Message in a Bottle
A Place to Visit and Something to Hold

This past summer I finally got around to reading Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin’s award-winning novel from the mid-’80s. It takes the form of an anthropological treatise on the civilization that will replace ours once we’ve finished screwing up the planet, and the book is pretty well unmatched in the way it fleshes out an entire culture—the society she depicts is as complete and convincing as any real one you could study in the here and now.

The Kesh people aren’t perfect, but Le Guin’s vision of them is certainly Utopian, and one of the most remarkable things about the book is how positive and productive their relationship is with the landscape in which they live. Despite the far-future setting, Always Coming Home is very much a novel of place, and it’s impossible to think of it without visualizing the valleys of northern California.

Thing is, I will always associate the book with the south of France. I was fortunate enough to read it on vacation, so for me the Kesh reside in what was once America and also exist on a Mediterranean beach. Lucky Kesh, I know. Somehow the act of carrying that book, taking it in and out of my bag, and squinting at it through the sun etched it permanently in my mind. I may forget the details of what happens in the narrative, but I know I’ll forever remember where and when I read it.

This is one of the unsung powers a book possesses, the way it can capture memories not only of the story that it tells, but of the circumstances experienced by the reader who turns its pages. It’s the physical aspect of the process that enables this, or so science suggests. I became convinced of this myself back when I was taking notes in class. It was helpful not because I had them to look at later, but because the very act of jotting them down made facts stick. What was true about writing is just as true about reading.

Scientific American ran an article last year that summarized several studies, quoting Abigail Sellen of Microsoft Research Cambridge in England and co-author of The Myth of the Paperless Office: "The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realized … I don’t think e-book manufacturers have thought enough about how you might visualize where you are in a book." Not to disparage e-reading, but I simply don’t have the same relationship with a text when I’m flicking a screen.

Whether it’s currently being read or not, there’s a tangibility to a book that establishes a presence. My Le Guin novel still gives off a whiff of sunscreen and has sand in the binding, for example. Even without that, though, having the spine in sight on a shelf, peripherally or otherwise, triggers something in me. Every time I glance at it, I’m transported back to the beach and relive my summer vacation in some small way.

I still remember my ninth birthday party, when I sat at my kitchen table and a classmate named Greg gave me a beautifully illustrated hardcover copy of Treasure Island. I leafed through it then, but the nineteenth-century language didn’t grab me at the time, and I didn’t read it until much later. I lived with it for years, though, boxing and unboxing it when my family moved to a new house. Turned out to be a great story, of course—I’m sure Long John Silver would live in my imagination whatever my book looked like or however I acquired it. But I guarantee that I wouldn’t remember the details of that party, and probably wouldn’t remember poor Greg at all, if my Treasure Island weren’t a real thing that existed in the real world.

I download ebooks from time to time and certainly will do so more and more often as the years go by, but for the most part I want to have the same connection to my reading as the Kesh do to their homeland. A book is even better when it’s held in the hand as well as in the mind.


A version of this piece was first published at

Nobody’s Perfect

We spend most of our time here talking about how great Island Books is (and it is) but I thought it might be interesting for a change to talk about a couple of our (rare) failures, times when we couldn’t seem to find what a customer wanted.

Marni, whose customer service ethos was first formed when she worked at Nordstrom’s, legendary for its willingness to go above and beyond, had the following experience a few days ago: A 15-year old boy needing to do a book report came into the store asking for a recommendation. His only parameter was that the book had to be exactly 250 pages long because his teacher requires “at least” 250 pages and he didn’t want to read one page more than that. “Wounds my soul,” she said when she recounted the events, and as someone who has five books lined up for every book he reads, I felt the same way.

The mission, then, was to convert this reluctant reader. He said he liked war stories, so she first tried Tim O’Brien’s brilliant Vietnam novel The Things They Carried. It’s gripping and accessible, a perfect introduction to adult literature for a teen, but in this case, no dice. Turns out to have just 246 pages, and he insisted there was no flexibility on that point.

Marni offered dramas, adventure books both real and fictional, magical fantasy in the vein of Harry Potter, which he claimed to have loved. She pulled out classics that centered around disenchanted youth—no good. She presented sports memoirs and tales, she pushed surefire page-turners from John Grisham and Dan Brown. ALL KINDS OF NOPE. Everything was either mildly interesting but had too many pages, or he would look at the cover and drop it like it was contaminated. I’d have given up long before she did, I must say. Maybe tell him just to take one of those too-long books and slip him the Cliffs Notes for it on the side. Though she persisted, all her efforts were for naught, and the kid went home empty-handed.

I was there on the field a few days earlier when we dropped another ball a customer was trying to throw our way. A man came into the children’s section looking for a gift for a five-year-old girl’s birthday. When Roger asked if he could help, the guy said, “I don’t think so. I’ve been looking around and you have stuff for two-year-olds and for eight-year-olds, but nothing in between.” Roger tried to steer him in the right direction, and I, thinking myself something of an expert by virtue of having a four-year-old girl of my own, did the same.


Seemed easy enough—we have books galore for five-year-olds, whether they’re already reading on their own or still being read to. Olivia? Madeline? Amelia Bedelia? Ramona? Pippi Longstocking? Heck, the list of powerful princess picture books we ran in our last eNewsletter could by itself cover a year’s worth of kindergarten parties. And aside from books we have a slew of stuffed animals and puppets, Papo figurines, LEGO Friends sets, craft kits, and games such as Hisss and Zingo, all smash hits with the younger set. Nonetheless, the guy walked out right past me, remarking on how ridiculous it was that we didn’t have ANYTHING appropriate. It cast a pall over the whole afternoon.

I suppose I’m being disingenuous when I refer to these incidents as failures, because when looking back on them and talking them over with my colleagues, I feel as if we did our job the best we could. I’m not by any means saying we’re perfect—maybe someday I’ll write a post on all the actual mistakes we make (and they are legion). But in these situations I think we were dealing with people who didn’t want to find what they said they were looking for. The backstory to the book report search was clear to Marni: “I knew what was going on—the boredom and disaffection was so staged and studied. It was necessary he convey his immediate disdain at being made to do something he didn’t want to do, and nothing I suggested was going to change his mind!” I still have a little bit of teenager in me, so I sympathize. As for the gift-seeking guy, well, I don’t know what his problem was. It’s one thing not to like what you’re shown, but it’s another to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

I guess I was taken aback by these two encounters for a couple of reasons. First because they really are rare. It’s vastly more common for people on both sides of the counter to leave our store feeling better than they did when they came in. Customers discover books that make them happy, and we get to have a hand in creating that joy. It’s invigorating for me every time it happens, and it happens a hundred times a day.

The other reason is that when I think of bookstores, I think of a phrase coined by playwright Christopher Marlowe: “infinite riches in a little room.” It’s almost impossible for me to walk into a bookshop, ours or anyone’s, without spotting something I’m interested in. I may not find exactly what I’m looking for—or know exactly what I’m looking for—every time, but I consider that a temporary setback. There’s always another shelf to peruse and another treasure to unearth when my mood changes. Some people (a very few, thankfully) are just looking for disappointment and insist on finding it, even at the end of the rainbow.


What We Read When We Think About Reading

I spent the other morning with my daughter at I-LABS, the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. She’d been tapped to be part of a study to see how typical preschoolers socialize and share, so I got to sit in an adjacent room watching on closed circuit TV while she and another little girl played games, pushed buttons, and divvied up little plastic bears under the guidance of a researcher. The other girl’s dad and I were equally tense about whether our kids would be generous with their bears (they were—whew) and equally fascinated by the mundane protocols of the experiment. Was it significant that the girls rode the swings in unison? Were the grad students aware that some four-year-olds will fork over an infinite number of blue bears but cling like misers to one precious purple bear? We didn’t understand everything that went on, but we were happy our girls could add to the sum of human knowledge in a small way. And they were happy that they got to keep their bears.

At home alone that afternoon, having dropped my daughter off at preschool, I subjected myself to a scientific experiment of my own. By reading a book, naturally. I didn’t have to be attached to an EEG machine or anything, I just sat in my usual chair and turned the pages as I usually do. There was a whole lot going on between my eyes and my brain, though, and I was aware of it all because of Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read.

Mendelsund is a graphic designer by trade, one of the leaders in his field. His area of expertise is the creation of book jackets, so he’s the perfect person to tackle the topic of how we visualize our favorite characters and the actions they perform. Every book lover is familiar with the vivid pictures that words can create in the mind’s eye, but Mendelsund gently coaxes us to examine what we’re really “seeing,” pointing out the tentative, fragmentary nature of these images. A mere word or two is all we need to create something that’s in one way as solid and memorable as our own living room, and in another as insubstantial and mutable as smoke. This balance between specificity and vagueness, an effect that requires a participation between author and reader that’s unlike any other artistic relationship, is well worth examining, especially with Mendelsund as the teacher. He’s light and amusing, suggestive rather than authoritative, and can be quite profound. Some of what he says will affirm what you already know, but much of it will alter your perspective radically.

The best thing about What We See When We Read is how simply its creator gets his points across. His prose is honed, direct, and clear. And as a designer, of course he’d make his book beautiful and illustrate it heavily. Sometimes he’s merely being decorative, but on a dozen or more occasions, he produces an image that plays off the text and snaps a complex idea into your head in an instant. Understanding comes so suddenly and perfectly that laughter and applause seem the only appropriate responses.

If you’ve ever wondered about how differently two people respond to the same story, or mentally cast a movie version of your favorite novel, or thought about reading at all, do yourself a favor and give Mendelsund a try. At the very least, you’ll look at the next book you read in a whole new light.


Counting Down to The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell


Sometimes I like to read fiction that features carefully created, fully rounded characters who respond convincingly to realistic situations. Sometimes I’m looking for plot-driven adventure set in exotic locales. Sometimes I want a historical setting that attends uncannily to detail and brings the past to vivid life. Sometimes I need a spectacular vision of the future that brings to mind possibilities I’ve never imagined before. Sometimes I just want to hear someone play with language and ideas in a way that makes beautiful music to my innner ear. And very rarely, I get all those things I want from a single author.

David Mitchell has made a career out of defying expectations and continually raising the literary bar, producing a series of novels that are nearly unmatched for their brilliance and complexity, yet are somehow accessible and thoroughly entertaining. He’s done all this while maintaining an engaging, humble public profile, as evidenced in this online interview.

On Tuesday, September 2nd, he’ll be releasing The Bone Clocks, which by all accounts is his best yet. It tells of Holly Sykes, first encountered as a fifteen-year-old runaway, whose long, eventful life is witnessed and narrated by several other characters, including a student, a journalist, and a psychiatrist. The action “takes place in Cambridge, Gravesend, Switzerland, Manhattan, the Hudson Valley, Toronto, Vancouver, Russia, Australia, Colombia, Shanghai, Iraq, Iceland, and several places you will look for in vain on a map. The central narrative begins 30 years ago, in 1984, and ends nearly 30 years hence, in 2043, but once you factor in various digressions and backstories, the time span of the book covers some 7,000 years.” Sounds like too much to handle, but Mitchell’s always had a remarkable ability to take the world in all its sprawling confusion and prove how interconnected it really is. I trust his talent implicitly.

How much have I been looking forward to The Bone Clocks? Well, the shop is closed on Monday for Labor Day, but if it weren’t, I’d convince the boss to stay open until midnight so we could start selling it the instant it’s legally possible to do so. As it is, I suggest you turn up first thing on Tuesday morning to claim a copy. Don’t look for me to ring you up, though. I’ll be in the back room reading mine.


Bookselling in France


No, this isn’t one of the display tables at Island Books, it’s one from an independent, approximately Island Books-sized shop in Perpignan, France. It’s mostly filled with work by French writers, but you’ll also see some pretty recognizable Anglophone authors there, including Hillary Clinton, represented by her memoir Le temps des décisions, and E.L. James, famed for her erotic romance Cinquante nuances plus sombre. Sharp-eyed readers will also notice a tall pile of copies of La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert, a hit novel by Swiss author Joël Dicker that was a staff pick for Cindy earlier in the summer.

All paperbacks, you’ll note, but that doesn’t mean these are last year’s releases just making their way into a cheaper format. Hardcovers are rare in France, and pretty much all books sold here start out in paperback. This is a practice that harkens back to the long-gone days when readers had all their books bound in leather. You’d buy the stitched-together paper pages of a book, then take them to a binder to have an elegant set of covers attached. Not only was your book permanently protected, it looked like all the others on your shelves, as if your library consisted of a single giant encyclopedia set. 

imageEven when people stopped binding their own books, French publishers stuck with simple paper covers that looked more like title pages—no pictures at all, just the name of the book and its author. You’ll still see lots of these in stores today, especially on works that are supposed to be serious and important. Historian and economist Thomas Piketty’s surprise international bestseller Le capital au XXIe siècle, visible just right of center above, is a perfect example. 

While all the books are in paperback, that doesn’t mean they’re priced the same. The latest from Donna Tartt, Le chardonneret, costs right around 24 Euros, about as much as it goes for in US dollars in hardcover, while older books may find their way into pocket editions for as little as six or seven Euros. But when you’ve chosen which book you want, there’s no sense trying to bargain-shop in different stores. The 1981 Lang Law, named after the Culture Minister who presided over its passing, states that once a publisher has determined a price and printed it on a book, no retailer may discount from that price by more than five percent. Sounds anti-consumer at first blush, but it allows for a thriving and diverse bookselling community that ultimately benefits readers.

French bookshops may fear cost-cutting global conglomerates, but they aren’t otherwise afraid of internationalism. Fiction in French stores is usually separated into littérature française and littérature étrangère. In larger stores you may even see separate sections for Asian fiction, South American fiction, European fiction, and so on. It’s an interesting distinction, which doesn’t seem intended to ghettoize foreign writing but to highlight it. Makes sense, given that probably half of the novels you’ll see in a French shop originate outside of the country. Reading in translation is normal there in a way that it isn’t quite in the US, however much of a cultural melting pot we otherwise are. Another distinction is made on the books themselves—the latest from, say, Ian McEwan will be identified as being traduit de l’anglais, but something by Louise Erdrich is correctly said to be traduit de l’américain. “Translated from English” isn’t the same as “translated from American,” after all.

French readers (or American tourists) who don’t want to settle for translations, great as they may be, are still in luck. Almost all shops have at least a small section of books in English, as pictured below.

Mostly bestsellers with a few classics sprinkled in for good measure, as you can see. On the top shelf in this photo you can spot another Island Books favorite, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, along with a new discovery, Douglas Kennedy’s Five Days. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s an American writer who’s a huge star in France—his books top the charts and have been made into movies multiple times. Inexplicably, he has yet to match that success in his homeland, but it’s not too late to get that ball rolling. Be the first on your block to give him a try.

Even more inexplicable is the presence in this photo of not one, not two, but THREE copies of Plays by Henry Arthur Jones. He was a 19th-century (melo)dramatist who is remembered today only because of Oscar Wilde, who once said, “There are three rules for writing plays. The first rule is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones; the second and third rules are the same.” I was tempted to take one home as a souvenir, but I decided to save room in my suitcase for something else.

See you in the States in September!



In my last post I announced that I was going on vacation, but I didn’t say exactly where I was going. Now that I’m out of the shop and far from the reach of your envy, I feel safe enough to reveal that I’m writing to you now from the sunny south of France. I’m living la vie en rose, I’ll admit, but not every minute. Paris may be a model of grace and style, but getting through its airport is no promenade dans le jardin. And hey, I had to leave the beach to write this post, didn’t I? 

Well, I guess I didn’t have to, but I wouldn’t want to leave my readers hanging in my absence. The possibility that spending a little time during my trip talking about books might allow me to write the whole thing off on my taxes never entered my mind, I swear. So let’s get to it.

imageimageI already mentioned my favorite travel writing, but I made sure to pack a few fat novels in my carry-on. There’s no better opportunity than a long plane ride to indulge in a big book—as the altimeter climbs, so does the page count. For international flavor I chose something by Julio Cortazar, a well-traveled author born in Brussels, raised in Buenos Aires, and made famous in Paris, where his classic Hopscotch is set. To remind me of the Pacific Northwest I brought the epic Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. 

imageSome non-fiction also made the cut. Sure, I can study history in real life by visiting the ancient châteaux that are strewn across the landscape here like fried chicken franchises back home, but a little book learnin’ never hurt anybody. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Danubia, Simon Winder’s idiosyncratic account of the Habsburgs, the royal family who controlled wide swaths of Europe from the middle ages to the end of the first world war. They were a bizarre and confusing bunch, but Winder straightens out their story with ease. He never does get around to explaining why he doesn’t call them the HaPsburgs, though, which is how I remember the name of their house being spelled. Better yet, he makes their saga endlessly amusing, favoring the personal over the political and small, telling details instead of broad summary. I love that approach, and I love that he isn’t afraid to digress. For example, he riffs at one point about zoo architecture and a guinea pig village, and those three or four pages alone were worth the price of the book for me.

What else? Well, later on I’ll make a report or two about my observations regarding bookselling and book reading in Europe, but right now I hear the Mediterranean calling my name. Partly because of that, but also because August is a traditionally sleepy time where publishing is concerned, we’re going to take it pretty easy on the blog for the next month. The store will be open in real life as usual, but expect no more than one message from us per week via the web. You’re probably too busy with vacations of your own—at least we hope you are—to bother reading our yammerings more often than that. 

Enjoy the rest of your summer! I know I will.


Traveling Companions

imageFor the first time in years I’m actually taking a substantial vacation, one that involves airplanes and oceans and everything. Which also means that for the first time in years I can read travel books without experiencing crippling jealousy. Some stay-at-homers may find them inspirational, but those readers are clearly better, less petty human beings than I. The last thing I want to read when I’m trapped in the daily grind without hope of escape is a story about someone finding thrills or (God forbid) enlightenment in an exotic land.

The only exceptions to this rule are books featuring writers raising families in foreign countries. Examples include Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr; The Moon, Come to Earth, about Philip Graham’s experiences in Lisbon; and the seminal Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. (Big miss, Doerr–should’ve called your book Quattro Stagioni Sulla Luna if you wanted to complete the trifecta.) I give these books a pass because the authors aren’t flitting about the globe for their own selfish purposes, they’re trying to immunize their offspring against a plague of Happy Meals and teach them what a globe really looks like. I can tolerate descriptions of lazy, late-night meals in piazzas and effortless visits to picturesque ruins by telling myself, “Think of the children.” Who knows, I may someday raise bouncing bilingual babies of my own by following the good example of Messrs. Doerr, Graham, and Gopnik.


When my tickets are in hand and I can look at the rest of the world without envy, the time arrives to forget about formula and diapers and take up a tale or two by a solo sojourner. Even then I’m not looking for traditional vacation fare. I don’t want anything too breezy or yoga-centric, I want something weighty that will provide ballast on my trip. I want to learn something about a place that I wouldn’t find out on my own, to pick up details that the natives might not know, and understand how the author’s mind processes it all. Which shouldn’t preclude a healthy dose of fun, mind you. A tall order, I realize.

imageThe classic travelogue that fits this bill is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. In her glamorous youth she was noted for her scandalous, decade-long affair with the much older H.G. Wells, but by the time she came to write her magnum opus she’d become a major-league intellectual and activist with a reputation that more than matched his. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon relates her travels throughout the Balkans in the period shortly before World War II, but it also covers about a thousand years of regional history. It’s still the book that offers the most insight into the confusing ethnic and cultural strife that continues to splinter what used to be known as Yugoslavia. And it’s entertaining, believe it or not.

What’s most wonderful about the book is the way West can digress so fruitfully in unexpected directions. Everything she sees and everyone she meets can inspire marvelous asides that other writers would build whole novels on. Like this bit, which is so good that I can recite it from memory:

Remember, when the nuns tell you to beware of the deceptions of men who make love to you, that the mind of man is on the whole less tortuous when he is love-making than at any other time. It is when he speaks of governments and armies that he utters strange and dangerous nonsense to please the bats at the back of his soul. This is all to your disadvantage, for in love-making you might meet him with lies of equal force, but there are few repartees the female governed can make to the male governors.

imageThe only other travel writer I can think of who matches up against West’s literary firepower is Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011 at the age of 96, but not before completing a legendary trilogy. As an eighteen-year-old he walked across Europe, roaming for almost two full years from the English Channel all the way to what he romantically insisted on calling Constantinople, and recording the journey in three parts. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were published during his middle years, and the adventure ended just a few months ago in the posthumously-published The Broken Road. Fermor was an amazing figure (if you don’t believe me, just read the biography by Artemis Cooper; his military exploits alone will astonish you) and his writing style is as charismatic as he was in person.

Hmm. Between Rebecca and Paddy, I’m up to 2,100 pages. Guess I’ll need a bigger suitcase.


This piece was first published at

Mio Suocero

Mother-in-laws get a bad rap, but father-in-laws don’t get any attention at all, it seems to me. Having done what I can to rectify the former, it’s time to do something about the latter.

My father-in-law was born into a large Italian-American family in Brooklyn, New York. How large? Large enough that his accounts of family history quickly descend into confusion for the listener who has to keep track of all the members, a problem that’s compounded by the fact that they all shared the same handful of first names. They grew Tonys in bunches like grapes, it seems.

imageimageBrooklyn in those days was a fairly tough place, and kids didn’t venture outside their own neighborhoods very often. If your last name ended in a vowel and you had to go down the Irish block, you ran. The atmosphere of the time is still present in the fiction of Gilbert Sorrentino, especially his novel Steelwork, and also in Vincent Papaleo’s Italian Stories.

Before my future father-in-law was out of his teens, Uncle Sam came calling and summoned him to Korea. He reported late for duty because of an honest mix-up about the date (timeliness is not his strong suit, a trait he passed down to his daughter, much to my chagrin) and missed the boat across the Pacific. Instead of getting tossed into the stockade, though, he was handed a plane ticket. Even with a cushy stopover in Hawaii, he made it to Asia ahead of his unit and got a better assignment as a result. I don’t know if this was the first time his bad luck turned to good because someone wanted to do him a favor, but I know it wasn’t the last. He brings that out in people.

imageimageHe describes Korea as cold, which corroborates David Halberstam’s attestation in the title of his history of the Korean War. My father-in-law didn’t see action, fortunately for all of us, but his time there wasn’t the most pleasant experience. He did get to go to Japan on leave, where he and some other GI buddies bumped into Don Newcombe and other members of the world champion 1955 Dodgers in the Ginza market. They were in town to play an exhibition against the Tokyo Giants and gave the soldiers free tickets. Roger Kahn tells the story of that Dodgers team in one of the greatest baseball books ever written, The Boys of Summer. Ironically enough, even though my father-in-law grew up in Brooklyn, he’s a lifelong Yankee fan—his greatest flaw, in my mind. Blame Joe DiMaggio, I guess.

Maybe this international experience was the thing that broadened the horizons of that kid from the neighborhood. Back in New York after his tour of duty ended, my father-in-law expanded his cultural horizons and started hanging out in Manhattan more often. He saw artists in their early days who are now legends, including such musicians as Thelonious Monk and Bob Dylan, who’d only recently stopped calling himself Robert Zimmerman. It was around then that my father-in-law took up the family trade and became a teacher—there are multiple educators and principals among his siblings and more distant relations.

As most of the rest of his generation pulled up stakes in Brooklyn and headed for suburban Long Island, he looked farther east and took a civilian job with the Department of Defense. He started teaching the children of commanders and generals at NATO headquarters in Paris, where in his off hours he roared down the Champs-Élysées in a 1964 Mustang. Paris took some adjustment (he inadvertently sabotaged a relationship with a Francophile colleague when he told her how dirty and smelly he found the city) but adjust he did. He saw Edith Piaf sing in one of her final concerts and palled around with Eddy Mitchell, even passing himself off as the pop star’s manager at one point.

When NATO HQ moved north to Brussels, my father-in-law moved with it, but not before meeting and marrying the young Frenchwoman from Algeria who would become my mother-in-law. She gave birth to a daughter (my one-day wife) in Paris and two weeks later found herself in the house in the Belgian countryside where she and my father-in-law still live today. In the intervening decades, they raised a family there while he taught literally thousands of kids and coached countless others, regularly winning championships in soccer and other sports. Those kids grew up to be generals, commanders, and accomplished civilians themselves, and just recently dozens of them, some newly graduated and others gray-haired with grandchildren, flew in from all over the world to participate in a soccer tournament founded in tribute to my father-in-law.

He finally retired just last week after 52 years in the same job and will soon be enjoying a well-deserved vacation in the south of France. As you may know, the French celebrate their independence every summer much like we Americans do, with a lavish display of fireworks, but not on the Fourth of July. Their big party takes place on Bastille Day, July 14th, which happens to be my father-in-law’s birthday. A running joke in his family has it that the spectacular display is held in his honor, and as far as I’m concerned, it is.


The Goal Is In Sight

World Cup fever has cooled a bit around here since the US team bowed out of the tournament, but the temperature is still high. How could it not be after this year’s display? It looks like the record for total goals scored will fall before all is said and done, and we’ve seen some spectacular play along the way. In particular, Germany’s shellacking of Brazil was a match that will be talked about for at least the next fifty years. The finals take place on Sunday at noon, and even if we can’t watch, you can bet we’ll be checking the score from behind the counter. Oh, the sacrifices we make for you, our beloved customers.

As we’ve mentioned before, though, the World Cup of Literature has been even more fun for us to follow, and that competition too is winding up. Thirty-two works of fiction from around the globe have been facing off against each other for weeks now, and a winner, the so-called best book in the world, will be announced on Monday.

There have been some uncanny parallels between the action on the field and in the books, including a shocking upset of Spain. The defending champs on the pitch got crushed by the Netherlands, and pre-tournament favorite Your Face Tomorrow by Spaniard Javier Marías likewise got bounced in the first round, taken out by Australian Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch. The United States and Belgium had critical second-round matchups on turf and also on the shelf; apparently we Americans are better writers than soccer players, because we lost the first but won the second.

Before the WCL comes to an end, let’s take a closer look at the most successful books so far, the ones that made it all the way to the semifinals.

imageAusterlitz by W. G. Sebald (Germany): A novel that takes the form of a thirty-year conversation unfolding in train stations and travelers’ stops across England and Europe. Jacques Austerlitz is an orphan who came to England alone in the summer of 1939 via the Kindertransport, rescued from a Jewish family. He relates to an unnamed friend his lifelong efforts to discover the truth about himself and his family, details obscured by the veil of atrocity that the Nazis dropped across the continent during the war years. Almost any subject is fodder for Austerlitz’s intellectual investigation—railway architecture, military fortifications; insects, plants, and animals; the constellations; works of art; the strange contents of the museum of a veterinary school; a small circus; and the three capital cities that loom over the book, London, Paris, and Prague. Austerlitz was a favorite of the judges throughout the tournament, and also of the fans who followed it—each win was endorsed by more than ninety percent of those who voted.

imageBy Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño (Chile): Chile’s soccer team had a remarkable run through the World Cup, and so did this novel, which recounts the tale of a poor boy who wanted to be a poet, but ends up a half-hearted Jesuit priest. Father Urrutia is offered a tour of Europe by agents of Opus Dei (to study “the disintegration of the churches,” a journey into realms of the surreal); and ensnared by this plum, he is next assigned the secret, never-to-be-disclosed job of teaching the dictator Pinochet all about Marxism, so the junta generals can know their enemy. One WCL judge called it “razor sharp in its examination of centuries of abuse of power, corruption, and apathy in Chile’s sordid history; the strange bedfellows that such corruption creates; and the oh-so-human tendency towards looking the other way, towards self-preservation, towards going with the flow. It’s an indictment against the world laid out in Bolaño’s trademark style, wherein he leads you right to the lurking horror but doesn’t quite let you see it in full. And then, all of a sudden, you see it in all its horrible glory, know it better than you thought you wanted to, to the point that you will doubt humanity’s capacity for good. Ever. This was Bolaño’s power, and it’s on full display in this short book. A masterpiece if ever there were one.”

Cheerless but darkly comic, By Night in Chile went up against Austerlitz in a semifinal that felt more like a final. Either book could easily be crowned the most important international fiction of this millennium, but in this match Chile got the win.

imageThe Pale King by David Foster Wallace (USA): Like the US soccer team, this book is a bit of a hodgepodge that’s nonetheless powerful and full of potential. Wallace left the work unfinished upon his death in 2008, and it was restructured and assembled by an editor before it was published on April 15, Tax Day, 2011. The judge who moved it into the quarterfinals says this about it: “On its face The Pale King is about the Internal Revenue Service and a bureaucratic snafu that creates a case of mistaken identity between two IRS employees named David F. Wallace. The characters orbit a back-story involving the mismanagement of tax returns and an IRS regional processing center’s bungled cover-up…. But do not read The Pale King if you are looking for a novel with a strong plot. What you will find are fully drawn characters who feel alive and true, with their various neuroses, skin conditions, glandular disorders, and hardship enduring the consistent drudgery of the Service. These people (mostly men) are boring. Their work is boring. And DFW’s slow, granular descriptions, use of repetition and bureaucrat-speak make the tedium of their lives palpable. The labyrinthine IRS procedures and protocols depicted are absurd. But for these ‘anti-actors’ adherence to them is a test of will, even heroic. Weak will is failure. And the writing is great: immediate, but not urgent; technical, but accessible; overly descriptive, but entertaining. All of the opposing elements combine to create something extraordinary, like eating something that is both sweet and salty.”

imageFaces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico): Something of a breath of fresh air entered the semis when this book made the cut. It’s a debut novel, the only one by a woman and in fact the only one by a living author still in the mix. The publisher describes it thus: “A young mother in Mexico City, captive to a past that both overwhelms and liberates her, and a house she cannot abandon nor fully occupy, writes a novel of her days as a translator living in New York. A young translator, adrift in Harlem, is desperate to translate and publish the works of Gilberto Owen, an obscure Mexican poet who lived in Harlem during the 1920s, and whose ghostly presence haunts her in the city’s subways. And Gilberto Owen, dying in Philadelphia in the 1950s, convinced he is slowly disappearing, recalls his heyday decades before, his friendships with Nella Larsen, Louis Zukofsky, and Federico Garcia Lorca, and the young woman in a red coat he saw in the windows of passing trains. As the voices of the narrators overlap and merge, they drift into one single stream, an elegiac evocation of love and loss.”

North America fared much better in the WCL than in the real World Cup, pushing two teams into the final four. Pity that they both couldn’t go on, but in the end Faces in the Crowd knocked out The Pale King.

So the final is set: Mexico vs. Chile in a Spanish-language battle for all the marbles. Tune in Monday to the Three Percent blog to see who wins.


Impractical Cooking, Practical History

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Most people who know me well would find it very funny that I’m writing about cookbooks today, given that almost all of my contact with food comes after it’s prepared and plated. I’m no good in the kitchen, so my usual contribution to dinner is saying, “Whatever you want to eat is fine with me.” I do appreciate fine culinary artistry, though, and I also appreciate the books that explain how to produce it.

For instance, I really like Keepers by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion. It contains well over a hundred recipes that take flavor, health, and practicality into equal account. Not dumbed-down, but still accessible for beginners, it’s exactly the sort of book a family chef will actually use again and again. Keepers follows in the footsteps of several other great books that prove you can work with real ingredients just about as conveniently and quickly as you can with the pre-packaged stuff that gets passed off as food—and get far better results, of course. I’m thinking of Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach, Fast Food My Way by Jacques Pepin, Homemade with Love by Jennifer Perillo, The Family Cooks by Laurie David, not to mention the various releases in the Everyday Food line from Martha Stewart and the Family Cookbooks from America’s Test Kitchen.

imageExcellent, sensible volumes all, and I benefit from them enormously on the rare occasions that I open one. But I’m helplessly drawn to another kind of cookbook entirely. My real fondness is for books that I’ll never smudge, spill upon, or even use at all, most likely. The latest example is The Bloomsbury Cookbook by Jans Ondaatje Rolls, which catalogs the life, art, and meals of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and the other geniuses of their circle. Rolls draws on letters, diaries, and other writing from the period to find out what and how the authors were eating, and in so doing has filled in some gaps in our understanding of a very glamorous, very specific cultural milieu in England in the 1920s.

Take this quotation she shares from A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf describes lunch at a men’s college:

[O]n this occasion [it] began with soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream, save that it was branded here and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe. After that came the partridges, but if this suggests a couple of bald, brown birds on a plate you are mistaken. The partridges, many and various, came with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard; their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent. And no sooner had the roast and its retinue been done with than the silent servingman, the Beadle himself perhaps in a milder manifestation, set before us, wreathed in napkins, a confection which rose all sugar from the waves. To call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult. Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled.

Rolls has uncovered through her research period recipes for all these menu items; it’s essential background information that infuses the passage with even more vibrancy than Woolf, for all her brilliance, could alone. Rolls has also filled her book with paintings, drawings, and photographs by the likes of Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington, making it as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the mouth, a combination of cultural history, cookery, and art.

That’s a perfect description of an even more sumptuous lust-object for the foodiest bibliophiles, Historic Heston. It’s named after superchef Heston Blumenthal, whose Fat Duck restaurant has been voted the best in the world. His efforts to bring his patrons the latest in gastronomical wonders have led to an exploration of the culinary past. He’s resuscitated dishes from antiquity that include Eggs in Verjuice, Meat Fruit, and Hash of Snails; rejuvenated them with hypermodern techniques such as sous-vide heating; and is serving them in his various establishments around the world. Daring diners may attempt to recreate Blumenthal’s recipes at home, but most will content themselves to savor them, and what they say about our ancestors, on the page.

Maybe this sort of thing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure tastes good to me. Typical histories are concerned with out-of-the-ordinary events, but cookbooks are just the opposite; they thrive on the commonplace, the repeatable, and the mundane, the stuff of daily life. As such, Blumenthal’s book creates an intimate connection to the past that simply isn’t present in other kinds of writing. Without his deep dive through the archives in search of the humdrum and domestic, some of the texture of our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents’ experience on earth would be lost. Admit it: you feel a tiny bit closer to ancient Mesopotamia when you imagine someone holding the clay tablet that is the world’s oldest cookbook.

In thinking about the importance of culinary history, I realize that the humbler cookbooks I mentioned above are vital documents of the here and now. Good thing for the historians of the future that I’m keeping mine in such pristine condition.



Motherhood Illustrated

There’s a rather hardboiled piece of fiction making the rounds again after forty years. Recently released in a new edition by Phaidon Press, it features a cold-hearted protagonist who’s more interested in smoking and brawling than in the love of a good woman. Did I mention that it’s a picture book for kids?

imageIt’s called No Kiss for Mother and it’s by one of the titans of children’s literature, Tomi Ungerer, author of Crictor and dozens of other hardy perennials. Originally published in 1973, No Kiss for Mother stars Piper, the school-aged son in a somewhat dysfunctional family of cats. Dad is detached, mom is doting but ineffectual, and Piper himself is a real hooligan. Hating to get up in the morning, he demolishes his alarm clock. He puts spiders in his teacher’s purse and pours glue on the girls in his class, anything to get kicked out before it’s discovered that he hasn’t done his homework. Despite all this, his mother calls him “Honey Pie” and wants nothing more than to shower him with affection, which he rudely and repeatedly rejects.

imageHe seems a hopeless case, particularly when a fight leads to a badly injured ear. When his sobbing mother rushes to his side and he rebuffs her yet again, her fear and frustration make her snap. Instead of a kiss, she gives him a solid wallop. Finally she’s speaking a language Piper can understand. He apologizes to her for being such a monster with a bouquet of flowers and agrees to be nicer in the future. But she still doesn’t get to kiss him.

In 2014 this is shocking stuff, and the re-release actually carries a label calling it a “controversial classic.” The current publishing (and parenting) powers that be generally believe that showing bad behavior is to be avoided so that it won’t be imitated by young readers. As such, the warning is probably warranted, but I don’t think there’s much danger in this case. It’s pretty clear that no one in this book is to be emulated, and it may well be a good thing for kids to see that even grown-up cats aren’t perfect all the time.

imageMore contemporary maternal manners can be found in a pair of picture books written by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by Barbara McClintock. The first is Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary, which tells of two young girls who share a big house. In their pinafores and Mary Janes, the two lead parallel lives, Mary with her human family and the mouse with her murine one. Each has been taught to mistrust the other species, but when they spot each other through a hole in the wall, they become friends at a distance, keeping an eye on each other’s progress as they grow up. Eventually, now clad in bell bottoms and beads, they go their separate ways. Years later, living in a different big house, their two modern daughters enact the same ritual of discovery and shy smiles, but this time the results are different. Young Maria and young Mouse Mouse bravely approach each other at bedtime for a hearty shared “Good Night!” through the heating grate. It’s a simple, lovely story on the surface that also sends a very subtle message about overcoming prejudice and achieving independence.

imageThe sequel, Where’s Mommy?, once again features Maria and Mouse Mouse, still living in the same big house. As night falls and they get ready for bed, they want to be tucked in, but can’t find their mothers. They separately search room by room, one above and one below, to no avail. Their baby siblings are no help, and neither are their fathers, who don’t seem in the least bit worried about the missing moms. Stealing into the darkening garden, the girls almost trip over each other as they burst into the shed and find … Mary and mother mouse having a pleasant chat. The girls are delighted to find their mothers, and even more so to find that their mothers are friends. Everyone heads back inside for bedtime stories about humans, mice, and friendship across generations. Very sweet, and again accompanied by a subtle lesson. The girls realize that it’s OK for their moms to have lives that aren’t focused on their kids every single minute of the day, and also that their moms have been tacitly aware of their daughters’ interspecies acquaintance without feeling the need to intrude on it. There’s a very sophisticated dynamic portrayed here very delicately.

It’s no slight to Donofrio’s writing to say that much of this is transmitted through McClintock’s illustrations. The detail in her work is exquisite, and because of it her characters are utter individuals who occupy a completely convincing environment. Her books will be lasting portraits of their times as much as Ungerer’s are of his.



First Page Perfection

Are you the type to fall in love at first sight? I’m not, but I do it sometimes anyway. Mostly with books. What makes it happen? Well, shapely plots and well-fleshed characters can draw me in slowly, but it’s playful, expressive language that forges an instant connection.

Like when I picked up a copy of Brian Doyle’s The Plover in the store the other day. I started leafing through it to see what it was about, read the first two paragraphs, and then stopped. Not to put it back, but to go find anything else I could that he had written. That brief exposure alone was enough to tell me that he and I were going to be spending an awful lot of time together. I brought home my pile of books, ran through the rest of The Plover, and kept going with the rest of his work. The spark we had most definitely turned into a flame.

Not to say that everything’s perfect between us. As charming as he is, as ingratiating and observant and celebratory of the vast diversity of life in all its wonderful and terrible aspects, he can be a little too relentless about it. The wit, the cute remarks, the sheer depth of feeling—now and again you want to ask him (politely) to just shut up. Not forever, but for a little while. Time apart is good in a relationship, I think, and only makes it stronger. Doyle and I aren’t done yet.

Of course, not every book that hits my heart hard and fast becomes a longtime companion. I’m thinking now of a whirlwind romance I had recently with Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell. We met in the YA section, of all places, and I don’t mind admitting that the cover, darker and moodier than most of the candy-colored stuff around it, was what first attracted me. I was truly smitten by the opening line, though: “On the morning of its first birthday, a baby was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel.”

How do we know that it’s a special occasion for this anonymous orphaned infant with “hair the color of lightning?” Well, “because of the red rosette pinned to her front, which read, 1!” She is soon rescued by a scholar, and since it is a “scholar’s job to notice things,” he correctly points out that “the child is either one year old or she has come first in a competition. I believe babies are rarely keen participants in competitive sport. Shall we therefore assume it is the former?” Reader, I swooned and took Rooftoppers back to my place immediately.

It didn’t last, I’m sorry to say. Rundell’s sparkling prose doesn’t flag, but the plot peters out partway through and the whole thing comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying end. I’ll always have fond feelings for it, though, and if Rundell and I run into each other again in the stacks I’ll be happy to see her there and hear what she has to say. You never know, we may both have grown a little and pick up right where we left off. And even if we don’t, I won’t chalk up what went on between us as a failure. If nothing else, it served as a reminder that you never know where, when, or how a real literary relationship will start.

As such, I’m keeping my eyes open. Just now I spotted an elegant spine on the science shelf. It turned out to belong to a gorgeous little number called Things That Are, a collection of essays about the natural world by a debut author named Amy Leach. I opened it randomly, and the first thing I read was this: “In the seventeenth century, his holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish.” I ask you, how can you not fall in love with that?


This piece was first published at

The World Cup of Literature


The din of South African vuvuzelas has barely died away, yet here it is again—the World Cup. For the next month the finest soccer teams in the world will meet on Brazilian pitches, eliminating each other one by one until a final champion is crowned. As always, it promises to be a fascinating pageant, whether or not you’re a follower of the Beautiful Game. Whenever the whole globe decides to take part in something, it’s worth paying attention.

imageimageTrue soccer fans can fill the downtime between matches with some excellent new books, including the sumptuously illustrated 1000 Football Shirts and Eight World Cups, George Vecsey’s personal history of a lifetime covering the sport. But even those not athletically inclined have a way to to show their international spirit and get in on the action.

The crafty folks at Three Percent, an online resource built to promote translated literature, have cooked up a World Cup of their own. They’ve chosen a representative book from each one of the 32 nations taking the field in Brazil and matched them against each other. As the real teams do battle, judges will read the books and determine winners, passing the best along to the following rounds. By the time the national squads have booted, tackled, and sweated their way down to a single victor, the judges of the World Cup of Literature will have also chosen the best book on the planet.

Is it a little ridiculous to pit books against each other this way? Of course. Is the process subject to the whims and foibles of individual taste? Obviously. Is the whole idea that a single book can be “the best” inherently flawed? Absolutely. But is it fun? I say yes. It’s a great opportunity to expose yourself to fiction from the far corners of the world and root for authors, however arbitrarily. Maybe you love their books, maybe you just love the cuisine of their homelands. Doesn’t matter.

The first-round matchups:

A diverse array of titles, all contemporary and selected to reflect the current literary scene, which is much more interesting in my mind than trying to weigh so-called classics against each other. Moby-Dick vs. Middlemarch would be a whole ‘nother kind of tournament.

Some of the favorites here correlate with the heavy favorites in the real World Cup—Spain, Germany, and Brazil probably have equal chances to win on grass or on the page. There’s more likelihood of a breakthrough for the underdog nations in the World Cup of Lit, though. You have to think the US will be better represented by David Foster Wallace than by its 23-member, Landon Donovanless national soccer squad. (What were you thinking, Coach Klinsmann?) The smaller nations have a fighting chance because of the high quality of their entries, but also because of the capricious nature of the judging. You can’t completely trust those decision makers. I know because I am one.

That’s right, yours truly will be presiding over the final first-round match between Germany and Ghana. I have my own thoughts about Sebald and Laing, but FIFA, soccer’s governing body, has a long tradition of corruption that I’m honor-bound to uphold, so your opinions carry just as much weight as mine, assuming you back them properly. There’s plenty of time between now and June 26th, when the winner of my match is declared, to ply me with inducements of all kinds. I’m partial to dark chocolate and Belgian beer, but a simple cash bribe is always acceptable.

Unmarked bills, please.



The Sixth of June 70 Years On


The tides were right, but weather on the evening of the 4th was poor—winds and seas were high, and clouds were low—so elaborate plans that had been readied for the morning of the 5th were scotched. A lengthy postponement seemed inevitable, but meteorologists predicted that conditions would clear at least partially on the following day. So the go-ahead was given and operations began in the pre-dawn hours on the 6th. By the end of that June day in 1944, nearly 160,000 men had crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy in what is still the largest seaborne invasion ever mounted.

It’s the 70th anniversary of D-Day, one of those moments on which history hinges. Had the weather stayed foul and the assault delayed, preparations for it might have been detected in advance. Or if the Germans had access to the latest weather reports over the Atlantic, they might not have sent so many of their commanders, including Field Marshall Rommel, on temporary leave from the theater. Anything might have caused the invasion to fail, and a failed invasion might have demoralized the Allies and changed the course of the war. With its success, though, an eventual Axis defeat became inevitable.

Innumerable individual destinies were altered that day as well. Over 5000 soldiers died and another 10,000 or so were wounded. Among the survivors was celebrated combat photographer Robert Capa, who stepped off one of the first landing craft to approach the shore with a camera instead of a gun. Most of the film he exposed was ruined in the developing process, but a few pictures miraculously survived, the only visual documents of the initial wave of the invasion. One of those images graces the cover of Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day (also available in an illustrated edition) and has become famous the world over. Less well known is the identity of the young GI it blurrily depicts as he struggles toward land, up to his chin in the surf, carrying pounds of equipment and an immeasurable burden of fear. He is Mercer Islander Huston Riley.

PFC Riley was seriously wounded on Omaha Beach that day, but after recuperating he returned to service and was wounded again while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Altogether he received three Purple Hearts before coming home to the Northwest to run a business and raise a family. In 2009 an effort was made to name the body of water between Luther Burbank Park and the Roanoke Inn after him, but regulators rejected the proposal on the grounds that geographical features in Washington state cannot be named for living people or those deceased less than five years. Huston Riley died in 2011 at the age of 90, and I can only assume that the state board will be asked to revisit the issue in 2016.

imageD-Day is one of those subjects that we all know about, at least in broad strokes, and can’t fail to be impressed by. I know I was when I was in school, and my son has lately developed his own enthusiasm for learning about it. The most recent addition to his research shelf is D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy, 1944 by military historian Rick Atkinson, an adaptation for younger readers of a much-lauded, much-longer survey of WWII. The factual overview will stick with my son, but the emotional impact of what he learns will likely fade, as it did for me through the years. To continue to look back in awe he’ll have to deepen his understanding by studying the experiences of real human characters such as the esteemed Mr. Riley. It’s only when we recognize the individuals involved and hear their personal stories that we truly appreciate the scope, the sacrifice, and the significance of that day.


Mere Realism Doesn’t Thrill Me At All

As I sit in the wood-paneled study atop my ivory tower, hemmed in on all sides by esoteric works of fiction, I begin to wonder how I came to this place. On one wall are slim volumes that refract and reflect each other like a Borgesian hall of mirrors, and on another are fat epics of Pynchonian complexity overstuffed with arcane and useless learning. In between are multi-authored novels in verse that make myth out of the Golden Age of Hollywood; plays that shift their characters achronologically through times past, present, and future; histories that masquerade as novels masquerading as histories; unfinished fragments by sickly Latin American geniuses; and futuristic stories told by narrators so unreliable that they call into question my existence as well as theirs.

Why must everything I read be so damn tricksy, and why am I not satisfied with simple tales straightforwardly told? After much self-examination I’ve come to realize that the foundation of the baroque structure that is my literary taste was laid quite early, and not by my own hands. The reader I am today is built entirely on two books given to me when I was barely out of the crib. It’s not my fault, in other words. I blame my parents.

They couldn’t have known the damage they were causing, of course. What harm could lie behind the shiny binding of a Little Golden Book? There were clues, though. What normal story can’t wait for the first page to start, instead beginning right on the cover? The Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover plunges you immediately into the maelstrom. Before it’s even opened, the grinning title Muppet is already greeting his soon-to-be acolytes with a friendly “Hello, everybodeee!” Before you’ve had a chance to take in the title page, Grover is already commenting on it as “very dull.” And things get slipperier from there.

Suddenly shocked by his recollection of the title, Grover fears what he’ll encounter at the end of the book and begs the reader not to go on: “Oh, I am so scared of monsters!” He constructs ever more intricate barricades of rope, wood, brick, and steel, but even a toddler knows that these are only ink on paper, no obstacles to a a determined page turner bent on reaching the dramatic conclusion. The pleas grow more impassioned and the suspense ratchets up until the ultimate twist arrives—the dreaded monster is Grover himself. Relief and chagrin ensue for the protagonist, along with a heady swirl of ideas for at least one young lap-bound listener. The fourth wall shattered! Identity destabilized! The once-transparent page made glaringly visible! The step from sunny Sesame Street to the darkness of Barth’s metafictional funhouse was a short one.

Perhaps I could have turned from that path if not for P.D. Eastman. His Go, Dog. Go! fatally fed my appetite for complexity and experimentation in prose. Even the name of his book is elaborately punctuated, for the love of Melville! What chance did I have? G,D.G! begins with deceptive simplicity, as a reportorial account: “Dog. / Big Dog. / Little Dog. / Big dogs and little dogs.” But the facts accumulate exponentially as dogs of all hues parade dizzyingly past, until a blooming, buzzing, hyperreal confusion is achieved. The dogs play and work, swim and ski, drive cars and fly zeppelins (are those goggles and scarves steampunk prototypes?). They ride roller coasters and wander through labyrinths. Yes, labyrinths. This is no mere picture book, but a phantasmagorical encyclopedia, the Ulysses of its kind.

David Markson described his own work as “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like,” but he might well have been talking about Eastman’s. Instead of a single storyline there’s a series of continually interrupted scenes written in different styles and registers. Two dogs meet cute and enact a near-Beckettian playlet about a displeasing hat. Optimistic dogs enjoy the sun; pessimistic ones complain about the heat. The driving dogs stop for repairs. A new hat fails to impress. Three dogs have a party on a boat at night that’s so sad and comic it would make Padgett Powell laugh and Charles Portis cry. The cars approach a mysterious tree. The hats grow grander and the rejections more stinging. And then the threads join in a spectacular, colorful, climactic snarl, a two-page spread that rivals Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in imaginative detail. What a dog party!

After that, the deluge. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, they say, so drink deep or taste not the postmodern spring. I slaked my unholy thirst by swigging from The Phantom Tollbooth, and then things got blurry for a while. I woke up in a pile of Barthelme shorts and it was like I didn’t care any more. My habit got so bad at one point that I could get through a brick of Gaddis in a weekend. I tried to wean myself off the stuff by switching to the Russians, but Tolstoy and Chekhov led to Bely and Bulgakov and I was right back where I started.

It’s not so bad here in the Library of Babel, really. It’s not crowded, for one thing, so I don’t have to fight for first dibs on that new novel by the obscure Romanian with the unpronounceable name. Still, I sometimes wish my folks had made different choices for me. Dick and Jane, perhaps? Then maybe the straight dope would be enough for me.


This piece was first published at

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