Message in a Bottle
The Forgotten Fitzgerald

I’m putting the moral of this story right up front so no one misses it. Buy the book before it’s gone.

This is a lesson I learned long ago, but our Library of Forgotten Books project drilled the knowledge into me yet again. For the project, I (like everyone else in the store) had to choose a favorite book that had fallen out of the public eye and spotlight it so that a new audience could find the same joy in it that I did. Easy peasy. I’m often paralyzed by choice, but in this case I knew immediately who to turn to: Penelope Fitzgerald.

Born in England in 1916, she didn’t begin publishing fiction until she was in her sixties, but still produced nine classic novels along with several works of non-fiction and a pair of story collections. Before her death in 2000 she’d achieved considerable acclaim and even won a Booker Prize, but she modestly eschewed self-promotion and never reached as many readers as she deserved. And she deserves as many as she can get. Her work is always substantial, yet effortless to read, each novel a marvel of comic deftness. I don’t know of any author who can sketch scenes and characters better than she does, and certainly none of her competitors can match her for economy. Every time I’ve finish one of her books, I’m stunned to realize how much she accomplishes in so small a space. Her longest novel has fewer than 250 pages, but it’s as immersive as one twice its size.

Which of her books to add to the Library, though? I had particularly fond memories of Human Voices, her 1980 novel depicting emotional entanglements on the home front during World War Two. London is beset by bombers, and BBC Radio establishes a shelter for its employees so that they can safely continue the work of “saving Britain from despondency and panic” without ever leaving the office. Did I mention that it’s a co-ed shelter? Romance blooms for some, annoyances build between others, and  small moments of human interaction stand out against the larger historical backdrop. It’s a can’t-miss winner to please just about anyone.

When I went to order copies for the store, however, I was brought up short. The book isn’t out of print, but the publisher isn’t doing it any favors. Just a single copy was on hand for shipment. ONE. Across the entire nation. So I tried At Freddie’s, Fitzgerald’s behind-the-scenes peek at the actors in a decaying theater. Same deal. The Golden Child, her comedic thriller about the theft of Egyptian artifacts from the British Museum? No dice. OK, those are early novels. What about her later works, her masterfully researched and fully imagined fiction set in other lands? Innocence is set in Tuscany, and Fitzgerald imbues that landscape with all the charm of a travel ad without ever losing grip on the real difficulties the aristocrats and the lowborn alike experience in their shared villa. Then there’s The Beginning of Spring, set in Moscow on the verge of the Russian Revolution, and The Gate of Angels, set in the philosophical milieu of turn-of-the-20th-century academics who struggle with belief and doubt. Nope, nope, and nope.

After checking the stock on all her novels, only two were on hand in quantity—her last one, The Blue Flower, and the one I chose to promote to you, The Bookshop. It tells the tale of Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance who risks everything to open a bookshop—the only bookshop—in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers and runs afoul of the local arts doyenne. Florence’s warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Trouble ensues when she dares to sell the then-scandalous Lolita. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one. Like all Fitzgerald’s fiction, The Bookshop is a sharply intelligent entertainment, and given my profession, it’s probably the novel I should have picked in the first place.

Don’t misunderstand— the other Fitzgerald books I’ve talked about are still available, and I’ll happily put one (or all) of them in your hands as soon as I can. It’s just that the publisher’s attention has moved on to shinier, more current titles. Those are the ones being talked about, and those are the ones taking precedence on printing presses, so those are the ones people are seeing and buying. Sales of older books suffer in comparison, and they fall lower and lower in priority, creating a whirlpool of sorts that can suck even the greatest book into the void.

Which points out why we launched the Library of Forgotten Books to begin with. By stopping every now and then to reconsider the past, we can stop the vicious cycle that sends stories into oblivion and fight back against the tyranny of the Next Big Thing. No matter when it was written, a book is always as new as its most recent reader.

—James

Greater Seattle

We’re carrying a new CD here in the store that’s catching eyes at the counter with its sleek look. You can’t judge it just by the cover, though, which is why we’re providing some liner notes here. Greater Seattle is the product of area musician Igor Keller (who’s long been the voice behind the Hideous Belltown blog) performing under the name Longboat. It’s a collection of seventeen songs about Seattle-area neighborhoods and cities, all of which are honored by their inclusion even while they’re subjected to a healthy drubbing for their characteristic foibles. Mercer Island gets its comeuppance on track five, and we won’t tell you how except to say that it has something to do with what happens when income exceeds taste.

The album is wide-ranging in style, dabbling in everything from dance beats to the hard stuff, somewhat reminiscent of the diversity on Stephen Merritt’s 69 Love Songs. As such, there’s a little something for every taste on offer. While it’s much more than just a novelty record, it’s obviously a great souvenir for a visitor or a badge of pride for a native—one who has a good sense of humor about his or her hometown, anyway.

We recently conducted a brief interview with Keller via email.

———————————————————————————

Island Books: Longboat—what’s up with that?

Igor Keller: Hey, every band needs a name—even if it’s just one guy. I wanted something as neutral as possible to keep preconceptions to a minimum. For example, you wouldn’t expect a band called Chainsaw Convention to sound like the Carpenters. With a name like Longboat, people don’t know what to expect. That’s a good thing. 

IB: What’s your musical background and how did you begin writing and recording your own work?

IK: I studied theory and composition at the UW for several years, but ultimately became a Russian major. At the time, I was more interested in traveling than making music. At about the same time, I became quite interested in jazz, especially in the tenor sax. I bought an old horn and eventually started gigging around town. The bottom fell out of live jazz in the mid-2000s, so I turned to classical music by writing the neo-baroque oratorio Mackris v. O’Reilly [based on the transcripts of the 2004 sexual harassment suit against political commentator Bill O’Reilly]. It was staged and recorded at Meany Hall in 2007. Following that I thought that film music would be a good idea. But it wasn’t, as everyone and their brother is trying to get into it. Finally, I figured that pop music would be the most fun. And it has been. Making Greater Seattle was one of the most positive musical experiences I’ve ever had. It’s my first pop album, but second album overall after Mackris v. O’Reilly

IB: What inspired the Greater Seattle CD? Did you conceive of an entire song cycle from the beginning or just start writing individual songs before realizing you had a whole suite on your hands?

IK: The whole thing started with “Bellevue.” After finishing that, I wanted to write a few songs for context and things got carried away. The next thing I knew, I had a full-blown concept album on my hands. All 17 tunes (15 originals and two covers) took just over two months to write. “Mercer Island” and “Edmonds” were finished last.   

IB: The cover art is really striking. Is that your work, or where did it come from?

IK: The concept was mine, but it was realized by a graphic artist named Pete Woychick. He did a great job, because I can’t draw. Even though the songs don’t delve too deeply into the Seattle memes of coffee/beer/computers/rain, I thought it would be good to show them on the cover. 

IB: Is the CD good-natured mockery or sharp satire, or a little of both?

IK: Just as I employ a lot of genres (funk, stadium rock, electronica, marching band, etc.) in these songs, I’ve tried to have different approaches to the subject matter. So yes, a little of both. For some of the tunes, say, “Belltown” and “Tacoma,” I’ve tried to delve a little deeper into what these places are. For example, to many Seattleites, Belltown is where all the bars are and that’s it. For me, it’s been home for many years and I wanted to convey the challenges involved in living here. And Tacoma has always seemed to me in a perpetual state of decline and I wanted to express a little empathy. Those are just two examples, but I put a lot of thought into these tunes. I hope it shows.  

IB: What else are you working on?

IK: I’m always writing music. The plan is to put out an album every year until the sun explodes or I run out of money. This next effort will just be songs—there won’t be an over-arching concept. But I’m always very enthusiastic about unusual subject matter, so each tune will definitely be out of the ordinary. At some point, there may be a Son of Greater Seattle, but that’s a ways down the road.

IB: Since you said you were a Russian major and this is for a bookstore blog, I guess I have to ask about favorite authors. Do you know Elif Batuman’s The Possessed?

IK: My favorite authors are Russians: Tolstoy, Gogol and Nabokov. There is a three-way tie for my all-time favorite book between War and Peace, Dead Souls and Lolita (with The Gift a close runner-up). My least favorite authors are also Russians: Bulgakov and Dostoevsky. I haven’t read The Possessed, but it looks fascinating. I find it extremely difficult to read while I’m writing music and I’m writing music all the time, but this fall I plan to give myself a break and catch up on my reading. I think I need to make room for The Possessed.

—James