Message in a Bottle
Yes to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tom Nissley, and Ann Patchett

In the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing a few hand-picked new books in three different categories: nonfiction, fiction, and children’s. It’s gift-giving season, after all, and there are plenty of choices. Each bookseller at Island Books has their favorite new releases, and you can browse a broader selection of our current staff picks here. Before you arrive at the store, however, let me introduce you to some of my favorite new arrivals. We’ll kick off today’s post with some notable nonfiction.

imageThe Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Yes, it’s 928 pages. But if you’re familiar with Goodwin’s work, you know that she’s going to give the complexity and scope of her subject its due. In this case, for the first decade of the 20th century, a short book just won’t cut it. Goodwin’s books are known for covering momentous events in American history through the eyes of great leaders. In The Bully Pulpit, Teddy Roosevelt and his chosen successor, William Taft, take center stage. The rupture of their relationship (culminating in the election of 1912, which Roosevelt won in a landslide after deciding to run against his protégé) had a tremendous ripple effect, both on the presswho stopped glossing over the news and became muckrakers during that timeand the publicwho received their first glimpse into the behind-the-scenes politics, thanks to the press.

The surprise here is Taft, who Americans know little of beyond the fact that he was so fat he once got stuck in a White House bathtub. Readers will almost feel sorry for him.

imageA Reader’s Book of Days by Tom Nissley: Local author, Jeopardy champion, and former Amazon books editor Nissley has been busy reading and stashing trivia in his already-too-big brain for years, and lucky for us, he’s put all of it to good use in a remarkable literary calendar of sorts. Nissley recommends you begin A Reader’s Book of Days by looking up your birthday. I did so (mine is February 10th) and learned that on that day, E.L. Konigsburg was born, Laura Ingalls Wilder died, and three bestsellersDomestic Manners of the Americans, True History of the Kelly Gang, and Just Kidsbegan brewing due to little-known and entertaining events that I won’t go into here. Nissley’s book is somewhat mind-boggling in it’s wealth of far-flung knowledge, and will easily dazzle any book lover. You can get a good sense of Tom’s charm on his blog.

Some good news for fans: Nissley will be at Island Books at 2pm on Small Business Saturday, November 30th, working as one of our staff and hand-selling some of his favorite titles. We’re looking forward to having him, and know our customers will enjoy a fresh face behind the counter! He might even be willing to sign a copy of his book…

imageThis Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett: All indie bookstore employees, customers, and supporters love Ann Patchett simply for opening her own independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville, Tennessee. But the place to know this incredibly special author and person in a one-on-one manner is within the pages of her books, and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is the book that will let you know her the best. This collection of essays, some republished from earlier points in her career and some written specifically for the book, covers far more than just her experience in marriage. From stories of her first freelance job working for Seventeen magazine (“[They] went a long way to beat any ego out of me”) to a vivid childhood memory of her father reading her a Christmas story over the phone (“…in the kind of explosion of understanding that happens sometimes in childhood, I got more and more…There was no gift that could have made me feel my father really knew me the way that story did”), nowhere is Patchett’s life more vivid. It’s not just the stories themselves that are so good, but her deep well of understanding and humanity which make the storytelling so arresting.

One theme that comes up again and again: Patchett always knew she wanted to be a writer. She reiterates that like a mantra across many of her essays. And whether Patchett realizes it or not, she’s indirectly telling us that yes, people can and do live their dream. This is not just the story of a happy marriage, it’s the story of a happy career, one we can all admire and emulate. Even better, we can reap the benefits of her generosity with the written word.

—Miriam

In Search Of ?

We’ve been doing some sophisticated computer-aided analysis here at Message in a Bottle headquarters, and we’ve determined that—wait, let me examine the precise figures…yes, they all check out—many people are reading our posts. We could even say many, many people. If we were number crunchers instead of word fiends, we might be able to tell you exactly how many, but as it is, we’re pretty satisfied with our results.

Not only do we know that we have readers, we also know how they’re finding us. Somewhat surprisingly, most of you are subscribers. That is, you regularly receive our posts via email. This is really good news as far as we’re concerned, because it means that you like what you’ve read in the past and want to read more of it, whatever it turns out to be. Insider secret: We don’t always know what kind of post you’ll be reading until a couple of hours before you read it. The deadline muse can be very inspiring.

The next largest group of readers visits the blog itself, and many of those are sent to it by the links we put on Facebook each time we make an update. Others follow the permanent link on our store’s website, and still others know that they can always go directly to http://www.mercerislandbooks.tumblr.com to see what’s new.

Now, some of you are forgetful, and you have to do a little searching to find us. We can tell, because records indicate that quite a few of you come to us only after plugging a phrase like “island books message bottle” into Google. Or into Bing, although that’s so far just a hypothetical. This is the equivalent of not knowing a street address but navigating by landmarks. “Turn left at the drugstore and look on the right for the blue house with the weather vane.” Works perfectly well, especially when you’re in your own neighborhood. We’ll leave the porch light on all night, just in case.

That covers almost everybody who visits us virtually, but the most entertaining oddities in the data pile are the singletons, the obscure search terms that directed someone to us just once. These are readers who probably didn’t know exactly what they were looking for and stumbled across one of our posts serendipitously. In some cases, it seems clear that they found something relevant when they arrived, but in others…well, who knows what they were thinking. Let’s look at some examples:

  • drugs jungle central america: I hope this wasn’t someone looking to set up an import/export business. This phrase directed the searcher to Miriam’s fine post about Ann Patchett’s most recent novel State of Wonder.
  • andorrans: I like to imagine that this word was typed into a search engine by a lonely expat from the Pyrenees looking for her kinfolk. If so, I hope she was interested to read a post about vanished nations from the days of yore.
  • fictitious worlds in one scene: Possibly related to the search above, as the natural landing page for this one was this post about realistic imaginary landscapes. Peter Cameron’s Andorra was one of the books mentioned.
  • famous friendships in literature: This led to one of my favorite Message in a Bottle posts, in which Miriam talks about her best friend since childhood and inadvertently calls her a pig. OK, not really. Charlotte and Wilbur from E.B. White’s classic novel do come up, though. 
  • donald barthelme the baby, whats the message: A confused student probably got more (and less) than he bargained for when he ran across part three of my series on books and parenthood
  • ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic: This is a quote from Stephen King that describes the novella, and I used it in this post
  • the north wind and the sun: A Wiccan practitioner? A budding meteorologist? Who knows, but whoever it was found a charming post that’s inspired by a fable from Aesop.
  • how to build a lego hot air balloon instructions: It’s not exactly a how-to, but Miriam did discuss the topic here
  • judas hanged himself: This searcher was undoubtedly surprised to click onto a piece about truthfulness in journalism.
  • how to draw catching fire symbol: One or the other of two posts must have been the destination for this searcher, but neither of them says anything about draftsmanship.

And then there were those searches that will remain forever cryptic:

  • i will have less sader [sic] days ahead: Hopefully true for the person who initiated a brief encounter with us. Feel better, anonymous visitor.
  • cool teen boy picking up something on the ground: Very specific and very strange. Maybe it led here?
  • sweater for book lovers: My mom used to buy patterns from McCall’s, but to my knowledge, I’ve never mentioned it on the blog.
  • french wife swap: Don’t want to dig too deeply here.
  • تالممةعي

Yes, you read that last one correctly. If you read Arabic, that is. And if you do, maybe you can explain what it means and how it led someone to Message in a Bottle. Until we figure that out, I’ll just say marhaban to you, mysterious guest from far away. And the same goes to all of you readers out there.

—James

Jungle Adventures

In his praise for The Lost City of Z, Malcolm Gladwell’s “central question of our age” addresses the ongoing fascination with the jungle. He wants to know, “In the battle between man and a hostile environment, who wins?” What I’m wondering is, what is this thing we have about the jungle? From the popularity of films like Jurassic Park, Avatar, and Tarzan to books like State of Wonder, The Lost City of Z, and The Jungle Book, we obviously find the alternative to civilization compelling. Or maybe it’s just that writers who excel at descriptive prose jump at the opportunity to create their own vision of a rainforest.

State of WonderOne writer who recently tackled the jungle challenge is Ann Patchett. As Janet Maslin said in her review in The New York Times, “Perhaps the temptations of the Amazon are overwhelming for any writer with such a gift for animating her surroundings.” I’m close to finishing State of Wonder and hooked by Patchett’s vivid descriptions, so I think she was up to the task. The story is about a physician/pharmaceutical researcher who goes to the Amazon to find out what caused her colleague’s mysterious death. He had been sent by their employer to chart the progress of a study of a “miracle drug” and never returned. The doctor running the endeavor, a powerful and elusive personality, has ceased to share information with her source of funding and provides only the sketchiest details of the how the deceased met his end. She reminds me of Sigourney Weaver’s character in Avatar. The biggest character, however, is the jungle itself, rife with bloodsucking insects, miracle plants, and killer anacondas. I’ve been a fan of Patchett’s since Bel Canto, and I’m enjoying Wonder. Fingers crossed that the end delivers when I get to it this weekend. And even if the ending isn’t perfect, I’ve had a satisfactory trip into the jungle during the time I’ve spent reading it.

The Lost City of ZBefore State of Wonder, the last “into the jungle” book I read was The Lost City of Z. If you prefer nonfiction, Z is the way to go. Author David Grann decided to retrace the steps of the legendary explorer Percy Fawcett, who went into the Amazon in 1925 in search of a legendary civilization and was never seen or heard from again. Fawcett was an odd character and ambitious enough to set off into the dangers of the jungle with his own son. His mission received plenty of notoriety before he even disappeared.

"What happened to Percy Fawcett and his expedition?" became the question of generations, with countless groups following him into the jungle attempting to find either him or the elusive city. David Grann comes up with some plausible explanations, and that mystery is what kept me reading further and further into the jungle.

If you read to seek out adventure from the safety of your own couch, both books are a good choice. Going back to Gladwell’s question about who wins the battle, human or jungle, I’m going to posit that usually the jungle wins. With that in mind, I can’t say I’m planning my own adventure to the Amazon any time soon. I am happy to report, however, that nowadays when I close my eyes I can practically smell the rainforest and visualize the wildlife. If a writer does the job right, you’ll still sort of get to go theresafely—for the mere cost of a book. Not too shabby.

—Miriam

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, Ann Patchett. Here is the spontaneous speech the bestselling author gave recently at the grand opening of her new bookstore, and we hope you find it as inspiring as we do. Patchett’s latest, State of Wonder, has been a huge hit, but that isn’t all she’s been up to lately. Her passion for independent bookstores turned into a personal fight to keep our kind of small business alive. Parnassus Books in Nashville is her new store and you can read more about it in the New York Times and on NPR.

—Miriam

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