, and if he wasn’t completely immune to the sexism around him, he must have had only the mildest case, because he treated his daughter with respect and afforded her as much opportunity as he did her brothers. Not all were so lucky, as the Francophone writer Assia Djebar has spent her career illustrating. She’s a near-exact contemporary of my mother-in-law, born in a neighboring community, who in novels such as Fantasia (trans. by Dorothy S. Blair) and Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (trans. by Marjolijn de Jager) has created a panorama of the female experience in North Africa from the nineteenth century to the present day. Djebar is unhesitatingly frank about the constraints religion imposes on women, but her characters manage to live fully despite them.

Islam was the predominant influence on Algeria in my mother-in-law’s youth, but not the only one. The country was in those years a fascinating cultural mélange. Expatriates fondly remember conveniences unavailable anywhere else: “Muslim shops closed on Fridays, Jewish ones on Saturdays, and Christian ones on Sundays, so you could always shop for what you needed any day of the week.” This blend, of course, was in large part an artificial construct. France had controlled Algeria since the 1830s and officially declared it an integral part of the French nation. In theory this meant that Algerian residents could become French citizens, but in practice most were considered insufficiently Europeanized and treated as colonial subjects. Simmering tensions boiled over into open war by 1954.

The government in Paris struggled to maintain the status quo as Algerians fought against the French army and among each other for different kinds of independence. Those of French descent (often called pieds-noirs, or “black feet”) battled against Muslim traditionalists in what was effectively a simultaneous revolution and civil war. As a teenager, my mother-in-law rode along with ill-equipped French soldiers into dangerous territory, providing basic medical care to indigent villagers, particularly women. You might know that modern hospitals administer antibiotic eyedrops to babies immediately after birth, but did you know that in the field the juice from a sliced lemon can serve as a substitute? It did in the late 1950s in Algeria, anyway.

imageTerrorism and torture characterized the conflict throughout the decade that it lasted, as can be seen in The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo, a harrowing fictional film that achieves a documentary-like reality. The unsavory manner in which the war was prosecuted contributed to its deep unpopularity on the other side of the Mediterranean. The half a million French soldiers dispatched to what were euphemistically called “operations in North Africa” felt ignored and unsupported, much as American troops in Vietnam did. Even afterwards, few wanted to discuss the war, but in the thick of the fight, one novel appeared that addressed it directly. In 1957, Daniel Anselme published On Leave, about three soldiers who return briefly to a home that doesn’t want them. It sank like a stone and wasn’t rediscovered until it was translated in 2014 by David Bellos. His introduction to the new edition expertly contextualizes the story and establishes Anselme’s brilliance. It’s doubtful that any novel has more closely examined the experience of men unmoored by war. To think that he wrote it before history made its judgment and before the battle’s end was even in sight is remarkable.

The war did end when the new President of France, Charles de Gaulle, unexpectedly agreed to grant Algeria its independence. Over one million pieds-noirs fled to the motherland that many of them had never seen, and so did my mother-in-law. When she emigrated in 1961, officials tried to convince her to change her Arabic-sounding first name to something more conventionally French, but she refused. For a while she cleaned offices at night, and later she found work in the office of Andre Malraux, Minister of Culture, where she and the other admins met Jackie Kennedy at the height of her fame. “Feet the size of boats” was the catty consensus.

Around this time she met the man she married, a Catholic Italian-American kid from Brooklyn who had helped Uncle Sam with his police action in Korea and then used the G.I. Bill to become a teacher. His family thought he was crazy to leave New York and move overseas, but he’s glad he did and so am I. If he hadn’t, not only would he never have met his wife, but neither would I have met mine. So we both have a great deal to be thankful for.

How to express that gratitude? A bouquet of flowers may be a more typical token, but that’s not really me. I’m a man of books and words, so these few paragraphs will have to suffice. Merci, ma belle-mère. I’m glad you’re here.

—James

Why Is This Night Different?

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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.

image—Miriam

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?

—James

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