Message in a Bottle
Northwest Pride

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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!

—James

Pharos Editions

This space is usually reserved for profound, insightful personal essays (and occasionally for witless blather) but sometimes we just want to plug a book we like. In this case four of them.

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Pharos Editions is a new imprint of Seattle’s Dark Coast Press, and it’s “dedicated to bringing to light out-of-print, lost, or rare books of distinction. A carefully curated list of beautifully produced books, Pharos titles are hand-picked and introduced by some of today’s most exciting authors, creators, and artists.” Quoted for truth. The selectors are some of the strongest literary writers in the nation, and they all happen to be from the Northwest—we’re honest fans of each and every one. Gander at this group:

Jonathan Evison recommends McTeague by Frank Norris, a masterpiece of Naturalism, envy, and greed in early San Francisco:

“A gritty, vitriolic rant.  A novel with hair on it. A goddamn magnificent bastard of a novel.”

Matt Groening recommends You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas, about mid-century drifters, shysters, and crime:

“A whiplash ride with major plot reversals on almost every page. [This novel] is sheer joyful amoral absurdity.”

Jess Walter recommends The Land of Plenty by Robert Cantwell, a 1935 novel that depicts the wide-ranging repercussions of a labor strike among lumberers in Aberdeen:

“Written in powerful, plain-spoken prose, its tough realism and psychological acuity hum with authenticity.”

Sherman Alexie recommends Inside Moves by Todd Walton, the story of two down-on-their-luck ex-athletes:

Inside Moves is the Bull Durham of basketball, except with war injuries, amputees, prostitutes, radical surgery, and the lonesome wails of hungry souls.

You can listen to three of these guys (Matt couldn’t make it) chat entertainingly with The Stranger's books editor Paul Constant at a recent Town Hall appearance. They do an excellent job of explaining what makes these stories so compelling. Trust us, though—Pharos Editions is a very worthy project that’s produced some fascinating books. And there’s more to come, with several new titles on the way. They’ll undoubtedly be of equal interest, although they should be a little less testosterone-fueled since some female voices will be the next to be heard. Stay tuned.

—James

Welcome Guest Star Mary Jane Beaufrand

Mary Jane Beaufrand’s is a name many of you will recall fondly. She’s the author of the young adult novel Primavera, among other work, and a teacher of writing, but we know her best for her years behind the counter here at Island Books. We checked in with her just recently and asked her to share some memories and tell us what’s new.

—Miriam Landis

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Maybe it’s not fair, but the part that stands out most in my mind from my time on the staff at Island Books was the outbreak of the swine flu.

I used to go around the store, armed with a can of Orange Antibiotic Wipes and use them on every surface, until the place reeked and my coworkers complained, pretending to gag and demanding, “Somebody please! Open a window! MJ’s at it again!”

During that time, I finished working on my novel for young adults, Dark River. Which is ironic because I don’t recall the time as being dark at all. I remember the staff and customers as being the charming, welcoming types, with a wonderful sense of community.

Since then I’ve continued to write and teach writing to middle-school aged children. I love working with the age group because they have no shortage of imagination. They want to write about ninja academies. They want to write about being stranded in the wilderness with a hatchet and a pet wolf. They want to write about being a young but plucky heroine in a future where teens are forced to battle each other to the death.

I love being able to provide—in a classroom—what Island Books does in a store: a safe place to express yourself. Granted, at Island Books there was more talk about where to get a good cheeseburger and microbrew, but the principle applies. No one has to move it along. There’s no drive through.

The main difference between being a teacher and a children’s book specialist is that, as a teacher, I have a captive audience. And the first thing I always tell my students is this:

Before you can be a great writer, you have to be a great reader.

If you’re a parent and you’re reading this blog, you’ve already got your kids on the right path, not just to writing itself, but to finding a career that they’re passionate about.

The staff at IB can help your kids find books they need to get through the summer, but here are three I wanted to mention, two for kids, one for you, that you might not necessarily look for because there are no vampires or zombies. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those guys. Just wouldn’t wanna kiss ‘em):

The One and Only Ivan1) The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. A book for ages 8-12. Does anyone remember the real Ivan the Gorilla? The one kept in a 14x14 habitat in the BI Shopping Center in Tacoma? I picked this book up for my children thinking that it might have had something to do with the real Ivan, and it does. And, like with the story of the real Ivan, there are difficult spots, but it works out fine in the end. By far the best novel for middle grades this year.

2) Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. For teens. A historical novel about two girls in World War II, one of whom is a spy being forced to collaborate with the Nazis. The other? Let’s leave some mystery intact, shall we? It’s an especially good read if anyone in your family—you or your child—has been watching Downton Abbey.

Beautiful Ruins3) Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. For all ages. This is the first novel I’ve read in years that has truly blown me away. And how exciting is it that it’s by Washington State’s own Jess Walter? The novel begins the early 1960s with its hero, Pasquale, trying to “build a beach” in a small rocky fishing village to the south of Cinque Terre in Italy. Against this lush backdrop, and the filming of the movie Cleopatra, characters come together and break apart, make bad decisions (a tennis court on a rocky coast? What happens when the ball goes out?), but by the end, the very best manage to redeem themselves in unexpected ways. For a total hoot, check out the dialogue in the scene between Pasquale and Richard Burton, the actor, as they are driving up the Italian coast.

Hope you all have a good summer of reading and thanks for taking your business to such a great independent bookstore!

—Mary Jane Beaufrand

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