Message in a Bottle
Island Books in 1986

Do I have a doozy for you this week. Look closely at the image below. This, my friends, is a letter Roger Page wrote to the staff at Island Books 27 years ago. Of course, he typed it on one of the typewriters that adorns our shelves in the store today.

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It’s a bit prophetic, no? Roger keeps this little gem in a book of memorabilia that tells the story of the little bookstore that could. What’s so notable is how relevant his comments are, decades later. The Goliath to our David isn’t Waldenbooks nowadays, but we are still chugging along, same as we always were and following the same philosophies.

imageWho else besides me remembers Waldenbooks? I remember hanging out in one at the mall as a teenager, surreptitiously trying to read Sweet Valley High for free. It was a supermarket all right. Eventually Waldenbooks became part of the Borders chain, which as we all know went bankrupt in 2011.

The artifact speaks for itself, but the only way this letter to staff shows its age is through the name of Waldenbooks, the uncomfortable attitude towards computers, and the mention of James Clavell’s Whirlwind. (Whirlwind was set in a turbulent Iran after the exile of the Shah in 1979. It came out in ‘86 and is now out of print). Otherwise, Roger could have written the same words today and they would be just as true.

—Miriam

James and Miriam Read Chocolates for Breakfast, Part II

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(continued from part one)

Miriam: I tried to read CFB without being influenced by the context of the back story, but I agree Moore was out to do more than just shock. To me, it read a bit like a novel written out of anger and the desire to indict adults. I can’t say I sympathized with Courtney or Janet (or the voice of the narrator). While Moore did a great job depicting why the girls behaved the way they did and how lonely they were, their blatant disregard for their own well-being made it difficult for me to care for them, probably because they didn’t care much for themselves. Courtney seemed like a narcissistic, depressed, and angry young woman. Both she and Janet were calculated manipulators, as evident here: “It had worked, by God; she knew it would…she sensed she would win this man’s interest, and that was all she wanted. She would never forget that first day, when she found that it worked.”

There has been much debate about authors who create unlikable protagonists. Claire Messud spoke at length about that scenario, and the bottom line is, characters don’t have to win a popularity contest to make a stellar novel. In fact, I’d argue that authors who can write a spectacular book without sympathetic characters possess a special talent. Pamela Moore had it.

Did you like the characters, James? I’m going out on a limb here by admitting my favorite character was Courtney’s last boyfriend, Charles. Even if he was condescending and self-righteous, he had a good head on his shoulders and was the only person who seemed interested in what would be good for Courtney (maybe Miss Rosen did too, because by cutting Courtney off she saved her further scandal and heartbreak. Or maybe Miss Rosen was just looking out for herself). Courtney’s other love interests, Barry, the bisexual actor, and Anthony, the spoiled rich kid, were both selfish and immature and never had Courtney’s best interests at heart. Although I will give Anthony credit for letting her go in the end.

Who was your favorite character? I’m curious if you’re going to pick one of the women since I picked one of the men. I’m wondering if it’s easier for us to sympathize with the opposite gender because we can’t identify as closely with the characters…

James: It didn’t occur to me to like any of the characters, I don’t think. They’re all flawed, most of them badly, with the possible exception of Miss Rosen, but as you point out, we don’t really get to know enough about her to determine whether she’s nice or just tries to seem that way. Charles has his charms, but he came off as unpleasantly arrogant to me. Anthony is an interesting case; I’m not even sure Moore wants us to see him as a real person. He appeared to be a refugee from another kind of book entirely, a figure out of Byron or Wilde. Given all that, I’d have to say that Courtney was my favorite. Depressed, angry, and acting out, sure, but I blame her situation more than her self.

Speaking of depression, I thought Moore was amazingly prescient in the way she handled the topic. Her descriptions of Courtney’s cutting and her mood swings (that we would now call manifestations of bipolar disorder) seemed almost anachronistic, they were so good. Those issues are treated frequently in fiction these days, even in teen and tween novels, but back in the ’50s they weren’t.

For me, a lot of the value of CFB comes from its being a document of its times, but for Moore’s sake I wish she’d grown up a few decades later. As a college-aged kid of today she’d probably have better access to psychological support and see more avenues of expression open to her. Of course, she probably wouldn’t be compelled to create the protagonist and write the book she did. The emblematic novel of jaded youth from my era was Bret Easton Ellis’ vapid Rules of Attraction, and things have gone downhill from there. Look at Snooki.

Miriam: I’ll take Pamela Moore over Snooki any day (just from the photo in this column, compared to any of Snooki’s photos). I agree about Moore’s portrayal of depression, because let’s face it, part of the reason these characters are compelling is because they’re all somewhat depressed. I felt it most at the beginning, when Courtney slept all the time; what a subtle but familiar behavior. Her method for pulling herself out of the excessive sleeping was to lose her virginity and engage in an entirely inappropriate affair, which was also painful and telling. I suppose I can see why you like her, because underneath all her posturing she’s definitely a little girl lost. I agree also with your take on Anthony, who was definitely like a Dorian Gray or even Gatsby-type character.

Warning, readers: big spoiler coming so stop now if you want to be surprised.

James, let’s talk about Janet’s suicide. Did you see it coming? Moore clearly sets it up to be the parents’ fault, whether it’s Sondra’s choice to kick Janet out or Janet’s father’s for nearly choking her. Obviously something bad was looming near the end, but I was waiting for a scene where Janet confronts Courtney about her affair with Anthony and it never came.

Ultimately, it’s a rebel without a cause story, one that I enjoyed. Good pick as usual, my esteemed colleague. Keep ‘em coming.

James: I didn’t see Janet’s death coming, but only because the story seemed to be setting Courtney up for a fall. Not necessarily literally, mind you. I felt the tragedy of the existing ending, and I guess it makes sense that Janet, who was a bit less sharp than Courtney with a home life a bit more screwed up, would succumb to her demons first. Still, it seemed almost a cop-out for the author to deflect the oncoming train away from her heroine. It didn’t ruin the book, but it did make me think that Moore wasn’t quite as rebellious as she set out to be. Hard to say whether it was her own muse or the publishing environment of the time that required her to leave open the possibility of redemption. Writing a truly black ending wasn’t then and isn’t now a great career move. I know she went on to produce a few other novels that weren’t nearly as popular; maybe she became less reticent and those were even darker.

I hadn’t planned to go on a 1950s jag, but right after I finished CFB I turned to a short book called In Love by Alfred Hayes, which came out three years before Moore’s debut and was just reprinted by New York Review Books. It’s another story of doomed romance, but it made for an interesting contrast. It’s less energetic than CFB, and more frank about how mid-century men and women wooed each other without trying to be salacious about it. The characters aren’t entering a world that has no place for them, they’ve found their place and lived in it so long that it’s grown shabby. Worth a look for anyone who’s in the mood for some aged whiskey to chase CFB’s bathtub gin.

You may rightly be afraid of a hangover, Miriam, and need some time away from boozy books, but we should definitely do something like this again. It’s always a pleasure to read along with a colleague possessing such exquisite taste. I mean you too, blog followers!

James and Miriam Read Chocolates for Breakfast, Part I

imageJames threw a fun curve ball at me recently. He suggested we read and blog about Chocolates for Breakfast together. Why have we never had this brilliant idea before? We’ve been running Message in a Bottle for two years now and always toss ideas back and forth. So it’s about time we lined up our reading schedules and hashed our opinions out online. We are different readers and I’m not quite sure how this little public book club experiment is going to go, but if it’s anything like our editorial meetings I’m sure it’ll be a good time.

A little background, first, but be warned there are spoilers in this paragraph. Chocolates for Breakfast is a coming-of-age novel written in 1956 by then-eighteen-year-old Pamela Moore. It was a huge bestseller but eventually went out of print in 1967. The publisher recently decided to revive Chocolates for the first time in 45 years. The plot revolves around fifteen-year-old Courtney Farrell, whose parents have put her in boarding school following their divorce. Her mother is an aspiring actress in Los Angeles and her father lives in New York. Courtney develops a crush on a female professor who rejects her, and her roommate and close friend Janet watches her sink into a depression. Eventually Courtney’s mother takes note and invites her to come and live in LA. Courtney goes and enters a world of sophisticated and jaded adults. She experiences her first romantic affair with an older homosexual actor, which ends after he returns to his male lover. Her mother fails to find work, but her father’s financial situation improves and he offers to finance a move to Manhattan. There Courtney reconnects with her school friend Janet, who lives with her abusive and alcoholic father and depressed mother. Janet brings Courtney into a world of alcoholic rich kids. Eventually Courtney takes up in a loveless and strange affair with Janet’s ex-boyfriend, a European rich kid who lives in a hotel with his parents’ money. A more practical and strait-laced suitor enters Courtney’s life at the same time that Janet moves in with her to escape her father’s abuse. When Courtney’s mother gets fed up and sends Janet home, Janet finds her mother has entered a sanitarium. After a terrible encounter with her father, Janet jumps off her balcony to her death. The novel ends with Courtney ending her affair with Janet’s ex and heading off to dinner with her practical new boyfriend, presumably to clean up her act and grow up.

Okay, friends, that sums it up. Now I’m turning the conversation towards James. Feel free to listen in and participate by leaving your comments below.

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imageMiriam: First of all, what was it that appealed to you about Chocolates for Breakfast and gave you the idea that we should read it together? I was initially surprised you would be interested in a girl’s coming of age novel, since you’re not the typical audience for this type of book. I suspect it was the backstory more than the premise that caught your eye. As you know I naturally gravitate towards this kind of thing, being that Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld is one of my favorite novels. The problem is so many are poorly written. That’s not the case with CFB. If anything, I was shocked that a teenager actually wrote it. The voice is so mature it’s hard to believe the protagonist (and especially the author) was so young.

James: What? I have a lengthy track record of appreciating such novels. There was … let me see … The Bell Jar, and …. I’m sure there was another one. OK, you got me. Without the backstory I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up at all. When I heard that the publisher wanted to resuscitate a book that was more than five decades old, I was intrigued, and then I read a fascinating interview with the author’s son at The Rumpus that sealed the deal. He never knew his mother; you mentioned above that Moore was a teenager when she wrote CFB, but not that she killed herself less than ten years later, while her infant son slept in the next room. I don’t usually care too much about the autobiographical aspects of fiction, but the knowledge I had about her life (not just her death) made CFB feel almost like a novel within a novel for me.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed in it. As you say, it’s much better written than most similar books. There might be a few too many mentions of “slim, young” bodies, but otherwise Moore’s very careful with her words. I particularly liked this observation about Los Angeles: “The palm trees, of course, were lit by floodlights because it is man’s business to improve upon actuality.” Note the 1950s-appropriate use of the masculine general there.

It’s not too surprising that she could capture Courtney’s voice, but she also manages to get very successfully into the heads of several older characters. When Sondra’s bothered by Barry at the bar, the narrator says on her behalf, “The best way to treat a difficult child was to ignore him.” Sums up Sondra’s philosophy on child-rearing pretty well. Detachment parenting, anyone?

One of the other appealing things about CFB was its bookishness. I love that Moore felt comfortable name-dropping Finnegans Wake so often (although it always appears with an unnecessary apostrophe, which I’m going to blame on an over-zealous copy editor in 2013).

But the most delicious aspect is probably the scandal of it all. You probably have to read something at least this old to get such a strong sense of taboo-busting. I don’t think Moore set out purely to shock, though. I think she was trying to talk in a serious way about the effects constraint has on young women, especially American women. But you are one of those, so you’re better positioned to comment on that.

(continued in part two)

Pictures Worth a Thousand Words

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The other day a customer asked me to help her find a present for a two-year-old relative. “He likes trucks,” she said. We have an entire shelf devoted to transportation-themed texts for toddlers, so I walked there with her and pulled out three choice titles. “Oh, I wasn’t thinking of giving him a book,” she said. “He can’t read, after all.”

She didn’t see the aghast expression I suppressed. At least, I don’t think she did. I found her a set of LEGO Duplo trucks, rang her up and wrapped the package, and she seemed happy when I sent her on her way. It took me a while to recover, though. How could someone imagine that a book is NOT a perfect gift for a two-year-old? Or that books need to be read to be appreciated?

Counter-evidence was all around us, volumes full of real narratives told completely in images. The first example was right at hand in the form of a book fresh off the press, Journey by Aaron Becker. It wordlessly tells the tale of a bored girl who travels into excitement and danger before returning safely home. It’s great for kids, of course, but even an adult can fall in love with its beauty.

imageThere’s a host of similarly captivating books, too. Take the Polo series by Regis Faller. The title character is a dog who lives on an island in a house made out of a tree, and his adventures take him all over the world, under the ground, and into the clouds. The stories are as creative, compelling, and complex as any that use words instead of pictures.

Likewise T.H. Khing’s Where Is the Cake Now?, which interweaves the imageexploits of various animals as they all try to gather for a picnic. You can follow one thread across many pages until you get to the end and then go back to the beginning to pick up another a dozen times or more before the book is exhausted.

imageBarbara Lehman is another expert writer who composes via illustration. In Rainstorm, Trainstop, The Red Book, Museum Trip, and others, her inquisitive heroes and heroines discover secret entrances to sophisticated, sweetly drawn hidden places. Even without words, her plots have an amazing clarity—would that IKEA instruction manuals made as much sense.

Arthur Geisert’s constructions don’t come from any manual. In several books, including Hogwash, Ice, and The Giant Seed, he designs imageridiculous Rube Goldberg-style machines, built and operated by a village of industrious pigs. They never do things the easy way, but they always get the job done. Without talking about it, obviously.

imageDavid Wiesner specializes in silent storytelling and won the Caldecott three times (Tuesday, The Three Pigs, and Flotsam) for his ability to render dreams into visuals on the page. My personal favorite is his Caldecott runner-up, Sector 7, which starts as a school field trip and turns into a witty meditation on art and friendship.

imageWant more emotion and involvement from your wordless picture books? There’s a special providence in the fall of Bob Staake’s Bluebird, and it can tug at the heartstrings of anyone at any age. Even deeper feelings will be evoked by The Arrival by Shaun Tan, depicting an immigrant’s fearful voyage to a confusing new land where the residents speak an unintelligible tongue. No other format could better capture that particular sense of estrangement. Which, to be fair, is beyond comprehension for a two-year-old—this book, unlike the others I’ve mentioned, is not a good gift for a toddler. A toddler’s parents, on the other hand, may love it.

After running through all these options, I wish even more that I’d had the chance to share them with that customer. I think she would have benefited from being sentenced to life sans paroles.

—James

New from Jhumpa Lahiri

imageYou’re going to read many, many raves about The Lowland this fall, and the good news is, all the applause is well deserved. The cover is a big clue about how good the book is, because there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about it, not even a color. There’s no need to sell what’s on the pages because the writing speaks for itself.

Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth, all of which are superb. The Lowland is her new novel and already on the long list for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. That’s because The Lowland is nothing short of a triumph. Lahiri is at the height of her powers and one of the best writers in literary fiction today. I’d venture to say that if you’re going to read only one novel this fall, this should be it. I’ll stake my reputation on the recommendation.

The Lowland is the story of the Mitra brothers from Calcutta: Subhash, the dutiful scholarly one, and Udayan, passionate and opinionated. While Udayan becomes increasingly involved with the 1960s Mao-inspired Naxalite political rebellion, Subhash goes to America and adapts to life on the seashore of Rhode Island to pursue a graduate degree. Udayan marries a studious girl named Gauri, only to become the victim of his self-invited political violence. As always, Subhash returns to India to clean up Udayan’s mess.

But that’s only the premise. The nuanced beauty of the novel is in the consequences, and the psychological implications for Subhash and Gauri in particular. The landscapes of Calcutta and Rhode Island serve as an evocative background for a story that resists melodrama, instead exploring the implications of youthful decisions and how they drive a person’s destiny. Lahiri has a particular talent for showing the passage of time in a manner that feels incredibly real and deep, not rushed or glossed over. There’s a way the setting sinks into you over the course of the book. She lets you feel like you’ve been fully immersed in her world.

One question the book raises (without releasing spoilers) is: What are the consequences of keeping secrets from our children, and what happens when they find out the truth as adults? Lahiri’s answer might surprise you. It’s not about the answer though; it’s the question that will weigh on your mind and wrench your heart.

imageAs longtime readers of this blog know, I often discuss books with my mother-in-law, who is always up-to-date on a variety of genres. When I bragged to her that I had an advance copy of The Lowland, I thought she’d be impressed. Instead I was shocked to discover she’d never read any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work. “You must read The Namesake immediately,” I practically shouted, and to her credit, she did. (How many times have we all pressed a book on someone to have the recommendation disregarded? Or felt that glimmer of annoyance when someone gives us an unsolicited command to read something?) She was up here to see the grandchildren only a week later and she was devouring The Namesake. I don’t know how she did it since the twins filled every waking moment. But at the end of the trip she was done and raving about how much she loved it. She immediately pre-ordered The Lowland rather than taking my physical copy because she wanted to read it on her iPad (Kobo app, people, Kobo; support the indie bookstore over the unnamed giant corporation).

So if you don’t take my word for it, take my mother-in-law’s. Jhumpa Lahiri is as good as it gets, and The Lowland is her best work yet. Literary yet accessible, heartbreaking yet restrained, I absolutely loved it.

—Miriam

Cinema Books

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Anybody remember last month’s staff picks? One of mine was My Lunches with Orson, edited by Peter Biskind. Now, I’m an admitted fan, and I’ve read more books about Orson Welles than I’d care to admit, so it was obvious that I’d be reading it as soon as it came out. I didn’t pick up my copy from Island Books, though. I used the release date as an excuse to visit a secret Seattle treasure house, Cinema Books. It’s been in business since 1977, devoted exclusively to movie-related work, and I’m not sure there’s anything else like it in the country. Or anywhere, for that matter.

The owner is also a Seattle treasure. Stephanie Ogle opened her shop across the street from the Harvard Exit theater on Capitol Hill and moved it a few years later to its present location in the University District, around the corner from (and in the same building as) the Seven Gables theater. Throughout the past thirty-six years, she’s been an unobtrusive champion of movie-making and bookselling, rewarded in 2001 by the Northwest Film Forum. They bestowed upon her their George Bailey Prize, named after the character played by Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, given each year “to someone who has made an unrecognized contribution to the local film community, and like George Bailey, has continually worked for the betterment of others.”

Stephanie was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email after my visit.

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Q: How did you become a movie fan, and how did you turn from cineaste into bookseller?

A: I always loved movies and enjoyed reading books about film from an early age.

When my brother Jeremy and sister-in-law Susan wanted to open a bookstore in 1977 we decided we must specialize in order to differentiate ourselves from every other bookstore. Susan and Jeremy had become friends with the men who founded the original Wide World bookshop on 45th Street. I was the real movie fan of the three of us and was really enthusiastic about the movie connection. Jeremy and Susan left the store after two years. They wanted to travel and it is difficult to do when you own your own business.

Q: Tell us a bit about the store. How big is it? About how many books (and other specialty items) do you stock?

A: We have 1,000 square feet in space and have about 20,000 volumes on film, television and theatre at Cinema Books. We carry film-related magazines, posters, stills, cards, magnets, and calendars.

Q: With the growth of SIFF and the film industry in Seattle, you must have had more than a few brushes with celebrity. Any highlights to share?

A: We have had celebrity customers such as Jean Paul Belmondo, Jean-Luc Godard, and Colin Firth.

Q: Do you have favorite directors or screenwriters, current or classic?

A: I have loved John Ford movies since I was nine.

Q: Let’s talk about actual books. Do you have a favorite film-related title?

A: I think the best film star biography is Vivien Leigh by Anne Edwards. The best film history is The Parade’s Gone By … by Kevin Brownlow.

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Q: Thoughts about the future of bookselling, for you or in general?

A: Difficult to predict the future of bookstores. We are in a beleaguered state. But it is still has enormous rewards in terms of terrific customers who love books and love movies, a great bunch. They are passionate about everything from Godzilla to the avant-garde.

Q: Everyone working in retail has experienced … oddness, let’s say. (I’ve been hit with “Do you sell sea monkeys?” and “Excuse me sir, what is lard?”) Anything in this vein you’d like to get off your chest?

A: My favorite unusual experience in the store was when a young woman walked into the store and said she had to lie down on the floor because she was about to have a seizure and needed a safe place. A young man was there and helpfully moved a heavy card rack during her seizure because we feared she would hit her head. She recovered soon and started to get up but I made her sit there for a few more minutes to make sure. Then the young man asked “Where’s the camera?” He thought her seizure was staged for a candid camera event. We both assured him this was real. There was no camera. I had never seen the young woman before and she certainly told him she had had seizures all her life. She does get a few seconds warning and always attempts to get herself to a safe place when she knows a seizure is coming on. But he didn’t seem to believe us at all. Kept looking for that candid camera. He left seemingly convinced we had played a great trick on him for the benefit of some video we were filming. I guess that’s what comes of having a movie bookstore.

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Many thanks to Stephanie for allowing me to interview her. The next time you’re in her neighborhood, pay her a call. You’ll be glad you did.

—James

Is J.D. Salinger Back From the Grave?

imageThere are some fantastic nonfiction titles coming out this fall, but one in particular is making a big splash before it even hits the shelves: Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno. The 720-page hardcover goes on sale this Tuesday, and last week, enough people had read advance copies to start the buzz. According to Shields and Salerno, Salinger had five unpublished works that he planned to release years after his death (he only published four during his lifetime).

The Salinger biography is coming out alongside a documentary of the same name, also produced and directed by Shane Salerno. Probably the most famous reclusive author of the 20th century, Salinger is a compelling topic for the media storm coming this fall. There’s plenty of tidbits we don’t know about him. Interested parties will not be disappointed, because the book and movie drop plenty of bombshells. 

We know some of the distressing facts about Salinger’s life already, like the fact that his bestselling novel, Catcher in the Rye, played a role in at least three shootings, including the headline-making murder of John Lennon. People say no one else came as close to capturing an iconic coming-of-age voice the way Salinger did. He was the voice of teen-angst, one that troubled young people often unfortunately used as justification for violent actions. We also know that Salinger saw far too many horrors of war as he stood on the front lines of World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge and D-Day at Utah Beach.

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The new biography offers up additional reasons to believe Salinger was an unhappy man. There’s the claim that Salinger only had one testicle and the deformity played a role in why he chose to become a recluse. We also learn a great deal about his love affairs, which don’t paint him in a good light (such as the anecdote about him breaking up with the young Jean Millerafter a five year courtshipthe day after they finally consummated the relationship). He repeatedly pursued teenage girls (who were often half his age) initially via correspondence, and eventually turned cold towards them and broke their hearts.

The Salinger mystique leaves me conflicted about the existence of this new biography and skeptical about the motive for posthumous publication. For a man that removed himself from society so definitively, it seems unlikely he would appreciate this intrusion into his deepest secrets. This is not someone that let a biographer follow him around or interview him. He shunned attention. So I can’t imagine he would appreciate this level of scrutiny.

Besides my discomfort over prying into the life of someone who kept his door deliberately shut, I’m confused as to why Salinger would plan to publish his later work after his death. Whether the author is alive or not, publishing is still asking for attention. What was his motivation?

My fear is the books are going to be a huge let-down. Shields and Salerno claim the first new book should arrive in 2015, and by then there will be so much anticipation and hype that almost anything is bound to be a disappointment. Either way, the new books will be the most intimate look yet at Salinger’s mind after he became a recluse. In some ways they will arguably tell us more about him than the upcoming biography.

While the curious will flock to the wealth of media on Salinger this fall, I predict the new books, when they arrive, will be the greater gem. After all, there are far more fans of Salinger’s writing than of the man himself.

—Miriam

A Dance to the Music of Time: The Soldier’s Art

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Second Lieutenant Jenkins, now stationed at Divisional Headquarters, recalls his entree into the army and chafes under Major Widmerpool’s command. He witnesses contentiousness between Colonels Pedlar and Hogbourne-Johnson (and is amused by their assonant first names, Eric and Derrick), also seeing Widmerpool dressed down by the latter. Jenkins converses with General Liddament about authors and shocks him with a low opinion of Trollope, but apparently impresses through his knowledge of Balzac, and so receives a recommendation to meet with Major Finn while on his next leave regarding a transfer. Stringham, a lowly private, slips briefly onto stage as a waiter in Jenkins’ mess. On leave in London, Jenkins’ French proves inadequate for Finn’s needs, and he learns that sister-in-law Priscilla has left Chips Lovell and taken up with Odo Stevens. At dinner, Jenkins finds that Moreland has moved in with Audrey, the abrasive widow of their mutual friend Maclintick, and their party of three expands to five with the surprise appearance of Priscilla and Stevens. That budding relationship fails to bloom, as she walks out on the meal and on Stevens. Later that night, she and Lovell are killed in separate air raids. Jenkins returns to Div HQ and despite Stringham’s assistance, fails to hide Bithel’s drunkenness from Widmerpool; Bithel is sacked and Stringham’s unit is reassigned to the Far East. Widmerpool’s various machinations lead to embarrassment before his fellow officers, but he successfully arranges a transfer and likely promotion for himself. Now without a position, Jenkins is on the verge of being sent to the undesirable Infantry Training Center, but is instead called to the War Office. 

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Am I right that Jenkins’ imagination is growing wilder? Still disconnected from his writing and intellectual life, it’s as if his imagery has turned feral. His description of the brass at dinner, with the general as pharaoh and his two colonels as Horus and Osiris, is positively lurid, almost surreal. The dialogue between the two colonels is like vaudeville banter, as absurd as any in the series so far, and Stringham’s conversation verges on the unhinged. Reality hasn’t entirely loosened its hold, though—the comic first section ends with a strong reminder that death hovers over the whole Third Movement.

The second section features more awkwardness and fear than comedy, neatly capturing the strange combination of annoyance and dread that is life under the Blitz. When Moreland’s ex-girlfriend (and Jenkins’ current sister-in-law) shows up with her new flame (not Jenkins’ brother-in-law), I was almost as uncomfortable reading about it as the participants were in experiencing it. Although perhaps less embarrassed, not being British myself. My tension was quickly dispelled by a lovely description of darkened London streets that comes near the end of that scene:

In the utter blackness, the tarts, strange luminous form of nocturnal animal life, flickered the bulbs of their electric torches. From time to time one of them would play the light against her own face in self-advertisement, giving the effect of candles illuminating a holy picture in the shadows of a church.

Not a detail likely to be encountered in a history book, but exactly the kind that makes fiction uniquely insightful.

I hadn’t finished savoring those phrases when the bombs hit the nightclub and the Jeavons home, the most shocking occurrence in the series so far. I think my mouth actually hung open. The deaths are unexpected, oddly enough, because Powell actually builds up to the announcement. Several characters have dropped permanently out of the Dance, but until now their absences have been introduced offhandedly. Powell returns to this technique to relate Biggs’ suicide and Barnby’s ill-fated reconnaissance flight near the end of the novel, indicating that the loss of Lady Molly, Chips, and Priscilla has struck home to Jenkins like no others have.

Even with those final arbitrary flourishes of the reaper’s scythe, section three is something of an anticlimax. While it’s always a pleasure to watch Widmerpool flounder, for me the highlight is Stringham’s dialogue. As a self-confessed failure, he seems to have abandoned social convention along with hope, and can speak unrestrainedly. In his rambling he comes across as a Holy Fool, and he’s more interesting now than he’s ever been.

(Irrelevant aside: What’s with the cover art above? I get that the publisher might aim for an inappropriate mood of romantic drama, but who are these people? The only woman in uniform I can think of in Soldier’s Art is Eleanor Walpole-Wilson, and this painting isn’t close to matching her description, even allowing for artistic license. Those look like corporal’s stripes on the man comforting her; is there anyone in the book who holds that rank and gets mentioned in more than a sentence or two?)

A copy of Fourth Movement goes out to Mary C., commenter on our last post. Congratulations, Mary, and contact us to arrange collection of your book. We have one more copy to give away, courtesy of University of Chicago Press, so don’t hesitate to participate. Just share your thoughts below to get a chance to win, and remember, this offer is open to all. Even if you’re not caught up on your reading, tell us why you dropped out or how you’re responding to these updates. I’ll announce a random winner in our next post.

Next up: The Military Philosophers on September 26th. Available as part of Third Movement or separately as an an ebook.

—James

Painting by Max Ginsburg from the cover of the 1980s Warner Books edition of The Soldier’s Art

Previous installments:

Elmore Leonard, 1925-2013

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When Elmore Leonard passed away on August 20th at the age of 87, he left behind more than 40 novels and nearly as many films based on his work. The public bought over 8 million copies of his books. He was the granddaddy of today’s crime novelist, a unique and confident writer with an unmistakable wisecracking style. Leonard knew what he was doing, plain and simple, and Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing contains timeless and simple advice that all writers should take to heart.

Incredibly, he always wrote in longhand on unlined yellow notepads. Today’s top crime fiction writers, including Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, cite Leonard as a tremendous influence. When it came to writing crackling dialogue, he was the master. He was known to his friends and fans as “Dutch,” a nickname given to him as a sophomore in high school referring to Emil “Dutch” Leonard, a pitcher for the Washington Senators.

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If you’re inspired to read something by Leonard there’s a plethora of options. I recommend Get Shorty, about a Miami loan shark who bets big on Hollywood and the gangster who wants him dead, and Rum Punch, about an aging airline stewardess who has been smuggling money into the U.S. and makes a plan to keep the cash for herself. Both are fantastic and inspired equally good movies (Rum Punch inspired the film Jackie Brown, which was Leonard’s favorite film adaptation of his work).

Elmore Leonard lived most of his life in Detroit, and once threw the ceremonial first pitch at a Detroit Tigers game against the Seattle Mariners. He claims to have practiced in his backyard by measuring out 60 feet and throwing at a wire fence to make sure he could throw in a straight line. He said that at the ballpark, they don’t want you messing up the mound, so you’re only 50 feet from home plate. That was Leonard, enough of an overachiever to practice with 10 extra feet, yet someone who could also relax and take great pleasure in whatever he did. One of his famous rules of writing was “if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” The point being that you should never look like you’re trying.

Once when asked about his success, Leonard said, “My purpose is to entertain and please myself. I feel that if I am entertained, then there will be enough other readers who will be entertained, too.”

People say “Dutch” was always the coolest guy in the room. I believe it.

—Miriam

ISLAND BOOKS ANNUAL SUMMER SIDEWALK SALE

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We’ve sold books-by-the-pound at our annual sidewalk sale for over 20 years. But since buying more gifts and toys for the store in the last few years the sale has taken on a whole new frenzy. I just returned from the San Francisco Gift Show and am anxious to be out with the old and in with the new. Every day new titles, toys, and gifts arrive and we need more room! There are scarves, jewelry, ceramics, candles, table linens, and loads of great toys and games, including Moulin Roti plush, Uncle Goose wooden language blocks, science kits, Shrinky Dinks and more. So come by and pick up something you’ve been eying all summer or discover a treasure you’ve never seen before.

THIS FRIDAY AND SATURDAY, AUGUST 23RD AND 24TH

—Nancy

Breaking Bad By the Books

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Admit it. You’re as much of a junkie as the meth addicts on the show. Yes, I’m talking about Breaking Bad, the AMC show that’s dominating the awards, ratings, and media coverage as it enters its final season. If you need to get up to date, here’s a great video summary.

I don’t even know how I got into this series, since the premise—high school chemistry teacher turns cancer patient turns meth-cooking drug lord—doesn’t sound like my cup of tea at all. But my husband started playing it in the background while I was trying to read, and somewhere into the first season Walt, the chemist gone wrong in the name of his family, threw what looked like a bag of meth at a Tuco, the sociopathic Mexican drug kingpin, uttered the line “You got one part of that wrong. “That is not meth,” and blew out the windows of a building with his homemade explosive. I was suddenly compelled by the character development, and the next thing I knew my book had been left in the dust and I was watching Breaking Bad Netflix marathons late into the night.

With the end of the series dangerously close, I can safely say the obsessed fans will be left wanting more. Since we’re not going to get our fix from television much longer, it seems like a good time to compile an appropriate reading list.

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Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: This one is probably the most obvious, since the key moment when Walt’s DEA-agent brother-in-law realizes who Walt actually is comes when Hank opens up Walt’s copy of Leaves Of Grass (while he’s in the john, no less) and recognizes the handwriting of the inscription to “W.W.” The book has been inscribed by Gale, the now-dead-because-of-Walt meth cook who gave Walt the book. Not surprisingly, Walter White and Walt Whitman share the same initials, and almost the same name.

Breaking Bad has repeatedly alluded to Whitman’s poetry, even using it to title some of its episodes, like Gliding Over It All. But it’s the poem When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer that best captures Walt’s transformation from a passive and conventional man to becoming “the one who knocks" (that’s not a Whitman reference, just a quote from one of Walt’s all-time best scenes).

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Complete Short Stories by Franz Kafka: Walt’s sidekick Jesse Pinkman goes to group therapy, and after describing his job (without any specifics), the group leader comments that it sounds “Kafkaesque.” Jesse agrees, but he clearly doesn’t know what the term means. Working in a high-stakes meth lab certainly is freakishly bizarre, even if neither Jesse nor his group leader understands exactly what they’re saying.

The dreamlike and alienated nature of Kafka’s stories echoes the magic of Breaking Bad; they are funny, grotesque, critical, and symbolic all at once.

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Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden: When Hank ends up in the hospital after his near-death showdown with the Mexican cartel brothers, Walt brings a copy of Killing Pablo to the hospital for his son, Walt Jr., who is sitting by Hank’s bedside in awe of his uncle’s heroism. The book tells the story of the hunt for drug lord Pablo Escobar and how he was caught because of a trace on a phone call he made to his son, Pablo Jr. Ironically, the trace was made by Hugo Martinez, Jr., the son of the Colonel leading the investigation.

Obviously there are parallels between Killing Pablo and Breaking Bad, and the reference on the show plants the early question: Will Walt Jr. side with his dad, the drug lord, or his uncle, the DEA agent, when and if the time comes to choose?

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Difficult Men by Brett Martin: Filled with salacious detail, Difficult Men goes behind the scenes of some of the best shows on television, including The Sopranos, The Wire, and of course Breaking Bad. Here you’ll find out how these shows were made and the way all those strong personalities managed to collaborate and make such great entertainment. By the way, did you know that Breaking Bad was originally set to film outside Los Angeles, rather than in its trademark Albuquerque location? Thank goodness that didn’t play out. Albuquerque is a character itself on the show.

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The Last Narco by Malcolm Beith: This one is sort of the “next generation” after Killing Pablo. Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, Mexico’s notorious drug capo and one of the world’s richest men, is basically the last Mohican of Mexican drug lords. The Last Narco's nonfiction narrative is a fast-paced race as the DEA and Mexican authorities close in on one of the most dangerous and feared men in the history of the world's largest drug empire.

—Miriam

The More Bard the Better

image As part of our ongoing effort to bring you the most current reporting from the world of literature, Message in a Bottle shares with you today a story about the latest work from one of today’s hottest writers. We’re talking, of course, about that up-and-coming poet and playwright William Shakespeare. What’s new about this very old author? A professor at the University of Texas is attesting that Shakespeare contributed a few hundred lines of verse to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. According to this researcher, awkward expressions in these lines are the result of typesetting errors, mistakes that perfectly match those that other compositors made from known samples of Shakespeare’s handwriting.

Fairly abstruse stuff that might not stand up to scrutiny alone, but the study supports earlier claims. Those were based on language analysis of the kind that revealed the author of the anonymously published Primary Colors (and is also regularly used to detect student plagiarism). Together, it’s enough evidence to convince the Royal Shakespeare Company. They’ve added The Spanish Tragedy to their forthcoming anthology Collaborative Plays, which contains what we might call the Outer Canon, those dramatic works that orbit around the core Shakespearean planets.

If you’re not the sort of person who wears a doublet on weekends or carries a souvenir bodkin, you might not know, but the list of dramas at least partially attributed to the man from Stratford has grown significantly in recent years. Aside from this most recent one, there are:

There are several other plays with more doubtful, though still arguable, attributions. And the classic oeuvre isn’t just being altered through addition, but also via subtraction. Scholars are carefully teasing the contributions of other authors out of plays such as Timon of Athens, Pericles, and Titus Andronicus, showing that Shakespeare wasn’t as solitary a genius as previously thought. He wasn’t averse to running around with thugs, in fact.

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What I like about this line of study isn’t the opportunity to nitpick the authorship of individual lines, but how it enriches our understanding of the Elizabethan-Jacobean theatrical milieu. That environment, equally devoted to commerce and art, was the perfect cradle for Shakespeare’s talents. He stands out in a crowd of other brilliant writers, and he’d never have reached the heights he did without them. Stanley Wells paints their portraits in his Shakespeare & Co., mapping out the web of cooperation and competition that connected these creative characters.

Ben Jonson was the stepson of a bricklayer who killed a man in a duel, but rose to become the best-known author in the land and the official entertainer of the king. Shakespeare is known to have acted in his Every Man in His Humour. Christopher Marlowe introduced blank verse to the English stage, and was almost certainly a spy for Elizabeth I. Thomas Kyd was a one-time roommate of his and was tortured to reveal damning information about him. Marlowe was killed shortly afterward in mysterious circumstances. The era was full of personality and a hotbed of intrigue; the collective story of these entertainers’ lives is at least as interesting as the plays they wrote.

—James

Let’s Talk Shop

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On a recent trip to Bainbridge Island, my family wandered into Eagle Harbor Book Company on Winslow Way. If you haven’t been to that indie bookstore, I highly recommend a Sunday morning excursion. If you’re coming from Seattle you get the pleasure of a lovely ferry ride (particularly great in the summer), a stroll along the charming town of Winslow, perhaps brunch, and the experience of a homey, impeccable book buying experience.

I couldn’t help but notice the qualities Island Books shares with Eagle Harbor, like the welcoming staff counter, the children’s section tucked magically in the back, and the prominent display of shelf talkers highlighting the booksellers’ unique tastes. Whenever I visit another bookstore, I note the aspects I like and ponder how we could do better. I enjoyed the extensive staff pick shelf and vacation-like atmosphere.

The recent hubbub about Obama endorsing Amazon, Jeff Bezos purchasing The Washington Post, and William Lynch’s departure from Barnes & Noble has inspired renewed rumblings about the value of independent booksellers. I’ve read countless soapbox statements about the importance of indies and physical books and I’ve spouted my own self-righteous monologues about the subject on this very blog. I’ll try not to regurgitate anymore of what you’ve already heard, but more than the latest news, my experience shopping at Eagle Harbor Book Company brought the subject back to the forefront of my mind.

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As I walked through the children’s section at Eagle Harbor Book Company that day, I carried my then-9-month-old son strapped to my chest. He’s a curious guy, always watching and reaching out for things that catch his interest. I’ve proudly noticed he gravitates towards books. As we browsed, he reached out and pulled Touch and Feel Farm from the shelf. It’s part of a DK series that features tactile pages, perfect for babies to touch and explore textures. I picked up his choice off the floor and went to put it back on the shelf, but he waved his arms out to the side and shouted “dadada” at an ear-piercing decibel. When I brought the book back to him he reached out to pet the soft yellow chick fur on the cover, his eyes filled with amazement.

"Wow, I guess he likes that book," commented a member of the staff, watching him and chuckling. She proceeded to bring over some other titles that offered the touch-and-feel experience. We laughed at him as he eagerly babbled and grabbed at different options.

Don’t let me mislead you into thinking Touch and Feel Farm is the ultimate in baby books, because a week later both my twins were squealing over a different title at the library. Rather than having an eager bookseller applauding their enthusiasm, we received a sharp shush. My kids don’t know the meaning of shush yet, so I had to leave when they didn’t quiet down.

I’m a big advocate of the library, but when it comes to finding new books for the babies, nothing beats an independent bookstore. The kids can’t pull a random title off the shelf at Amazon, and they aren’t old enough to follow library etiquette.

—Miriam

First Line Friday Returns

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"Now, what I want is, Facts." Well, you’re not going to get them. Not here, not today. Instead we’re offering fiction, and plenty of it. The first lines of it, anyway. Yes, it’s another episode of First Line Friday, in which we share some of the best pick-up lines in literature. The one that opens this paragraph is by Charles Dickens, by the way, spoken by the serious-minded and aptly named character Thomas Gradgrind.

Then there’s this, from Pete Dexter’s novel Spooner:

Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic, honeysuckled little town of Millidgeville, Georgia, in a makeshift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Woods, across the street from and approximately in the crosshairs of a cluster of Confederate artillery pieces guarding the dog-spotted front lawn of the Greene Street Sons of the Confederacy Retirement Home.

A sentence full of facts, and yet it has an impudent tone that I don’t think Sir Gradgrind would approve. “Dog-spotted” is one very vivid detail that would undoubtedly elicit the same comment he makes on page two of Hard Times: “We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here.”

Gradgrind might be more amenable to (although confused by) The Space Child’s Mother Goose by Frederick Winsor. It educates kids about the complexities of physics and astronomy in verse, and it starts like this:

Probable-Possible, my black hen,
She lays eggs in the Relative When.
She doesn’t lay eggs in the Positive Now
Because she’s unable to Postulate how.

But let’s stop worrying about Gradgrind’s opinions and just savor some excellent beginnings, Big Bangs that birth a storyteller’s universe.

  • Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
  • J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”
  • Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
  • Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: “One summer afternoon Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed, executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”
  • Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.”
  • Gregory Roberts’ Shantaram: “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
  • John Scalzi’s The Android’s Dream: “Dirk Moeller didn’t know if he could fart his way into a diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.”
  • Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
  • Iain Banks’ The Crow Road: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

That seems a pretty good mix of the silly and the sublime. And speaking of the sublime, I have to mention John Crowley’s Aegypt series. It defies easy summary, but all of the four linked novels it comprises draw connections between antique myth and contemporary life. The first book, The Solitudes, starts with a beautiful image of a Renaissance mage peering into another realm: “There were angels in the glass, two four six many of them, each one shuffling into his place in line like an alderman at the Lord Mayor’s show.” We see this as mere superstition, and presume that we better understand reality now, but the series as a whole posits otherwise.

Crowley suggests that history goes through phases, and that the nature of the universe fundamentally alters with each shift. Science rules our day, but in the 16th Century, alchemy and magic functioned perfectly well. Or more concisely, as he begins a later volume in the series, Love and Sleep: “Once, the world was not as it has since become.” Which means, of course, that it’s liable to change again without notice, an inventive premise that plays out wonderfully throughout Aegypt.

Some novels feature multiple worlds, and some feature multiple first lines. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, was first printed with a prologue that opens as memorably as the story itself. Respectively, those sentences are:

  • "Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living."
  • "The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended."

William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is another such book. Many readers have been fooled by the first chapter, which says that what follows is a remembered abridgement of a story Goldman’s father read to him when he was a child, one that he’s never been able to find again. According to bookseller legend, customers still sometimes ask for the “real” Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern, the one that’s better than Goldman’s version. It’s never happened to me, but I like to believe that it has to someone. The start of the story and the “start” of the story:

  • "This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it."
  • "The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette."

Both great lines.

I’ll conclude with a final opening, this time from Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. It’s an epic of sorts, and she begins with her own poetic creation myth:

Ts’its’tsi’nako, Thought-woman,
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
appears

Silko’s describing herself there, obviously. She’s modest, though, and doesn’t mention how much hard work goes along with the thinking. Sentences this arresting require as much effort as they do inspiration.

—James

A Thought-Provoking Read: Me Before You

imageSummer reading season is almost over, so as you pack your bag for your final August vacation, I have one new paperback to tuck into your suitcase: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Before I give you the description, let me preface it by saying, yes, this could have been a maudlin tearjerker, but what makes it so good is that it’s not.

Louisa is the most ordinary girl you can imagine. Uneducated and unskilled, she works as a server in a local cafe, doesn’t have hobbies, and still lives at home with her parents, sister, and nephew. Her small British town sits under the shadow of its one tourist attraction, a castle, and she’s never left. Her long-term boyfriend Patrick is a personal trainer and as boring as Louisa.

Enter Will, a former high-stakes businessman, risk-taker, and playboy whose wealthy parents own the town’s castle. After a freak accident renders Will a quadriplegic, he attempts suicide and puts his family on high alarm. They decide to hire someone to monitor him, and when Louisa loses her job at the cafe, she’s the person who enters their lives.

Louisa hates the caretaker job, and more than that, she hates Will, who is bitter, rude, and resentful. His family is equally difficult. If she didn’t need the money so much she would quit. Then she learns that after his accident, Will’s girlfriend turned his back on him and became engaged to his former best friend. After his first suicide attempt, Will agreed with his family that he would give his new life a final trial period, and if at the end of the set time he still wanted to die, they would support him in a medically-assisted suicide.

Pity takes over and Louisa makes it her life mission to convince Will life is worth living. She concocts elaborate outings and pushes him relentlessly to rediscover why life is good, but in the process she comes to realize all the parts of her own life that have been missing. And, predictably, the two fall into an unlikely love affair. The question that develops is, will he or won’t he? Will the beauty of living triumph over the hardships?

Me Before You is something of a Beauty and the Beast tale, but it raises difficult ethical questions. The language and writing initially come across as pedestrian. I wondered early on how could this book become extraordinary when it seems to be written in such a colloquial manner. But the power is in what is being said rather than how, and the progression becomes increasingly emotionally raw. These aren’t literary characters, they are ordinary people, and the language suits them and what happens in their lives.

Warning: the ending will push you. It’s an excellent pick for book clubs. This is one of those reads that sticks in your mind, and you might find yourself staring into your morning coffee and putting yourself in Louisa and Will’s shoes. What would I do if that were me? I asked myself countless times when I finished the last page, long after I tucked the red cover back on the shelf.

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With all that said, Jojo Moyes’ last book about an amnesiac whose biggest clue to her former life appears in the form of a love letter, The Last Letter from Your Lover, and her new novel releasing on August 20th about a marriage split by war, The Girl You Left Behind, will probably end up on your reading list after you finish Me Before You. I greatly enjoyed The Last Letter from Your Lover and am looking forward to The Girl You Left Behind, but I’m going to recommend you get to know Moyes’ talents by picking up Me Before You first. She graduates to a new level of ability with Louisa and Will’s story, and it’s a breakthrough you won’t want to miss.

—Miriam

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