Message in a Bottle
On Recommending Books


We had visitors from Portland at our house last weekend. My friend and her husband left Seattle about four months ago and she took a job at a sportswear company. I used to share an office with her, and our book-related roles led into a friendship that has long outlasted that period of employment. We were paid to discuss books (the far most interesting of our designated tasks), and that habit also long outlived the job.

The first thing my friend said to me was, “I desperately need something to read.” Although her new job offers plenty of athletic gear, her access to endless free books is a perk of the past. I happily led her to our study and began pulling titles off the shelves.

"Here," I said, "Try the new Tana French. It’s not out yet but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.” (Don’t worry, faithful readers, I’ll review it closer to the September pub date.) She started to crack it open but I was already piling more on top of it. Here’s The Weight of Blood, one of my favorite debut novels this past year. And you’ll like this old Anita Shreve. What about We Were Liars? You’ll probably like Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments. And of course there’s always my never-fail recommends, A Fine Balance and American Wife…”

Flooded, she smiled and thanked me. The next morning, I found her sitting on our couch with my copy of Courtney Robertson’s I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends. Sheepishly I thought, who am I to shove books on a seasoned reader?

Yes, as booksellers it’s our job to point people towards the right titles. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from a fair number of years in this business, it’s that most people gravitate towards the right books on their own. All we can do is point in a general direction and hope for the best. It’s similar to fixing up friends on a blind date. Sometimes it can go very wrong. Like the time I suggested my mom read American Wife. While she greatly enjoyed the book, I completely regretted the recommendation after she expressed her shock over a particular sex scene. It just wasn’t worth my embarrassment.

It’s in my nature to recommend books, so I’ll keep doing it. But I’ll also continue to keep my expectations low. I suspect my friend will get around to reading at least one or two of the books I tossed at her, but ultimately, I was just happy to see her curled up with a book I enjoyed. Who cares how it fell into her hands? I just led her towards the options and the connection was made, just like any good friendship.



Summer is All About BIG Books

When we sat down to brainstorm our June newsletter, Roger, James, and I wanted to make a list of good summer reading. The question we struggled with was, what is summer reading about? Is it romance? Fluffy comedy? Edge-of-your-seat suspense? Biography? Could be any of those, depending on the individual. But what we all agreed on was that the most memorable summer reading is the big, fat, book you lug everywhere with you for months on end. During the year, we get busy with work, school, and family and most people are lucky to make it through a 200 pager. In the summer, things lighten up. We go on vacation. We sit by the pool. There are more hours of sun in the day. And therefore, we can read more. So it makes sense to set a summer goal of reading a big honkin’ tome that you’ve been meaning to conquer for ages.

The Pillars of the EarthOur list includes some new titles that have already left an indelible mark on the collective readership (1Q84, The Art of Fielding), a fantasy classic (Game of Thrones), sweeping historical fiction (The Crimson Petal and the White), a panoramic novel set in India and one of my personal favorites of all time (A Fine Balance), and more. But honestly, the list is just a jumping off point. What I’d really like to recommend is more specific to you as an individual and where you are in your life at this moment. Because I guarantee that if you pick out a huge book to tackle, you will always remember that the summer of 2012 was that year you had your house remodeled and you spent the hours between choosing door hardware and window casings escaping all your anxieties between the pages of The Pillars of the Earth. (Somehow a house remodel seems less stressful compared to building the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known.)

What I don’t recommend is any huge self-help book that’s going to make you feel inadequate. Save that for fall or even for January New Year’s resolutions. This is summer, after all. Be with your family, enjoy the outdoors, and by all means, laugh and cry with an epic novel that you can brag about conquering for the rest of the year.


A Sense of Place

Island BooksOne of the best reasons to read something new is to live the life you aren’t living, and there’s no better way to escape than into a book with a strong sense of place. We all want to find new adventures and explore uncharted lands, and through the eyes of great writers we have the opportunity to transport ourselves through space and time.  Our bookstore has such a sense of place, and while browsing around in here it’s hard to wish we were anywhere else. The good news is we can have it all—we can be both here and elsewhere between the pages of some of our favorite books. We’d like to send you on an armchair vacation too, so we put together this list of ten books that will take you on a memorable trip to…

Rules of Civility1) 1938 Post-Depression New York City: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year-old named Katey Kontent. Armed with her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future. A love letter to a great American city at the end of the Depression, readers will quickly fall for this book’s sparkling atmosphere as Towles evokes the ghosts of Fitzgerald, Capote, and McCarthy.

Wolf Willow2) Southern Saskatchewan frontier, Canada, early 1900s: Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner: Wallace Stegner weaves together fiction and nonfiction, history and impressions, childhood remembrance and adult reflections in this unusual portrait of his boyhood. Set in Cypress Hills in southern Saskatchewan, where Stegner’s family homesteaded from 1914 to 1920, Wolf Willow brings to life both the pioneer community and the magnificent landscape that surrounds it.

Anthill3) Alabama wildland: Anthill by E.O. Wilson: This autobiographical novel follows the thrilling adventures of a modern-day Huck Finn, whose improbable love of the “strange, beautiful, and elegant” world of ants ends up transforming his own life and the citizens of Nokobee County. Battling both snakes bites and cynical relatives who just don’t understand his consuming fascination with the outdoors, Raff explores the pristine beauty of the Nokobee wildland.

The Poisonwood Bible4)   1960s Belgian Congo: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn5)  1830s Mississippi river: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn paints an unforgettable picture of Mississippi frontier life, and combines picturesque adventure with challenging satire. This is the story of a teenaged misfit who floats on a raft down the Mississippi River with an escaping slave, Jim. In the course of their perilous journey, Huck and Jim meet adventure, danger, and a cast of characters who are sometimes menacing and often hilarious.

Snow Falling on Cedars6) 1950s San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: In 1954 a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, and a Japanese American named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder.  Rich memories of a land desired, loved, and lost, and a charmed love affair between a white boy and the Japanese girl who grew up to become Kabuo’s wife, hang over the ensuing trial. San Piedro is haunted by the memory of what happened to its Japanese residents during World War II, when an entire community was sent into exile while its neighbors watched. 


Caleb's Crossing7) 1660s Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks: Growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans, Bethia is restless and often slips away to explore the island’s glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship. Bethia’s minister father takes on the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb goes on to study at Harvard. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb’s crossing of cultures.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil8) 1980s Savannah, Georgia: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt: Was it murder or self-defense?  For nearly a decade, a shooting and its aftermath in Savannah’s grandest mansion reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares.  John Berendt’s suspenseful and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction.  Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.

A Fine Balance9) 1970s Mumbai, India: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers—a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village—will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, this novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India.

The Tender Bar10)  1980s Manhasset, Long Island: The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer: A moving, vividly told memoir full of heart, drama, and comic timing. J .R. Moehringer grew up without his father and instead turned to the bar on the corner, a grand old New York saloon that was a sanctuary for all types of men-cops and poets, actors and lawyers, gamblers and stumblebums. The flamboyant characters along the bar tended him, and provided a kind of fatherhood by committee. When the time came for J.R. to leave home, the bar became a way station—from his entrance to Yale; to his tragic romance with a woman out of his league; to his stint as a copy boy at the New York Times. Through it all, the bar offered shelter from failure and a constant, beloved place to call home.


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