Message in a Bottle
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.


High Flight


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.



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.



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.


Long Live the Dragon


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.


Making the News



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.



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!


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.


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.


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