Message in a Bottle
Ma Belle-Mère d’Algérie

imageMy mother-in-law is staying with us this week, which sounds like I’m setting up a rather stale joke. I’m not coming on all Henny Youngman, though—I very much enjoy her visits. First of all, they make my wife happy, and second, my mother-in-law is no mean chef. If you haven’t tried her couscous or her lapin à la bière et aux pruneaux, you’re missing out, let me tell you. More than that, listening to her talk about her life is better than watching whatever premium cable TV show currently has you on the edge of your seat.

She grew up in Blida, Algeria, part of a nuclear family that we’d all recognize, though her own mother was born into a polygamous household with sixteen siblings. My mother-in-law thus has more cousins and other relations than I can count, maybe more than a hundred. She describes what sounds like a fairly idyllic childhood, playing at the foot of the fruit trees her father planted in their courtyard and outrunning the boys down the street in her bare feet. She had pets, too, of the usual kind. You know, like a baby gazelle and a fennec fox. She also kept a lamb at one point, although I don’t think it followed her to school.

imageShe did go to school, which wasn’t a universal practice for girls in that place at that time. Her father was by all accounts a thoughtful, gentle man, and if he wasn’t completely immune to the sexism around him, he must have had only the mildest case, because he treated his daughter with respect and afforded her as much opportunity as he did her brothers. Not all were so lucky, as the Francophone writer Assia Djebar has spent her career illustrating. She’s a near-exact contemporary of my mother-in-law, born in a neighboring community, who in novels such as Fantasia (trans. by Dorothy S. Blair) and Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (trans. by Marjolijn de Jager) has created a panorama of the female experience in North Africa from the nineteenth century to the present day. Djebar is unhesitatingly frank about the constraints religion imposes on women, but her characters manage to live fully despite them.

Islam was the predominant influence on Algeria in my mother-in-law’s youth, but not the only one. The country was in those years a fascinating cultural mélange. Expatriates fondly remember conveniences unavailable anywhere else: “Muslim shops closed on Fridays, Jewish ones on Saturdays, and Christian ones on Sundays, so you could always shop for what you needed any day of the week.” This blend, of course, was in large part an artificial construct. France had controlled Algeria since the 1830s and officially declared it an integral part of the French nation. In theory this meant that Algerian residents could become French citizens, but in practice most were considered insufficiently Europeanized and treated as colonial subjects. Simmering tensions boiled over into open war by 1954.

The government in Paris struggled to maintain the status quo as Algerians fought against the French army and among each other for different kinds of independence. Those of French descent (often called pieds-noirs, or “black feet”) battled against Muslim traditionalists in what was effectively a simultaneous revolution and civil war. As a teenager, my mother-in-law rode along with ill-equipped French soldiers into dangerous territory, providing basic medical care to indigent villagers, particularly women. You might know that modern hospitals administer antibiotic eyedrops to babies immediately after birth, but did you know that in the field the juice from a sliced lemon can serve as a substitute? It did in the late 1950s in Algeria, anyway.

imageTerrorism and torture characterized the conflict throughout the decade that it lasted, as can be seen in The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo, a harrowing fictional film that achieves a documentary-like reality. The unsavory manner in which the war was prosecuted contributed to its deep unpopularity on the other side of the Mediterranean. The half a million French soldiers dispatched to what were euphemistically called “operations in North Africa” felt ignored and unsupported, much as American troops in Vietnam did. Even afterwards, few wanted to discuss the war, but in the thick of the fight, one novel appeared that addressed it directly. In 1957, Daniel Anselme published On Leave, about three soldiers who return briefly to a home that doesn’t want them. It sank like a stone and wasn’t rediscovered until it was translated in 2014 by David Bellos. His introduction to the new edition expertly contextualizes the story and establishes Anselme’s brilliance. It’s doubtful that any novel has more closely examined the experience of men unmoored by war. To think that he wrote it before history made its judgment and before the battle’s end was even in sight is remarkable.

The war did end when the new President of France, Charles de Gaulle, unexpectedly agreed to grant Algeria its independence. Over one million pieds-noirs fled to the motherland that many of them had never seen, and so did my mother-in-law. When she emigrated in 1961, officials tried to convince her to change her Arabic-sounding first name to something more conventionally French, but she refused. For a while she cleaned offices at night, and later she found work in the office of Andre Malraux, Minister of Culture, where she and the other admins met Jackie Kennedy at the height of her fame. “Feet the size of boats” was the catty consensus.

Around this time she met the man she married, a Catholic Italian-American kid from Brooklyn who had helped Uncle Sam with his police action in Korea and then used the G.I. Bill to become a teacher. His family thought he was crazy to leave New York and move overseas, but he’s glad he did and so am I. If he hadn’t, not only would he never have met his wife, but neither would I have met mine. So we both have a great deal to be thankful for.

How to express that gratitude? A bouquet of flowers may be a more typical token, but that’s not really me. I’m a man of books and words, so these few paragraphs will have to suffice. Merci, ma belle-mère. I’m glad you’re here.


Italian Experiments

"They’re coming from every direction. The barbarians, that is." So opens Alessandro Baricco’s book-length essay on "the mutation of culture" that’s happening all around us. His complaint sounds overly familiar at first—the inhabitants of the 21st century are slaves to technology who have no sense of history, they value spectacle over substance and quantity over quality, etc.—but don’t write him off as a reactionary crank just yet. His book’s title, The Barbarians, is actually rather tongue-in-cheek. 

imageBaricco does think that the world we’re entering has been fundamentally altered, subjected to changes “radical and profound,” but he’s not condemning it, just trying to understand: “[P]erhaps those we call barbarians are actually a new species who have gills behind their ears and have decided to live underwater. Obviously to us, with our pathetic little lungs, it all looks, from the outside, like an imminent apocalypse. Where they breathe, we die. And when we see our children gaze longingly at the water, we fear for them and blindly lash out at the only thing we can see—namely, the shadow of a barbarian horde on its way.”

These happy mutants swim in every sea, of course, but Baricco chooses to sound the depths of just a few in his attempt to explain how their new world works. Being Italian, he starts with the topic of wine. It’s consumed in more places by more people than ever before, but the most popular varietals are less sophisticated than they once were. As accessibility increases and complexity of flavor declines, is the total amount of pleasure produced going up or going down? Are things getting better or worse or just … different?

The case of books is similar, and one that Baricco, who’s a highbrow novelist when he’s not penning polemics, can’t neglect:

The idea that the world of books is currently besieged by some of the barbarian hordes is so widespread nowadays that it has almost become a cliché. In its popularized form, this can be said to rest on two pillars: 1) people don’t read anymore; 2) the people who make books these days think only of profits, and make them. Put this way, it’s paradoxical. Because if number 1) were true, then clearly number 2) wouldn’t be the case. So there’s something in need of clarification.

Yes, quality books seem harder and harder to find, but that’s only because they’re camouflaged amid the gargantuan landscape of publishing. More great books are being written than ever, but even more of everything else is, too. Baricco crystalizes a contention I’ve long held, that most mainstream bestseller lists are filled with “books that aren’t books … books that wouldn’t exist if they didn’t start from a point outside the world of books. These are books that have had films based on them, novels written by television personalities, stories set down on paper by people famous for one thing or another.” But he concedes that this is “not at all vulgar.” The so-called barbarians are perfectly entitled to reject a book that relates exclusively to book culture, instead gravitating toward one that’s a “small piece of a much broader mosaic.”

Perhaps the best evidence that Baricco isn’t fighting a rear-guard action, covering our retreat into the past, is that his essay was originally serialized on the website of an Italian newspaper. As installments appeared there, comment and discussion ensued that Baricco incorporated in subsequent chapters. The book wouldn’t exist in the form that it does without the beneficial assistance of water-breathing mutants, a fact that he acknowledges. If The Barbarians doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace our modern age, at least it honestly reflects it. While reading it, I felt at times that I was in the ivory tower and at others that I was one of the slavering hordes outside, which is exactly the kind of sympathetic experience I want from an essayist (and from his translator, Stephen Sartarelli, whom it would be barbaric not to mention).

coverInspired by Baricco’s example, I next sampled the work of another backward-looking, forward-thinking Italian writer. Back in the 1960s, Nanni Balestrini composed Tristano, a contemporary take on the legendary love story of Tristan and Isolde. It’s a short novel of ten chapters, each comprising twenty paragraphs. Balestrini’s notion when he wrote it was that the paragraphs within a given chapter could be read in any order, such that there would be limitless paths a reader could take through the story. Nearly fifty years later, his dream has been realized. Every copy of Tristano (translated by Mike Harakis) that’s now being published is unique. Mine begins with some picturesque scene painting: “There are vistas of olive groves vineyards lush valleys and mountain peaks at every turn.” Yours might start differently: “He lit a cigarette and threw the match out of the car window.” Even the covers are distinct, numbered separately as they’re printed. In all, there are 109,027,350,432,000 possible permutations to be read, far more than the number of stars in our galaxy.

Obviously, this is experimental writing that’s not for every taste, but I find the project fascinating. Balestrini conceived something remarkable, and half a century on, print technology made it real in a very old-fashioned way—black ink on white pages. Evanescent binary bits have helped preserve and present an ancient tale in an altogether new way. No two Tristanos are alike, and yet they’re all somehow the same inside. Has it ever been more apparent how much books and human beings have in common?


Bookstore Books


You’ve noticed, I’m sure, how something can be ignored for years and then suddenly become a media darling. Hardly anyone gave a thought to zombies since the B-movies of the 1950s, for example, and then they started shuffling into magazines and onto TV shows, first as single spies and then in stinking, decaying battalions. For whatever reason, they were having a moment.

In that respect, bookstores are like zombies. We’re brainier, more vital, and better-smelling, of course, but we’ve also become the focus of increased attention. As we all hurtle into a confusing future that comes faster every minute, shops like ours have become a symbol of sorts. Traditional, authentic, and operating on a human scale, but also engaged with the life of the mind and therefore open to novelty, freshness, and innovation—no wonder everyone is talking about us.

imageimageThe charm of the independent bookshop has been described dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the years (the platonically romantic 84, Charing Cross Road is an ur-text) but the current fashion may have begun with the publication of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in 2012. We’ve written previously about the pleasing blend of high-tech caper and paean to print that author Robin Sloan produced, should you want to take a spin through our archives. Other recent books on the topic include Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore, about a Parisian shop that stocks only masterpieces, and Deborah Meyler’s The Bookstore, which features an engaging cast of clerks who rally to support a young pregnant woman in Manhattan. More offbeat and serious stories have come from overseas of late, such as Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina out of Guatemala, about a haunting book thief, and Tahar Djaout’s The Last Summer of Reason from Algeria, in which a steadfast bookseller resists theocratic vigilantes out to suppress art and human expression.

I’d been thinking for a while that it would be a good idea to write about these and other titles, but those thoughts, like so many of mine, stayed idle and vague. Until another new book arrived, that is. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin hit the shelves this week and immediately became the poster child for everything I’ve been discussing. “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World” is the perfect motto of the bookshop at the heart of this ingratiating new novel. I’d tell you more about it, but there are at least two people better equipped than me to do so.

The first is Gabrielle Zevin herself, who’s going to be here at Island Books at 10 a.m. on Monday, April 7th. She’s on a whirlwind tour, so this will be a quick meet-and-greet; come early if you want to say hello and take home an autographed copy. The second is our own Emma Page, who is the ideal audience and mouthpiece for The Storied Life, as you’ll see below.



imageIt was a bitter Massachusetts day in early March when I was handed a copy of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and noticed that it has a very personal connection. The title character is a widower and the owner of a small independent bookstore called … Island Books. He is also a man with very particular tastes. Early in the novel this prematurely curmudgeonly bookseller grumpily informs a young publisher’s rep that he does not like “postmodernism, post-apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magical realism … literary fantasy … children’s books … debuts … poetry, or translations.” As a fan of all of those things, I wasn’t sure that A.J. and I were going to get along very well. To make matters worse, The Storied Life makes heavy use of one of my own literary pet peeves. I usually can’t stand books about books. As a bookseller and a college student studying literature, I’m always wary of becoming one-sided. Usually I want what I read to broaden my horizons, rather than just feeding me comfortable images of other bibliophiles doing what we do best.

Normally, then, I wouldn’t have even picked up Zevin’s book, which has more than just a nod or two to the reading public. But I was already pining for Seattle, so despite few indications that this was going to be my kind of story I snagged a copy for purely sentimental reasons. After devouring the entirety of Storied Life on a plane ride home from Boston I was feeling conflicted. Yes, pandering, but oh how lovely to be pandered to so effectively. I felt as though someone had opened a window into my life, changed a few names and important details and written it all up as a sweet, quirky love story. When a mysterious package abandoned in the store turns out to be a baby girl named Maya, Fikry decides he’d rather take on the challenge of raising the child than see her disappear into the foster system. Later, she ponders her unusual childhood:

Maya knows that her mother left her in Island Books. But maybe that’s what happens to all children at a certain age. Some children are left in shoe stores. And some children are left in toy stores. And some children are left in sandwich shops. And your whole life is determined by what store you get left in.

I wasn’t abandoned on the doorstep of Island Books, but know just what Maya means. Zevin tells us that “The store is fifteen Mayas wide and twenty Mayas long. She knows this because she once spent an afternoon measuring it by lying her body across the room.” I’ve never measured Island Books, but I can date my memories by how much I had to duck to enter the playhouse in Children’s, or how high the counter looked as I peered up at my parents. I know exactly how long it takes me to walk from the front counter wrapping station to Garry’s shipping desk in back on a crowded December day, and which letters of the alphabet I’ll need a step stool to shelve in Young Adult. Zevin writes that “the place Maya loves most is downstairs because downstairs is the store, and the store is the best place in the world.” I didn’t grow up above Island Books, or even on Mercer Island, but that sentence speaks to me as much as anything I’ve ever read. I’ve always known that The Bookstore is the best place in the world, and Gabrielle Zevin has confirmed that I’m not the only one who feels that way. Although I hope fate treats our own curmudgeonly shopkeeper more kindly than it does Mr. Fikry, I’m happy just knowing that our store means as much to so many as his does.


Less Is More: Watson & Kestin

Bearing in mind my inclination toward the loose, baggy monsters of literature, a friend once quoted John Barth to me as a corrective: “Much can be said for minimalism.” I’ve never found the source for that remark (though it may be a distillation of things he wrote in a thirty-year-old New York Times article), but I think of it often. If you know Barth’s massive novels by reputation, it may sound like hypocrisy, but if you’ve read him you know that he can be terse when it’s necessary. And sometimes it is.

In a dry climate, a trickle of water over the dam can bring life while a flash flood can kill. Less is more. Maybe that’s why all those movie cowboys keep their mouths mostly shut. So I’ll take a lesson from Johns Wayne and Barth, skip the digression I’d planned about how the word laconic comes from the name for ancient Sparta, and get right to the point. Which is that reading something simple and straightforward can be a bracing tonic when you’ve stuffed yourself with words. I’ve been on just that kind of cleanse this week.

imageI first prescribed myself a copy of Larry Watson’s latest, Let Him Go, which turned out to be a perfect choice. It tells the story of the Blackledges, ex-North Dakota ranchers and now town dwellers. George and Margaret have lost their grown son, and their widowed daughter-in-law has taken up and taken off with a shiftless, mean-spirited new man. A tolerable situation, except that the only Blackledge grandson has gone with them. Margaret persuades the hesitant George to head west with her into Montana to find the boy and convince his mother to return him to their care, but the new husband’s clannish family is none too eager to oblige. What starts as a test of marital bonds turns into a dangerous thriller.

Watson’s spareness with description lends the story an elemental quality. It takes place in the early 1950s, but it could as easily be set in the 19th century or in the present day. The novel is lean and hard, just like his protagonists, who exemplify that taciturn Western style I mentioned above. When they say something, they mean it:

Think this through, Margaret. What you’re aiming to do—

I’ll do. You ought to know that by now.

They’ve been through life’s trials and come out stronger for it, and they’re a completely convincing team. I can’t remember the last time I rooted for two characters as much as I did the Blackledges. Wait, I do—it was the father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Watson’s book is more realistic and relatable, and perhaps even more powerful. It’s superbly done.

imageNext up was a novel by Hesh Kestin called The Lie. It stars Dahlia Barr, a left-leaning Israeli lawyer who defends mostly Palestinian clients against accusations of terrorism. In a PR move, the government taps her to lead the committee that authorizes so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques, which she begrudgingly does, intending to put a stop to state-sanctioned torture. No sooner than she takes the job, though, her soldier son is captured by the Lebanese Hezbollah, and her most deeply felt personal and political beliefs come into conflict.

The set-up is swift, and once it gets rolling, the plot moves even more quickly than Watson’s. By the time elite commandos begin a cross-border raid, the action, like the reading, is impossible to stop. Kestin was a journalist in the region for decades as well as being a longtime member of the Israeli Defense Forces, so he really knows his stuff. His understanding of military operations would make Tom Clancy proud, and his eye for telling cultural details is absolutely authoritative. By the end of The Lie I felt as if I’d crammed a semester-long seminar on the Middle East into a single day, with plenty of cliffhangers to keep things interesting.

After a week of clipped, economical prose, I may be ready for something a little more lyrical. I still want something short and sweet that really packs a punch, so I’m thinking of giving an anthology a try. Namely, one edited by Anthony and Ben Holden entitled Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. We’ll see how hard-bitten and flinty I really am.


The Man in the Snow


A man is standing in the New England snow. He is paunchy and bald, of below-average height, wearing only unflattering white briefs. His eyes are closed. He is The Sleepwalker, a hyperrealistic statue devised by artist Tony Matelli and installed out of doors on the Wellesley College campus. He is part of, and an advertisement for, a Matelli exhibition at the college’s Davis Museum, and though the museum director, Lisa Fischman, has described him as “vulnerable and unaware against the snowy backdrop of the space around him … not naked … profoundly passive … inert, as sculpture,” he’s caused a considerable kerfuffle.

Many, perhaps even most uninitiated passers-by have at first assumed him to be a living person. A number have them have been disturbed by his presence and worse, alarmed. One student has circulated a petition citing him as “a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for many members of our campus community.” Hundreds have signed it. I’m a straight, cisgendered white guy, so I have to squint just slightly to see through the eyes of the signatories, but I do respect their view. Still, I wonder why more people aren’t first worried about the sleepwalker himself. I am, but that’s probably because he reminds me of someone.

Robert Walser was born in Biel, Switzerland in 1878 and by the early part of the 20th century had achieved some fame as a writer in the Germanophone world. Kafka and Hesse, among others, were devotees. Walser’s work was noted for its rueful comedy (as a bookseller myself, I’ve always been particularly fond of his novel The Tanners, which opens with a “young, boyish man” entering a bookshop and declaring that he’s well-suited to the work because he’s “not so foolishly honest” as he might appear) and for extolling the virtues of the flâneur. Walser, like many of his characters, best contemplated the world on foot; the first of his books translated into English was a novella entitled The Walk, in which he says that in the absence of regular strolling, “I would be dead, and my profession, which I love passionately, would be destroyed.”

Despite his accomplishments, life proved too difficult for Walser. After episodes of intense anxiety, including possible hallucinations, that began in 1929, he was institutionalized. He thrived in the sanatorium, exhibiting no symptoms and continuing to write for many years without publishing. He wrote in pencil, completing entire stories on scraps of paper no larger than a business card, using barely-legible letters only a millimeter tall. He lived this way until Christmas Day, 1956 when his body was found lying in the snow some distance from the institution. He had died of a heart attack on one of his typical lonely rambles.

Walser’s had a revival in the past decade, with much of his work finally being brought into English, largely at the behest of New Directions. Their facsimile edition of Microscripts is just one example. Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee has championed him as an unsung genius of modernism, and he significantly influenced W.G. Sebald, himself no stranger to apparently aimless wandering. As much as the work, though, it’s Walser’s death that has made him an icon.

Post-mortem photos show him as he was found in a field, alone and on his back with one outstretched arm, in a tableau that looks like a pastoral version of one of Weegee’s gangland crime scenes. It’s a sad, solitary, somewhat cryptic setting—Walser’s face is turned away—that inspires pity for the plight of the writer and perhaps for the Writer. South African novelist Ivan Vladislavić uses the pictures to inspire a fragmented meditation on mortality and the blank page called “The Last Walk” in his collection The Loss Library: “What about the story the writer would have written on the day after he died?”

Does the man’s life say anything? Does his death? Coetzee concludes his appreciation of him by asking:

Was Walser a great writer? If one is reluctant to call him great, said Canetti, that is only because nothing could be more alien to him than greatness. In a late poem Walser wrote:

I would wish it on no one to be me.
Only I am capable of bearing myself.
To know so much, to have seen so much, and
To say nothing, just about nothing.

If Matelli’s sculpture were housed in a gallery, that poem might serve as a caption for it.

The Sleepwalker is still standing in the snow. He hasn’t finished his sentence.


Photo from the Davis Museum. This piece was originally published by the web magazine Full Stop.

An Open Letter of Praise and Supplication (with Free Stuff at the End!)

AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, held its annual conference in Seattle two weeks ago. Ten thousand authors, teachers, students, publishers, and book-lovers descended like a cloud of bespectacled locusts, and for several days the city held a near-monopoly on the world’s supply of canvas tote bags. I didn’t attend any of the educational panels (which included “The Joys of Teaching Composition at a Two-Year College” and “Who Wears Short Shorts? (We Do): Revitalizing the Fiction Workshop”) but I did drop in on a few satellite events (read: cocktail parties).


One of these was co-sponsored by New York Review Books, one of my favorite small presses, and there I grabbed an advance copy of The Gray Notebook by Catalan writer Josep Pla, a sprawling journal of life in coastal Spain and Barcelona that’s due in April. It looks great, and I’m really hoping it makes Pla a household name, mostly because I can’t wait to find out how the literati will make him into an adjective: “You must read this—it’s so Plavian!” “Oh? I thought it more Plaotic.”

At the soiree I also got to meet Nick During, the press’s publicity manager, and tell him how much I like NYRB’s work. They regularly republish out-of-print classics and introduce new ones, and they’re proudly eclectic, choosing books from all eras and locations. Take this pair of opposites: Gregor von Rezzori’s An Ermine in Czernopol and David Stacton’s The Judges of the Secret Court. The former appeared in German in 1958 and is a simultaneous mockery of and tribute to the faded glories of post-imperial, pre-WWII Mitteleuropa, while the latter is as American as apple pie, a fictional look at John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln assassination. Nothing at all in common but quality.

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Or consider The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, which was something of a sleeper hit for us. In it, a cantankerous grandmother and her willful six-year-old granddaughter spend long vacation days together on a remote island, learning to see the world through each other’s eyes. It’s comic and tender, but also pragmatic and frank. The only thing it shares with its stablemates is a distinctive cover aesthetic. When you see that brightly colored title box you might not know exactly what you’re getting, but you know it’ll be good.

When I told Nick what a fan I was and how much his books had meant to our customers, he was very appreciative and told me he’d be happy to help however he could. “Let me know if I can send you any books,” he said. I calmly agreed to get back to him, but I was downplaying my giddiness when I did it. I wasn’t kidding about being a fan—NYRB books are to me what Sinatra was to the bobbysoxers. I’m not sure of the number I own, but I know it’s more than forty, and I have at least a dozen more on my wish list. Those aren’t the books I think in passing would be cool to own, mind you, but the ones I actually have plans to obtain. Before I even left the party I was mentally calculating how many I could cadge and how to use Message in a Bottle to justify my greediness.

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I wrote some time ago about my hopes for reading more women’s writing. If I got hold of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, Tatyana Tolstaya’s White Walls, and Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A House and Its Head, I’d be able to make an excellent progress report. Or I could expand on my earlier post celebrating the Netherlands by covering Nescio’s collection of Amsterdam Stories. The political situation in Egypt might prompt conversation about Albert Cossery’s Cairo novels, including Proud Beggars and The Jokers. Maybe I could work Dezso Kosztolányi’s Skylark, Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy, and Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica into some kind of tribute to oddball adventure tales. I could pull all that off, right?

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Less selfishly, I could spread the wealth around. This month marks the US publication of a travel memoir that some have awaited for decades. The author, Patrick Leigh Fermor, died in 2011 at the age of 96, but as a young man he walked across Europe, roaming from the English Channel all the way to what was then known as Constantinople. As a middle-aged man he recounted the beginning and middle parts of that trip in two legendary books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, and at last the final leg concludes in the posthumous The Broken Road. Fermor was an amazing man (if you don’t believe me, just read his biography; his military exploits alone will astonish you) and his final book deserves your attention. Few people want just the third volume of a trilogy, of course, so maybe we can work out a deal. Anyone who purchases The Broken Road from Island Books before the end of March will be entered in a drawing to win free copies of the first two books. Assuming that Nick agrees that this is a good idea.

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Whaddya say, Nick? Will you kick in a couple of freebies so that I don’t have to reach into my own pocket to make good on the offer?


UPDATE: He thinks it’s a great idea! NYRB is donating two pairs of books, so TWO lucky buyers of The Broken Road will end up with full Fermor sets. Don’t wait—come in today to enter.

Searching for Souvenirs of the Vast Dying Sea


Garrison Keillor shared the poem below, “Searching” by Billy Collins, the other day through his Writer’s Almanac, and it struck a chord because it reminded me of myself.

I recall someone once admitting
that all he remembered of Anna Karenina
was something about a picnic basket,

and now, after consuming a book
devoted to the subject of Barcelona—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—

all I remember is the mention
of an albino gorilla, the inhabitant of a park
where the Citadel of the Bourbons once stood.

The sheer paleness of her looms over
all the notable names and dates
as the evening strollers stop before her

and point to show their children.
These locals called her Snowflake,
and here she has been mentioned again in print

in the hope of keeping her pallid flame alive
and helping her, despite her name, to endure
in this poem where she has found another cage.

Oh, Snowflake,
I had no interest in the capital of Catalonia—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—

no, you were the reason
I kept my light on late into the night
turning all those pages, searching for you everywhere.

I read a lot (because there’s so much great writing out there) and I often read too quickly (did I mention how much great writing is out there?) so the details of books, however enthusiastic I am about them, tend to get fuzzy pretty fast. For example, I loved the phantasmagoric novel Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu and wrote about it only a few months ago, but pressed to describe it today, only the scene where terrifed villagers ride on sledges through the snow springs clearly to mind. The rest is a kaleidoscope of scattered images and phrases.

The book about Barcelona that Collins mentions is likely Barcelona by Robert Hughes, although there he incorrectly calls the animal “Snowball.” Some research must have preceded the publication of this apparently offhand verse. The admission of forgetfulness about Anna Karenina that Collins recalls comes from author Nicholson Baker. He writes about the failures of literary memory in his idiosyncratic tribute to John Updike, U and I:

Almost all of literature capsizes and decays in deep corrosive oceans of totaled recall. I remember almost nothing of what I read. What once was Portrait of a Lady is now for me only a plaid lap-blanket bobbing on the waves; Anna Karenina survives as a picnic basket containing a single jar of honey; Pnin is a submerged aquamarine bowl; The Rock Pool's cab meter still ticks away, showing a huge sum, but the Mediterranean has taken over the rest of the resort town of Trou-sur-Mer; an antelope from some otherwise blank Christopher Isherwood short story springs wonderfully up out of oblivion “like a grand piano”; the ample landfall I think I have sighted in Paradise Lost turns out to be the “scaly rind” of the Leviathan in the first book; and even Alan Hollinghurst’s stunning The Swimming-Pool Library, which I am right now in the process of reading, haven’t yet finished, have no excuse for forgetting, already hangs suspended in my inhospitable memory merely as a group of “sodden sticking plasters” fluttering, as he describes them, like an undersea plant near the grate of a water filter. My quality of recollection may be more atomistically image-hoarding than some, yet the twice-ten-thousand-cavern-glutting expanse and depth of the “vast dying sea” of the once read, over which we all permanently and cheerfully row and pole and sail according to our talents, unless our sense of a particular work is stimulated by review writing, the commemorative essay, teaching, an imminent exam, or the hasty once-over that a dinner guest seems to feel is necessary before he or she meets the writer after a long interval, is the most important feature of all reading lives.

Need I say that this passage is almost the only part of Baker’s oeuvre that lingers strongly in my mind, existing alongside a Joycean snowfall of sugar packets from his novel The Mezzanine?

Looking at literature this way, as nothing more than a florilegium of disconnected phrases, would seem to diminish its importance, but I don’t agree. The rich, immersive experience of reading isn’t invalidated because books don’t stay complete in memory like mammoth carcasses in tar pits. You can’t clone a dinosaur from an ancient bone, but the fossilized fragments of our reading, even single words, can bring books back to life or something like it. Florilegium is a case in point; I learned it from Baker, and now every time I encounter it he appears before me, arms full of odd-sized volumes, like a bearded, beatific ghost.

Marco Polo didn’t undertake an adventure of two dozen years’ duration just to bring back a single souvenir, but that would be enough motivation for a writer to make the trip. The journey is its own reward, and a cheap memento is a bonus. In Springer’s Progress, David Markson interrogates himself about what he hopes to gain from his writing and answers, “With luck a phrase or three worth some lonely pretty girl’s midnight underlining." You say ambition should be made of sterner stuff? Nah. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? If I pass through a Paradise of pages in a dream and have just one flower presented to me as a pledge that my soul had really been there, that’s enough.

By the way, though “Searching” refers to “she,” Snowflake was in fact a male gorilla. An intentional mistake by Collins to further emphasize his poem’s truth? I wouldn’t put it past him.


Inside Inside Llewyn Davis

The Academy Awards are being handed out in a few days, which makes me think of a movie that isn’t in the running. Well, not for much. Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ tribute to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s, was nominated for its cinematography and sound mixing, but even if it wins, those aren’t the prizes anyone will be discussing around the water cooler the next day. Given the film’s critical reception, it’s a bit surprising that it didn’t get a Best Picture nod, or at least one for its star, Oscar Isaac, who embodies the title role as though he were playing himself.

Llewyn Davis is both a disappointed and a disappointing figure. He’s a talented performer who can’t bring himself to make the compromises necessary for commercial success, and he responds to life’s obstacles unpleasantly, antagonizing even the people who most want to help him. His knack for fouling his own nest is so pronounced that one of his closest friends refers to him as “King Midas’s idiot brother.” When he sings, he transcends his troubles, but the rest of the time he staggers from one minor catastrophe to another, making as little progress as a skipping tone arm on a hi-fi.

The main inspiration for the movie was the life of a real folk legend, Dave Van Ronk. Davis shares a number of surface details with the late singer, but their essential characters couldn’t be more different, and some have taken issue with the way they’ve been overlapped in the media. Van Ronk was a generous soul apt to offer his own couch to a stranger rather than mooch accommodation for himself, and he tells his own story in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, probably the single best evocation of the Greenwich Village coffee house era.


Inside Llewyn Davis is a production of the highly literate Coen brothers, so of course Van Ronk’s memoir isn’t the only bookish antecedent for the film. As were the characters in their earlier musical tribute, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Davis is on a mock epic quest to find a home, so Homer’s Odyssey is again a touchstone work. Sartre comes into play, too, partly because his Existentialist philosophy suits the zeitgeist of the period, but especially because of Davis’s refusal to be pigeonholed by his fellow human beings. “Hell is other people,” as the play No Exit says. And Davis’s inability to escape the circular rut he’s created for himself gives a hint of Eliade and his concept of The Myth of the Eternal Return.

Sounds like heavy stuff, but it’s all hidden in the subtext. Since their last allegory of the sensitive artist, Barton Fink, the Coens have learned something about subtlety. Watching Inside Llewyn Davis, you’ll mostly be impressed by its austerely beautiful wintry atmosphere (remember that cinematography nomination?) and by the music. Rarely have songs been so integral to a film as these. Naturally, you can pick up a copy of the soundtrack at Island Books to find out for yourself.



Playing with Words, or, The Second Dad Justifies Having Recused Himself from Childcare for the Afternoon


It was a very old-fashioned scene: moms in the kitchen, dads in the parlor, and kids running in and out of doors. I don’t know what the women’s discussion was about—probably how the husbands had turned chauvinist for the day and were ignoring their domestic duties—but the men were conversing loftily about literature. Sort of. Though they were too wrapped up in their topic to take care of the little one who needed a clean diaper or the big ones who were spraying each other with the hose, they hadn’t gone entirely neo-Victorian and were in fact thinking about their kids, specifically about the books they liked to read.

imageThe first dad talked about his difficulties in finding something that would capture his daughter’s interest as a read-aloud. He finally struck pay dirt when he rediscovered a book he’d read himself as a child, The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall. Originally published in the UK in 1959 as The Minnipins, it’s a fantasy story about some hobbit-like mountain villagers. The plot is full of satisfying twists and turns, but the real appeal for father and child was the winking tone of the narrative. Kendall invariably finds just the right words to add extra amusement to every incident, giving the book a charm even greater than summary would suggest.

This description got the second dad to expound at length about a pet theory he’d had percolating on the back burner of his mind for some time. Publishers and marketers of children’s books, he said, had gotten so good at targeting every possible niche interest that they could manufacture stories like an assembly line. Eight- to twelve-year-old boys who like comedy and soccer get one model, teen girls who want paranormal historical romance get another, and so on. Too often, though, the ingredients don’t blend as well as they could. The books that really stand the test of time are the ones are spiced with style, the ones written by authors whose love of words is apparent in every sentence.

Like Norton Juster’s classic The Phantom Tollbooth, he said. Bored Milo finds adventure, sure, but what readers really remember is the verve with which those adventures are related. Puns and wordplay are essential to the experience. Going back further there’s Lewis Carroll and his Alice, and in the present day there’s Catherynne Valente, whose titles alone show how invested she is in the verbal arts: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, and The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two.

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Even the youngest readers can appreciate great writing. William Steig’s picture book C D B! delights in the expressive power of language one letter at a time. Anne Isaacs’ Swamp Angel, a tall tale about America’s early days, is so gol-danged full of charming backwoods slang that smiles spring up on every page like sunflowers along the wagon trail. When fans of those books get a little older, they’ll savor the stop-and-start storytelling of William McCleery, and then they can move on to the kookiness of Adam Rex, and eventually the sophisticated complexities of M.T. Anderson. After that, who knows? 

You can see why those dads didn’t have time to roll up their sleeves and pitch in that day. The imaginative futures of their children were at stake! Sorry, moms—we dads owe you one.



Counter Intelligence: The Wind Is Not a River

imageA customer asked us the other day to set aside a copy of Brian Payton’s The Wind Is Not a River for her to pick up later, which we were happy to do. I recognized the title mostly because it was the boss’s staff pick for February, but I didn’t know anything else about it until her request brought it to my attention. Thanks, anonymous customer! I’d have missed out on something memorable if not for you.

The book is about the relationship between John and Helen Easley, a couple separated by World War II. John is lost behind Japanese lines on a remote Aleutian island, struggling just to survive, while Helen struggles to find what’s happened to him, overcoming her own government’s unwillingness to admit the reality of the occupation. Bossman Roger calls it “a vivid account, an Alaskan experience where little things become matters of life and death. But it is also a beautiful description of a marriage and the ties of love.” He says further, “Reading it I am taken back to my childhood in the fifties when I used to spend after school afternoons watching heroic post-war black and white movies on the rerun channel. The action was a little larger than life and the love a little more warm and the endings were happy. [It’s a] well-written, exciting book for a dark winter afternoon.”

As you can see, this is one of those novels that fires on all cylinders, offering suspense, emotion, thoughtful prose, and fascinating historical details. It’s that historical setting that really grabbed my interest. At first I thought Payton was fictionalizing more heavily than he is. A land battle fought on US soil in the 1940s? It’s true. The author’s note at the back of the novel gives as good a short summary of the events as you can find:

On June 3, 1942, war arrived in the North Pacific. The Japanese navy bombed Dutch Harbor in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Four days later, an invasion force of nearly 2,500 Japanese combat troops seized and held the islands of Attu and Kiska.

The inhabitants of Attu—41 Aleuts and 2 non-native US citizens—were taken prisoner. One man was killed; the rest were sent to Japan. The remaining 881 Aleut people scattered throughout the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands were evacuated by the US military and interned in southeast Alaska for the duration of the war.

For the next eleven months, US forces sustained an aerial campaign against the Japanese-held positions. From May 11-29, 1943, one of the toughest battles of the war took place to recapture Attu. In proportion to the number of men engaged, it was surpassed by only Iwo Jima as the most costly battle in the Pacific. It was the only battle fought on American soil.

The war in the Aleutians was relatively small in the context of the global conflict, and yet some five hundred thousand people took part. Dozens of ships, hundreds of planes, and an estimated ten thousand lives were lost. Journalists were ordered out of the region, military censorship was tight, and most the campaign was fought beyond view of the civilian press.

These events are forgotten footnotes in the history of the Second World War.

imageMostly forgotten, but not by everybody. When I asked the customer who clued me in to the novel how she knew about the subject, she pointed me to another book she’d bought from us some time ago. Last Letters from Attu is the account of Etta Jones, a school teacher who went to the Alaskan Territory in 1922 intending to vacation there but instead staying the next two decades. She and her husband, a former participant in the gold rush of 1898, transferred their jobs to Attu just months before the Japanese assault. He was the “one man killed” by the invaders, and she was one of the scores of POWs taken across the Pacific.

So now my to-be-read pile has grown even taller. Trust our customers to give us the scoop on all the interesting books waiting on our own shelves.



Super Bowl Sunday Sale: 12% Off in Honor of the 12th Man


Were you to create a Venn diagram for the sets Football and Literature, you’d end up with just a sliver of intersection. Reading and athletics are generally more dissimilar than alike, and even when they come together, golf and baseball take publishing precedence. As the adage has it, the smaller the ball, the better the writing. So there isn’t a great deal of overlap between the book audience and the pigskin audience.

imageimageimageExceptions to the rule exist, of course, as they always do. George Plimpton, the patrician editor of The Paris Review, briefly put down his blue pencil and put on a helmet during an NFL preseason, recording the details of the fiasco in Paper Lion. Frederick Exley produced one of the great memoirs of all time by chronicling his obsessive relationship with the New York Giants and their golden-boy quarterback Frank Gifford in A Fan’s Notes. And Don DeLillo brilliantly described the metaphoric war that is gridiron violence in his novel End Zone. As great as these books are, they stand out like monuments in a fallow field far from the paths where the literati typically tread. We simply don’t think of football all that often.

But our ivory tower isn’t so tall that we can’t hear the roar of the crowd from the loudest stadium that ever was. We’ve tallied so many blue-and-green jerseys coming through our doors that we’ve run out of hashmarks. We’ve silently, surreptitiously streamed playoff coverage through the computer screens we’re supposed to use to search for titles. We can’t hide our feelings any longer—the Super Bowl train is ready to pull out and our tickets are in hand. All aboard!

What does this mean? Well, to accommodate all you Seahawks supporters out there (and ourselves) we’ll be opening early on Sunday, February 2nd and shutting our doors early, too. Our special Super Bowl hours will be 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., leaving plenty of time for you to shop and still see the game. Even better, we’re celebrating with a sale. In honor of you, the community of Northwest fans, everything in the store will be discounted twelve percent. 12% savings for the 12th Man!


Grab a book to read during halftime! Buy a game to distract the kids! If you don’t care about football at all, pick up some scented soap and a couple of candles and enjoy a quiet bubble bath while everyone else is screaming in front of the TV. We’ll let you know the results on Monday, assuming we’re not too hoarse to talk.


First Line Friday: Memoir Edition

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

—Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Northwest Pride


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

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

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

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

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

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


History from the Distaff Side


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

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

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

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

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


Kingsley Amis: Past, Present, and Future

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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