Message in a Bottle
What Are Kids REALLY Reading These Days?


We know what our customers buy and we know what they tell us. What we can’t do is look into every child’s bedroom and inspect exactly what they’re reading. Just because adults buy specific books for the children in their lives doesn’t mean the kids are enjoying them. And I’m starting to think social media, and our age difference, is adding to my gap in understanding what’s genuinely happening in the minds of today’s kids.

Case in point: I was teaching a ballet class the other night and I asked my preteen students to name their favorite pop music. They all looked at each other nervously, as if they didn’t want their friends to judge their taste. “Justin Bieber?” I ventured. Snide laughter followed. “New Direction?” Dead silence. Then one girl raised her eyebrow and said, “You mean, One Direction?” I turned red as they all rolled their eyes, again indicating I was completely out of touch. They mumbled a few other answers of bands I’d never heard of and immediately forgot. It was time to move on so I could regain my dignity.

As I drove home from that class, I wondered if I was as out of touch with children’s books as I was with music. Everything I see in popular media, from People magazine to Facebook, communicates that Justin Bieber and Newexcuse meOne Direction are the hottest things around. Could I have been that off?


My assumptions about what kids are reading these days come from our bestsellers, and what the children and teens I’m close to tell me. Recently I read Pippi Longstocking to my 7-year-old stepdaughter (her choice). That was one of my favorites as a kid and I was happy to see it has endured.

I asked a 17-year-old Mercer Island High student what she was reading and  she said One Hundred Years of Solitude, because a boy she liked had challenged her to read it. When I asked her if she liked the book, all I received was a casual shrug. The information was useless. I wanted to hear the books that kids are passionate about, but at that age maybe it’s better that they just take it all in without getting overly into anything so subversive as Catcher in the Rye. Who knows?

I suspect that kids are reading older books much more than adults, who tend to look for the next best thing. Children, who have more time and less discretionary funds, seem to spend more time in libraries than adults. They’re more likely to find old classics there than new releases. Kids also don’t follow current affairs like adults do, so the same timeless stories are more important than the latest true crime case or celebrity memoir.

I’m also willing to bet that the long tail theory applies even more to kids as they get older. While yes they may have spent a brief period of time reading The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, as time goes on they’ll more likely find books that suit their individual interests, the way I used to read the Satin Slippers series (now unfortunately out of print) because I loved ballet or my brother read about Wilbur and Orville Wright because he wanted to become a pilot.

In any case, when choosing a book for a child, the best thing to do is get a sense of what they like. It’s easy to give them a generic bestseller, but if you make the mistake of giving them Justin Bieber when they like Death Cab for Cutie, you’re going to look like an idiot. Trust me.


First Line Friday: Memoir Edition

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On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.

—Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

By coincidence, that’s exactly how this blog was born. A hundred or so years later on another continent, mind you, and under a different astrological sign, but otherwise the resemblance to Merton is uncanny—humble but auspicious origins that led to wide recognition and the admiration of millions.

Eventually, maybe. In fact, we’re talking ourselves up today only because that’s the focus of this installment of First Line Friday—we’re looking at memoirs, autobiographies, and self-portraits in prose. There’s something about sitting down to tell the chaotic story of your own life that tends to produce impressive beginnings. A little ego-inflation gives you a sense of control and helps things get started, apparently. With that out of the way, let’s proceed.

Carlos Eire shows off an arresting style in Learning to Die in Miami: “Having just died, I shouldn’t be starting my life with a chicken sandwich, no matter what, especially one served up by nuns.” One line down and we’re already smack in the middle of a crazy story, even before we get to the nuns.

Talking about death turns out to be a great way to talk about life, as Thomas Lynch demonstrates in The Undertaking: “Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople.” Serial killer? No, he’s engaged in the “dismal trade” of the mortuary arts, which has given him remarkable perspective on himself and his fellow humans.

J.R. Moehringer opens his memoir The Tender Bar in two different ways, once in the prologue where he emphasizes the place that formed him, and again in the first chapter where he emphasizes the person that place helped create. Both sentences compel attention:

  • "We went there for everything we needed."
  • "If a man can chart with any accuracy his evolution from small boy to barfly, mine began on a hot summer night in 1972."

How can you not order a round for the house and listen to the rest of the story?

No two memoirs start the exact same way, but they often jump off from similar points. Mothers, for instance, are a very effective prism for authors who are trying to view their own lives. Take NPR correspondent Jacki Lyden, who puts her manic, occasionally delusional, yet captivating parent front and center in Daughter of the Queen of Sheba: “My mother’s hand was open like a bisque cup, all porcelain, and Christ Jesus’ fingers were tentacles entangled around her palm.” With a delicate simile embraced by a monstrous metaphor, the sentence captures the subject perfectly.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is also about a troubled mother-daughter relationship, but its opening scene takes place when both characters are adults: “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.” Every aspect of childhood that Walls had to overcome seems present in just those few words.

Even in the absence of pyschologically unbalanced parents, it’s only natural for an author to start a life story early. As the adage has it, the child is the father of the man. Or woman. Eudora Welty, in One Writer’s Beginnings, tells of her foundational years as follows: “In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.” Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s Little Heathens describes a quick coming of age in less genteel surroundings during the Great Depression: “My childhood came to a virtual halt when I was around five years old.” Ishmael Beah, pressed into service as a boy soldier in Africa, had a more abbreviated and disturbing youth than that, about which he tells in A Long Way Gone. His approach to those harrowing years is understated: “My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.”

Annie Dillard writes about childhood, old age, and everything in between. Whatever her subject, she expresses herself like no one else (we’ve written before about her magical way with words). Not all of her non-fiction is strictly autobiographical—her ostensible focus is sometimes history, landscape, or another external topic—but her thoughts always reach the page through a very personal filter. Her self is present in everything she creates, as this sampling of her oeuvre suggests:

  • Holy the Firm: Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time.
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest.
  • Teaching a Stone to Talk: It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass.
  • An American Childhood: When everything else has gone from my brain—the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.

All memoir is about the self, but sometimes an book downplays that reality by casting light elsewhere. It always reflects back on the author, though, as it does in James Salter’s Burning the Days: “The true chronicler of my life, a tall, soft-looking man with watery eyes, came up to me at the gathering and said, as if he had been waiting a long time to tell me, that he knew everything.”

Rarely, a writer throws up her hands and admits that self-interest is inherently untrustworthy. Mary Karr does this right at the start of Lit: “Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your heads that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am.”

This is an awful lot of navel gazing for one post, so let’s shift gears slightly before we go. Here’s a first line from a book that’s not about the person who wrote it, but about her grandmother. It’s a true story, but one that’s technically classified as fiction since the details are too far in the past to be verified. Jeannette Walls again, this time from Half Broke Horses: “Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.” The authors we’ve been reading today don’t generally demonstrate that bovine good sense, but their books (and their lives) are much more interesting because of it.




If the Golden Globes inspired you to update your Netflix queue, I have one more film to add to your list. It’s a foreign film called Queen to Play, starring Kevin Kline (in his first French-speaking role) and Sandrine Bonnaire. It’s the story of a cleaning woman who sees a couple playing chess and becomes obsessed with the game. Unable to convince her husband to study chess with her, she begins playing with one of her employers, a reclusive widower. The experience forces both players to grow and change in other aspects of their lives.

My husband and I were both inspired by Queen to Play, and not surprisingly, we started playing chess. While we’re both novices, he played more as a child. I thought we might be evenly matched after the first game ended in a stalemate, but my hopes for that have been shattered daily as he beats me game after game. This is becoming a source of pride, so I confess I’ve started googling chess strategies. My opening is improving but still no win.


This new chess obsession has brought up memories of one of my favorite books, The Eight by Katherine Neville. It came out in 1988. I read The Eight in high school and it remains heavily on my mind decades later. The book was considered something of a cult classic and has remained in print in more than thirty languages for over twenty years.

A true feminist novel, The Eight is essentially a “quest” novel, much like Lord of the Rings, The Da Vinci Code, or even The Wizard of Oz. Metaphorical in nature, the plot follows two women in two different time periods. Catherine’s story starts in 1972, when her job as a computer expert sends her to Algeria, and Mireille is a young nun in 1790 France amidst the French Revolution. Both women are essentially “pawns” in a larger “chess” game, which involves protecting a legendary chess set called the Montglane service. The Montglane service was once owned by Charlemagne, and presumably holds great power. To protect the set from falling into the wrong hands, the pieces have been scattered across the world. The object of the novel’s “game” is to assemble the Montglane service and discover its secrets before the opposing team. Mireille appears at the beginning of the game and plays a role in dispersing the pieces. Famous figures in history have supposedly played the game and it has continued for centuries. Catherine enter the game as it nears its conclusion, and the players will go to any lengths to win, even murder.

I might be a novice at chess, but I understand that the game is a metaphor for life, and essentially, power. I can think of it as a series of moves, or I can think of it as a story. Like a novel, a chess game has an opening, a middle, and a finish in which the player, like the author, has to close the deal or walk away a loser. Even after all this time, The Eight is good enough to put readers into checkmate. The novel reveals itself just the way a good chess game unfolds and drops its bombshell when Mireille and Catherine’s stories intersect. You’ll never see the finish coming. Neville plays her endgame to perfection.

That movie, Queen to Play, has opened a can of worms in my life. Nowadays all I want to do is play chess and reread The Eight. Anyone care to join me in this obsession? I’ll be at it at least until I can put my husband in check. Literally.


Northwest Pride


We’re well into the new year, but we never say goodbye to the old one without a last look back. Those of you who subscribe to our email newsletter will already know that our farewell to 2013 involved a little number-crunching—we compiled a list of our bestselling books, a Top 40 of customer favorites. In addition to publishing the list on our website and sharing it via email, we currently have all the listed titles on display in the store. Gathered together as they are, something about the collection jumped out at me. I won’t say what that was right now, but it’ll become obvious as I highlight a few of the books.

The top pick is an Island Books exclusive, Mercer Island History: From Haunted Wilderness to Coveted Community. As the only book of its kind, it didn’t need to be great for people to want it, but author Jane Meyer Brahm went the extra mile in putting it together and produced something pretty spectacular. From the account of original settler Vitus Schmid to reporting on the dramatic snowstorms of recent years, the full record of the island is laid bare, and set off by copious photography, too. This is as much art volume as history.

imageJust below at number two is Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, which tells about the plucky crew from the University of Washington that took their racing shell all the way to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics and defeated all comers. As the list extends we find Maria Semple’s satire on Seattle, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Amanda Coplin’s tale of hard times in the Wenatchee Valley, The Orchardist, and Tim Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, a biography of famed photographer Edwin Curtis, whose studio once stood in Pioneer Square. Not to mention books by Spokane writer Jess Walter, Portland’s Cheryl Strayed, and Alaskan Eowyn Ivey.

By now you’ve figured out what these titles, and the many others like them on our Top 40, have in common. They’re all by Northwesterners. By my count, 37.5% of last year’s bestsellers (for you English majors, that’s fifteen out of forty) hail from this region, twelve from right here in Washington. Almost all of these books are about Northwest subjects, too.

imageWe’ve always been big believers in fostering community and supporting neighborhood interests, so it’s not unexpected to find some local talent on our annual list, but I can’t remember a year in which our region was so dominant. This isn’t a situation where we pushed a few of our friends to the forefront, but one where powerhouse authors with major reputations happen to live on our doorstep. OK, something like Mercer Island, Priscilla Padgett’s contribution to the Images of America series, wasn’t likely to make a splash in too many other places, but most of the books I’m talking about were national hits. Take Tara Conklin’s The House Girl, which won rave reviews and high sales across the country. Dealing with Southern slavery and its legacy, it has no particular relevance to our region except that its author is a Seattleite. Maria Semple’s novel was of special interest to us because of its setting, but readers around the world admired its humor; Semple was nominated for the international Women’s Prize for Fiction, as we noted on the blog some months ago.

image Not that our list is any kind of comprehensive study, but it goes some way in showing the kind of literary standard we expect around here. Stores in other parts of the US may not have two-fifths of their Top 40 lists filled by Northwest books, but it’s likely that our authors earn more than the five percent share our population would indicate. They’re a force to be reckoned with. Just like our football team. Go, Seahawks!


The Fault In Our Movie Poster?


Here I go again, writing about that author who seems to be everywhere these days. John Green writes bestsellers, garners a legion of online followers, and even appears at Carnegie Hall. There’s always plenty to talk about when his name comes up. I try to be diverse with my posts, so apologies ahead of time if I’m focusing too much on one author. But the movie version of The Fault In Our Stars is coming this summer, and the new poster for the film has everyone up in arms. It’s our duty to discuss it.

Green’s 2012 novel was a smashing success, topping bestseller lists for weeks and appearing on almost everyone’s Best of the Year lists. It’s about two teenagers who meet in a cancer support group and fall in love. The 16-year-old narrator, Hazel, has been living with stage 4 thyroid cancer. Her parents push her into joining a support group and her friend Isaac, who has lost his eye to cancer, joins her. At the group she meets Isaac’s friend Gus, who is in remission from bone cancer. Hazel and Gus start spending time together, but she resists a relationship hoping to spare him from losing her when she dies. True love prevails and they fall in love despite their dire circumstances. Both become captivated by a novel called An Imperial Affliction (it doesn’t really exist, but serves a purpose in the book), and they are able to undertake a trip to Amsterdam to meet the author together. The trip doesn’t go as planned, but they grow closer during the experience.

I’ll stop my recap there because I don’t want to spoil the end for those who haven’t read it. It’s a beautiful book that could have gone wrong in many ways, but in Green’s adept hands the moving story is told with great sensitivity and humor. Reviewers and readers loved the book, with the exception of The Guardian, who called the book exploitative and distasteful. They took issue with a genre they called “sick-lit,” teen books that deal with depression, suicide, and other dark subjects (like Thirteen Reasons Why, The Lovely Bones, etc).

When I was in grade school, the “sick-lit” queen was Lurlene McDaniel. Reading Six Months to Live made me want to be an oncologist when I grew up. All her books had to do with teens struggling with terminal illness, and she handled the subject with care and delicacy. She never led with humor and managed to strike a reverent tone when it came to her questions of life and death. Dramatic? Yes. But not irreverent.

For today’s kids, Lurlene McDaniel is still around but harder to find. And unlike McDaniel, John Green is edgy and his entire canon doesn’t center around childhood terminal illness. He always addresses coming of age issues and fills his books with energy and humor. So this step into “sick-lit” doesn’t define him as an author, and makes him vulnerable to critics just waiting to stomp on a freshman to such sensitive territory.

The question is if the tagline on The Fault In Our Stars movie poster is a joke. Here’s what Green had to say on his Tumblr:

I did not write the tagline.…These things are not my decision. It’s not my movie, or my poster.…That said, I like the tag line.…I mostly wanted something that said, “This is hopefully not going to be a gauzy, sentimental love story that romanticizes illness and further spreads the lie that the only reason sick people exist is so that healthy people can learn lessons.” But that’s not a very good tag line. I like the tag line because it says, literally, the sick can also have love stories. Love and joy and romance are not just things reserved for the well.

That said, I might be wrong. I’m wrong all the time.

Whether you like the tagline or hate it (because I’m guessing people will stick to one extreme or the other), it’s undeniable that the angle has people talking. Like Miley Cyrus, I suppose. The movie would have received plenty of buzz without it, but as they say, bad publicity is still publicity.

I, for one, was initially put off by the tagline. Perhaps it was my old Lurlene McDaniel frame of mind, or the fact that I know too many people with cancer and can’t imagine referring to their “stories” in such an edgy way. Maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy. But teens have a mind of their own, and I can see how the poster might speak to them.

Ultimately it’s going to be how the movie itself is done, not the poster, that matters. But for now, without a trailer even, that poster is our first impression. It won’t stop me from seeing the movie, but I will be approaching it hesitantly.

What do you think?


History from the Distaff Side


A thousand and more years ago the United Kingdom wasn’t. United, that is. There wasn’t yet a parliament, a monarch, or an England, a Scotland, and a Wales to join together. There was instead a hodgepodge of tribes, all with their own languages and cultures constructed out of various influences—Roman, Pictish, Celtic, Saxon, and who knows what all else—that traded and warred with about equal frequency. At the time there was little to suggest that the island of Great Britain they occupied would one day be the home of a single, coherent society. Perhaps the first glimmering of this idea was a book written in the eighth century by a man we’ve come to know as the Venerable Bede. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People helped promote a sense of national identity that hadn’t previously existed.

One of the most intriguing figures in that book and in the development of that identity gets only a few pages of coverage from Bede. She’s a woman named Hild who was born a pagan, converted to Christianity, and grew to become the founder of abbeys and an advisor to kings, truly striking accomplishments for a woman of her time. To appreciate what kind of talent and presence she must have had, think about how few women get to contribute to today’s power politics, then erase centuries of social progress. She’d make Condoleezza and Hillary look like pushovers.

imageNothing at all is known about Hild other than what Bede relates, which makes her story perfect fodder for a writer’s imagination. That writer is Seattleite (and erstwhile Yorkshirewoman) Nicola Griffith, who has painstakingly converted the scant historical record into lavish fiction. Her Hild is a marvel of research, overstuffed (in the best sense) with sensory detail about life in the seventh century. When her characters eat you can taste the herbs, and when they dress you can feel the weight of richly woven fabric. You can feel the weight of expectation on their shoulders, too, especially on Hild’s.

Her story begins in childhood with the announcement of her father’s death. In his absence, her family must rely on the good will of her uncle Edwin, a petty king with designs on greater power. Coached by her mother and making use of her own intelligence and talent for observation, Hild must find a role in his court that will make her essential to him. The wrong sex to wield a sword and too young to be a wife, she learns instead to give advice so wisely that she comes to seem uncanny, always mindful that the wrong word may lead to exile or worse. It’s a delicate balance, just like the one Griffith makes between exterior action and private reflection. Hild is a thoughtful person in a tumultous world, and her namesake novel handles both those elements with equal grace. Weapons clash often enough to stir the blood of adrenaline junkies, and conversation is subtle enough to please the European art film crowd. Sir Walter Scott’s sweep with the sensibility of Austen, in other words.

Set as it is in the relatively unspoiled historical terrain of late antiquity, many reviewers have insisted on reading Hild as a fantasy: “Chain mail? Let’s call it Tolkienesque.” Its immersive, authoritative world-building and occasionally archaic vocabulary will certainly satisfy Game of Thrones fans, but Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series or Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, both resolutely realistic, might be better points of comparison. The only magic here is the hypnotic spell storytellers have always cast, from the time of Beowulf until now.


The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

imageFor the next few months, every bookstore you enter, newspaper you open, and website you browse will have The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd splashed all over the place. I guarantee it. Why? Well, yes, it’s a great book, but the real reason is it’s the latest Oprah pick.

Now comes a big confession, which I hope won’t undermine my credibility as your loyal but bumbling bookseller. In November, way before Oprah made her announcement, I had two advanced copies of forthcoming books at the top of my pile. One was The Invention of Wings, which I was eager to read because of how much I liked Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees (The Mermaid Chair, not so much), and the other was a debut novel called The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh. One of my favorite sales reps from Penguin had sent and recommended McHugh’s freshman effort, but new authors are like new friends. Wary person that I am, I proceed with caution and skepticism.

Here’s how it went. I started Wings first, assuming it was a sure shot. It was Kidd’s expert voice and characterization all right, but I lost enthusiasm after about 50 pages. Maybe it was 12 Years a Slave fatigue, but in my mind I thought, here we go again, another slavery story that’s going to leave me feeling depressed. So I picked up The Weight of Blood instead and read it in 48 hours. Since that book isn’t coming out until March, I’ll save most of my thoughts on it for another blog. In a nutshell though: it’s fantastic.

But I digress. As for The Invention of Wings, it fell to the bottom of one of my stacks and I forgot all about it. Then one day, the book was everywhere. Oprah! Oprah! The superlatives were endless. Magnificent! Masterpiece! A triumph!

Well, I had no choice. I like to think I’m not a sheep, but if everyone’s buzzing about a book I want to know what the hubbub is about. So out came my copy and I tried again.

The book is set in early 19th century Charleston and two of the main characters are based on the real-life Grimke sisters, early abolitionists and feminists who helped pioneer both movements. Sarah Grimke is the focus, and at age 11 her parents give her her very own slave girl. That slave girl is named Hetty “Handful,” and her life and Sarah’s will be forever intertwined. As they grow up, both girls search for a better life. Sarah longs to be a lawyer and see the end of slavery, but her conservative family threatens to squash all her ambition. Handful’s restless and defiant mother, Charlotte, dreams of life as a free woman and instills a similar longing in her daughter. Both Sarah and Handful must endure tragedies and disappointments, and along the way they display great fortitude and strength of character which will eventually help them to rise beyond their circumstances. Sarah and her younger sister, Nina, follow a surprising and nontraditional path that takes them up north and out of the life everyone (even the reader) expects for them. Handful, left behind at the Grimke home, demonstrates an internal journey through loss and suffering that is the greatest heart of the book.

The Invention of Wings grew on me as I read along. Sarah, Nina, and Handful are fully fleshed out and admirable characters, full of humanity and toughness. Their story, however, is slow. I had the sense of having read this book before, although of course I hadn’t. While the abuse of slaves is an undeniable part of the story and era, the cruel mistress of the house and the whipping scenes felt, well, clichéd. I enjoyed the book, but I find myself hesitating at the overzealous championing. I have no doubt we’ll sell many copies because readers are always eager to join the Oprah conversation (as I was). But I’m having trouble differentiating the buzz from the book. Once the initial fuss dies down, I’ll be curious to hear our customers’ thoughts. A solid, enjoyable read? Yes. A masterpiece? I’m not so sure.


Kingsley Amis: Past, Present, and Future

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Under The Wide and Starry Sky


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Dance to the Music of Time: Hearing Secret Harmonies


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous installments:

The Nutcracker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Yes, Virginia, There Is a Father of Santa Claus


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Our Year of Eclectic Reading Suggestions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu

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

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

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

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

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

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


Elizabeth Gilbert’s Creative Genius


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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