Message in a Bottle
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

Books on a Plane

Warning: This post contains a few minor spoilers for The Art of Fielding and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

The Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games

On a recent cross-country flight, I looked around and realized that everyone was reading either The Hunger Games or Catching Fire. The phenomenon reminded me of a trip to Hawaii in 2010 when everyone and their mother by the pool had their nose in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or The Girl Who Played With Fire. Basically, the phenomenon confirmed something I already knew: we read like lemmings. There’s no better advertisement than the sight of fifteen noses in one place buried in the same book.

(A note on the images: 1) You can buy eBooks directly from Island Books, so don’t forget to support the little guys! and 2) that is not me in the photo. That’s teen celeb Miley Cyrus, who tweeted this picture of herself, thus influencing thousands of tweens to pick up the book.)

In the age of e-books, other people’s book choices are not always obvious. But I think it’s fair to assume that for every five copies of the same book on one flight, there’s at least one more of the same title on someone’s e-reader. Now to be fair, both at the pool and on a plane are places where many people who never have time or energy to read a book get their chance. So I knew I was looking at a different cross-section of readers than the regulars at Island Books. I suspect many of them bought their copy of The Hunger Games at the airport.

The Art of FieldingSince everyone was eagerly lapping up Katniss’s adventures, when I sat down and opened my copy of The Art of Fielding, I was surprised when the man next to me leaned over and asked what my book was about. “Well,” I said, “it’s sort of about baseball, but mainly about a young man’s coming-of-age at a small college in the Midwest and the relationships that define him.”

"Oh," said the man. "You’re reading a baseball book?"

"Maybe I oversimplified," I went on. "It’s not exactly about baseball. Everything basically revolves around this one scene. The protagonist, Henry, is the most promising baseball player the school has ever seen and is on his way to the major leagues. But one day he hits a ball that knocks his roommate, Owen, unconscious, and everything supposedly derails from there for all the major characters. I’m not that far into it yet, but supposedly the whole story pivots on one little event."

"That sounds like A Prayer for Owen Meany,” the man said. Of course in that book, a baseball hits someone hard enough to kill them, not just knock them unconscious, but nevertheless, in both stories that one swing of the bat changes everyone’s destiny.

"It does share that kind of a pivotal moment," I agreed. "And Harbach’s style reminds me of John Irving too. He makes literary references and approaches the meaning-of-life questions without being sappy."

"Maybe I’ll read it next," he said, "If I ever find time." He turned back to his copy of The Hunger Games.

"That’s a great book too."

"I’m reading it to keep up with my daughter. She’s obsessed."

"Ah."

We fell silent and drifted back to our books. Over the next three hours, I read deeper and deeper into The Art of Fielding, following the course of the characters’ lives after that one pivotal event. Henry loses his confidence and starts fumbling his games in front of the scouts, the president of the university falls in love with Owen after visiting him in the hospital and they embark on a dangerous affair, and the president’s daughter ends up in a love triangle with Henry and his mentor. Lives appear to crumble, but a new era begins, where each character is able to move forward from what they once were and find a new and better path in life.

We landed and I bent the page to save my place. I had almost finished, but not quite. I squeezed into the aisle feeling as if I’d eaten a satisfying, but lonely, literary meal. It seemed like everyone around me was comparing notes on The Hunger Games. Then, just a few aisles before first class, I saw it. The blue cover with thick white letters, nestled under the arm of an older man with distinguished gray hair and bifocals hanging from a chain around his neck.

"You’re reading The Art of Fielding?” I asked, perhaps a little to excitedly. I held up my copy.

"Indeed," he said, breaking out in a grin. "I’m almost finished. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I haven’t enjoyed a first novel so much since The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.”

"Oh, I like this one better than Edgar. And I never read books about baseball. I really like it so far. I already read The Hunger Games and was feeling left out until I saw your book.”

We beamed at each other like long-lost friends. There is nothing quite like discovering a kindred spirit enjoying a book at the same time as you’re reading it.

I walked into the terminal feeling like I liked The Art of Fielding even more than when I was enjoying it alone.

—Miriam

Hungry for The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games Trilogy

Who’s with me in eagerly anticipating the release of The Hunger Games movie coming March 2012? When I first read the dystopian trilogy about a girl who volunteers to take her sister’s place in a televised fight to the death, I was obsessed with it. With up-and-coming star Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and a supporting cast including Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, and Lenny Kravitz, the producers seem to be on the right track for bringing the bestselling book to life.

The movie studios are always trying to capitalize on books everyone has been talking about, but my standards are high. I don’t want them messing up a book I loved. Take for instance Water for Elephants, which starred Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson (an unlikely pair). I loved that book too and found the movie to be a letdown.

The Hunger GamesThen we have The Help, currently in theaters starring Emma Stone. Another book I loved even though I was prepared to disparage it because of all the hype. It deserved the hype, thoughit really was that good, and the movie was too. Although a little slow at times, the acting was excellent and the essence of the film remained true to the book and captured its upbeat spirit.

So here we are, waiting for what could be the next coming of the Twilight smash. When I see this recently released photo of Lawrence as Katniss I can’t help myself, I’m excited. If the film is even remotely as pulse-pounding as the book, we’re all in for a treat, and I confess I’m even tempted to read The Hunger Games again. Prepare to fight to the death to get into the movie theater.

—Miriam

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