Message in a Bottle
Q&A With Local Author Jennifer Longo

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On Sunday, Sept 14 at 3pm, we’ll be hosting Jennifer Longo, local author of Six Feet Over It. We asked Jennifer some questions to prepare for her visit. You won’t want to miss this opportunity to get to know her!

—Miriam

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Island Books: Why did you decide to write a novel for teens? And more specifically, where did you come up with the idea to put your female protagonist in a graveyard?

Jennifer: That’s a really great question – I actually never decided to write a book for teens! I wrote this book as straight up literary fiction for adults, with the protagonist at thirteen years old. My agent thought aging her up and bit and pitching the book as YA would give it a better chance with editors. The only problem was, I hadn’t read any YA books since I was a young adult myself and was completely unfamiliar with the current trend. I’d read Judy Blume and Lois Lowery and Katherine Patterson, and that was about it. Thirty years ago. So my agent sent me a bunch of her client E Lockhart’s books, and pointed me toward other current YA authors to bone up on how these books worked. Revising the book to fit some of the conventions of the YA market was the hardest part of the whole process. I still don’t get it! But I hope I came close - readers and reviewers are responding about how it is different from most YA they read, so that tells most of the heart of the original story was retained. And young readers are loving the story, which tells me YA aren’t all necessarily totally plot motivated readers, they seem to love a good internal struggle, as long as it’s compelling. The idea to put the MC in a graveyard came from the main struggle I wanted to put her in, which is one abut learning to accept help and let herself mourn, and allowing death to have a place in her life without taking over – my own experiences growing up around the graveyard my family owned lent themselves perfectly to the story, and added some rich detail I’d been writing about for nearly thirty years already, so – done and done!

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Island Books: How did your background in acting and screenwriting influence your writing style and process?

Jennifer: I did go to graduate school for playwriting and acting – I’m horrible at screenwriting, actually! Acting in and writing plays is hugely influential in how I write prose, particularly in how I write dialogue, how I structure the story, and how I create the character relationships. Plays are nearly all dialogue. Very little action may happen in a play; people playing characters can sit around in a living room for three hours and two intermissions, but the dialogue takes the audience through an entire story – amazing. The results are gorgeous. Writers should all be so lucky to have Albee’s instinct and ear for authentic language. I, on the other hand, must revise and revise and revise and revise….

Island Books: How did you come up with the title?

Jennifer: I did not come up with the title Six Feet Over It. My wonderful Editor at Random House, Chelsea Eberly did. The original title, of the play version of the story and the current novel, was At Need. Random House felt no one would know what that meant, and that it didn’t convey the humor of the story, so luckily Chelsea came up with this one.

Island Books: Your main character, Leigh, is only sixteen and basically takes on most of the responsibility of managing the graveyard her father bought. She’s a bit of a Cinderella, doing all the dirty work for parents who are selfish and infuriating. Her life is pretty terrible, actually, considering her sister has been fighting leukemia and her best friend died. Was it difficult to write from her perspective without making her a martyr? You accomplished that so well.

Jennifer: Thank you so much! That was something my agent, editor and I were constantly monitoring, we had a sort of “Martyr Check!” system – whenever Leigh was starting to whine too much, or get too down in the dark ‘Woe Is Me’ place, someone would make a note, and we’d examine how to pull her out into the light. Or at least find a way for her to take herself a little less seriously, measure her existence against someone else’s, or, my favorite way, have her look the ridiculousness of her situation square in the face and call it out. So much of what she’s living through is Just. So. Dumb! Seeing that is how I got through many situations as a kid myself, actually. I’d be sitting in the midst of some totally stupid moment created by my parents or whomever, I’d be so sad about it, feeling so sorry for myself, and then I’d cling to one thing – how incredibly lame it all was. How when I got home I would write it all down and then later I’d be relating what happened to a friend, and that person would invariably laugh at what I was telling them. Eventually I stopped being hurt that people were laughing at my misery and I realized they were right – most of the crap I was whining about was not misery, it was just incredibly insane! Like, I’d be at lunch in high school with my friends saying “My mom got my dad a stripper for his birthday and my boyfriend was there and we’re eating chips and salsa while three feet away some community college student is grinding on my dad’s lap to Little Red Corvette and I hate them so much!” and I’d be near tears, or in tears….and suddenly I’m in a comedy routing, people were laughing and it occurred to me that things could be much worse. There is, in fact, a ton of humor – dark and otherwise – to be mined from my life. So Leigh’s pushing herself away from self pity was kind of a reflection of my own efforts to do the same, I think. I’m taking a memoir class at Hugo House in Seattle this Fall…We’ll see what hilarity that dredges up!

Island Books: Why did you decide to play out Leigh’s relationship with Dario the way you did? Did you always plan for it to develop that way or had you set out to write their relationship differently?

Jennifer: Oooh my favorite question! One of the only things I knew for certain about this book before I wrote a single word was that it would, under no circumstances whatsoever, contain any romance at all. This was the second hardest part about converting the story from adult to Young Adult. Originally Leigh (the MC) was thirteen years old, so it was much easier to keep any romance out. But when they aged her up to fifteen, I got all kinds of pressure form every editor we shopped the book to. My agent (Melissa Sarver-White at Folio Literary) knew how much it meant to me to keep romance out, and she stuck to my guns just as ferociously as I did. I love her so much for that! And I would like to say first that I am very aware I’m a brand new novelist, I am no Hemingway, I am not speaking to an evaluation of the writing in YA when I say what I’m about to say at all, I’m speaking strictly to the plotlines. Okay. So, there are two main reasons for the Dario/Leigh relationship unfolding the way it does; First and foremost, this is a story largely about this young girl’s relationship with Death. Death - this character, for the narrative clarity of this story, sexual maturation (which normally would be part of the MC’s teenaged experience) has been pushed aside by other, more pressing matters and can’t be explored right then – which sucks for her. It is a problem, and part of the conflict. Part of the narrative. The second reason I knew romance had no place in any book I was interested in writing, was that if it was going to be marketed as YA, I am personally annoyed that nearly every singly YA book aimed at girls has the MC either yearning for, obsessing over or just actively engaged in finding, securing, mourning the loss of or just generally dealing with getting a boyfriend. Why attracting boys and seeking their approval must be such an intense focus for young women’s stories is beyond me. That’s the (hetero) narrative young girls are fed by every book focusing on this theme – that a boy in the center of one’s existence is the norm, if every single book girls read is telling her that if she doesn’t have a boy in her life causing either trouble or joy, there’s something not normal about her? That is not right. And, by the way, it isn’t realistic or true! There are girls who are late bloomers, boys too, or who just don’t give a crap! They might have other things to think about, like themselves, and what they want in life or the struggles they are enduing or helping someone else through. I wanted to offer something different to readers. A story about something other than lipstick by the lockers and all-consuming crushes. That said – I know there are many great YA books about for young girls about other things besides chasing boys, thank goodness. E. Lockharts’ We Were Liars is a book that demonstrates how romance can be part of a story and not be the entire focus, it’s the latest YA I’ve read and it is amazing. Also, Seattle author Karen Finneyfrock’s Starbird Murphy and The World Outside does this exceptionally well; two books I can’t wait to give my own (almost) teenaged daughter.

Island Books: What are your three favorite books and why?

Jennifer: Wild by Cheryl Strayed – My favorite book genre is memoir, this story of a woman who is lost and who pulls herself out of her self pity and forces herself to become a force of nature – it is the most wonderful book I’ve read in years. Beautiful prose, amazing story structure, I read it again and again. Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey – Picture book memoir! Incredible art and words about two girls exploring their world and growing up on an island on the east coast. Moody and gorgeous! Gift From The Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh – I re-read this every year and give it as a gift to everyone I know. It’s this meditation on life as a person, about solitude and living as a wife and mother and artist and human. Also she takes tons of walks on the beach and collect shells and rocks. Runners up: Paul Harding’s Tinkers, Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Island Books: What are some of your favorite things about living on Mercer Island (besides Island Books)?

Jennifer: My family are all lifelong, native Californian/San Franciscans, we just moved here last year and we love it! Particularly:

1. Watching the seasons change while running while my dogs frolic in Pioneer Park

2. Fellow parents at my daughter’s school, so much kindness and wonderful friends.

3. The schools are amazing! My sixth grader is so happy here, the teachers and administrative staff are wonderful.

4. The Mercer Island library! It is so beautiful and I love all the librarians!

5. The South end Starbucks. They let me write for hours and all the baristas are so wonderful and smart and funny and kind.

6. Sunsets over Lake Washington.

7. The farmer’s market. So many great food and flower booths, I love it!

8. The dentists! Seriously! MI Pediatric Dentistry is like a trip to a spa for kids, and Dr. Dawn Bova and her staff have taken this terrified patient and made me happy to go to the dentist. They are fabulous. I love them!

9. The Summer festival. Oh my gosh, so fun! The rides, the booths, the food!

10. Luther Burbank Park. Gorgeous.

11. The Mercer Island Half Marathon – I ran right past my driveway and into my house to put on band-aids and changed my shoes! This island is perfect for a half marathon, 13.1 miles of gently hills all in the shade. Amazing.

12. Reflected pink sunlight on Mt. Rainier. Impossibly beautiful.

13. Fifteen minutes to Seattle but a world away in the quiet trees. It is heaven.

Thank you so much, this was so fun!

Falling Forward

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We’ve been quiet in August. Maybe you’ve forgotten about us. Traveling, swimming, and barbeques swallow the summer, and we know how it is, the great weather is a distraction. But now it’s Labor Day and time to get back down to business. There’s a new energy in the store as everyone heads back to school. We’re ready to embrace everything the fall has to offer.

imageFirst, there’s an author event coming up next Friday the 12th at 8pm that we expect will fill the store to capacity. We’ll be welcoming Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat. For those who aren’t familiar with the book and its particular tie to Mercer Island, this is the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Last March, we were lucky enough to host Judy Wilman, daughter of Joe Rantz, for a lively discussion with several Mercer Island book clubs. Obviously this bestseller has great local appeal and has been one of our top sellers since it came out. Word has it that the Mercer Island Preschool Association is meeting up for drinks beforehand to discuss the book and then heading over to the event. Whether you’re a member of that group or just want to gather your friends, it’s a good opportunity to come together for a drink, some community history, and a great time.

imageOur other author event in September will be Sunday the 14th at 3pm with Mercer Island resident Jennifer Longo, author of Six Feet Over It. We always love to introduce debut authors, and Longo’s coming-of-age novel should have wide appeal for young adult readers. Bring your teen readers to meet the author of this dark and witty story about a girl who sells graves for her family-owned cemetery.

imageIf you haven’t participated in Island Book’s open book club before, we hope you’ll consider joining us this year. Our group meets the last Thursday of every month at 7:30pm and if you purchase the book from us you’ll always receive 10% off. After reading Mink River together in June, it was agreed by the group that that pick was a very language-driven novel. One of the members suggested that we explore books that are distinctly driven by either plot, character, or any other means. We’ll be focusing on these types of books for the next few months, starting with our September pick, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Come ready to discuss why it’s a plot-driven story.

If you’re too busy to participate in our events, don’t feel like you aren’t a part of our community. You can still zip through here on your way home from work to pick up a unique gift, or spend quiet time browsing through our carefully handpicked book selections. While we were sad to see our former neighbor, Stopsky’s, close its doors recently, we’re looking forward to whatever will be taking their place. Here’s hoping their coffee will be just as good.

Speaking of gifts, Roger’s head almost spun off when Nancy recently returned from a 24-hour shopping marathon in San Francisco, loaded with all kinds of new toys, games, and unique gifts to stock our shelves. You can see the care and taste she pours into her selections when you browse beyond the bookshelves. We’re confident you’ll find the best and most unusual selection of gifts right inside our store.

imageAnd as for books, well, clear some time on your calendar this fall. Or at least plan to sit up an extra hour after the kids go to bed. There’s a plethora of good reads hitting our tables in the next few months. In September, a few of the titles we’re looking forward to include Tana French’s new thriller, The Secret Place (review coming next week), Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity, Ian McEwan’s The Children Act, and Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light.

When it starts raining too hard for you to venture over to see us, stay in touch by following us on Facebook, Twitter, this blog, our newsletter, and of course the store website. Roger, Nancy, James, Lori, Marni, Cindy, Kay, Garry, Marilyn, and I look forward to seeing you soon.

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—Miriam

An Ebola Virus Reading List

Spread by contact with organs or body fluids, Ebola has a high fatality rate and there is no known cure. With over 900 reported deaths in the last few weeks, the threat is still far far away from our little bookstore on Mercer Island. Most of the deaths have been in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. And yet. Concern is rising.

Our morbid fascination with infectious disease is nothing new. Something about the silent uncontrollable spread and often dramatic symptoms commands our attention. If you find yourself drawn to the drama of the classic “human race obliterated by virus” narrative, skip the daily news and go for some of these full-fledged disaster stories. They’ll help you put things in perspective. Or scare you out of your mind.

imageThe Hot Zone by Richard Preston: In a story that might hit way too close to home, here’s the one nonfiction book on my list. Obviously still as relevant today as when it was published in 1995, The Hot Zone follows the first emergence of the Ebola virus out of the African forest and into the suburbs of Washington D.C. Don’t panic when you read the in-depth description of viral evolution, symptoms, and means of transmission. You probably just have a little cold. Probably.

imageThe Stand by Stephen King: This is the epic flu novel, worth the enormous page count. A mutated virus accidentally leaks from a U.S. military facility and wipes out most of the human race. The few that are left slowly find their way to each other, congregating into two groups: good and evil. Eventually one group will have to destroy the other. Steeped in nostalgia and iconic character development, this is the one epidemic story that covers the entire scenario from first outbreak to full set of consequences. So many readers claim The Stand as their favorite novel of all time, and with good reason. It’s hard to find a more infectious page-turner.

imageThe Dog Stars by Peter Heller: A heartbroken man, his dog, his old Cessna, and his gun are at the center of this post-apocalyptic tale set in Colorado. Most of the population succumbed to a super-flu nine years prior, and the protagonist spends his time based out of an airstrip, flying around looking for intruders and reminiscing about all that he’s lost. When a voice comes through on his plane’s radio, the interruption sparks new hope that there might be something else out there worth finding. His journey takes him outside his tightly controlled safety zone and towards something that might be worth living for.

imageYear of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: It’s 1666 in this beautifully written historical novel, and a widow with two young sons watches the bubonic plague slowly kill off her remote British village. As she loses everything she knows and loves to the disease, the quarantine and desperate circumstances force her into acts of heroism she never could have imagined.

imageBlindness by Jose Saramago: In Saramago’s vision, a city is hit by a strike of “white-blindness.” It begins with a man in a car, whose wife watches in horror as his sight disappears in the time it takes a traffic light to change to green. The wife is as much a metaphor for humanity as a guide through the reader’s journey. She remains immune as everyone around her succumbs to blindness. In an attempt to stop the spread, the government confines victims to an institution and shoots them if they attempt to leave. The wife pretends she has also gone blind so she can go with her husband. What happens from there is rife with metaphor and raises core questions about humanity. Saramago’s sparse writing style gives the story a distinctive and unforgettable tone. This is no Michael Crichton thriller—Blindness is a literary masterpiece.

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—Miriam

On Recommending Books

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We had visitors from Portland at our house last weekend. My friend and her husband left Seattle about four months ago and she took a job at a sportswear company. I used to share an office with her, and our book-related roles led into a friendship that has long outlasted that period of employment. We were paid to discuss books (the far most interesting of our designated tasks), and that habit also long outlived the job.

The first thing my friend said to me was, “I desperately need something to read.” Although her new job offers plenty of athletic gear, her access to endless free books is a perk of the past. I happily led her to our study and began pulling titles off the shelves.

"Here," I said, "Try the new Tana French. It’s not out yet but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.” (Don’t worry, faithful readers, I’ll review it closer to the September pub date.) She started to crack it open but I was already piling more on top of it. Here’s The Weight of Blood, one of my favorite debut novels this past year. And you’ll like this old Anita Shreve. What about We Were Liars? You’ll probably like Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments. And of course there’s always my never-fail recommends, A Fine Balance and American Wife…”

Flooded, she smiled and thanked me. The next morning, I found her sitting on our couch with my copy of Courtney Robertson’s I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends. Sheepishly I thought, who am I to shove books on a seasoned reader?

Yes, as booksellers it’s our job to point people towards the right titles. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from a fair number of years in this business, it’s that most people gravitate towards the right books on their own. All we can do is point in a general direction and hope for the best. It’s similar to fixing up friends on a blind date. Sometimes it can go very wrong. Like the time I suggested my mom read American Wife. While she greatly enjoyed the book, I completely regretted the recommendation after she expressed her shock over a particular sex scene. It just wasn’t worth my embarrassment.

It’s in my nature to recommend books, so I’ll keep doing it. But I’ll also continue to keep my expectations low. I suspect my friend will get around to reading at least one or two of the books I tossed at her, but ultimately, I was just happy to see her curled up with a book I enjoyed. Who cares how it fell into her hands? I just led her towards the options and the connection was made, just like any good friendship.

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—Miriam

The Fever by Megan Abbott

imageEvery summer there’s one or two thrillers that everyone’s talking about. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson dominated 2010. In 2011 it was Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson and Sister by Rosamund Lipton, in 2012 there was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and last year the big one was The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. This year, everyone’s been telling me I have to read The Fever by Megan Abbott. So I did.

We already know a version of The Fever in real life. In 2012, Le Roy, New York made the news with a strange epidemic: a strikingly large group of mostly teenage girls all developed an idiopathic tic. Was there an environmental cause? Was it stress? Had everyone gone crazy? No one seemed to know. What happened in Le Roy was eventually believed to be a psychological problemmass hysteria. But that isn’t the case in Abbott’s new novel.

In The Fever, the first teenager to suffer a seizure and fall into a coma is Lise, a voluptuous and popular girl who has been getting a large amount of male attention since puberty hit. It just so happens that the day before Lise’s seizure, her best friend Deenie lost her virginity to the same guy Lise had been hooking up with. Deenie is the central character in The Fever and her entry into the world of sexuality sets the stage for the book’s underlying condemnation of promiscuity, implying that the victims of what soon becomes an epidemic are actually being slut-shamed. The primary male characters, Deenie’s father Tom and her brother Eli are stable, solid guys. But Deenie’s mom had an affair and abandoned the family. All the other female characters are either promiscuous, sinister, or hysterical. Women, it seems, are being punished.

Lise’s case is the most serious, but soon the strange seizures spread and incident after incident lands girls in the hospital. Deenie’s other best friend, Gabby, is one of the victims, and soon Deenie begins to notice that the symptoms are striking those closest to her. Theories are floated. Was it the school-given HPV vaccine that caused the epidemic? Contact with the local contaminated lake water? But then why isn’t Deenie affected?

It isn’t the solution to the problem that’s at the heart of The Fever. It’s the force of teen emotions and the dynamics of their interactions with each other that’s so compelling. Teenagers make each other crazy, but oddly, sometimes their motivations make perfect sense. At least in the ending of The Fever they do.

While I enjoyed The Fever, if you’re looking for a thriller about teens gone wild, the one to watch for is The Secret Place by Tana French coming in September. Now those characters are crazy.

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—Miriam

Bookstore Employment Woes

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If you venture a look at the cart around the front counter at Island Books, you might get a glimpse of this poster about “Your Rights as a Worker.” It’s about 25 years old. Was the minimum wage really $3.85 per hour back then? That won’t even buy a soda at the movies these days.

Roger showed me the poster with a chuckle the other day, after a recent article in The New York Times got us talking about the history of bookstore employment. The story was about a distressing dispute between a bookstore owner and his employees. My dad emailed the link with the question, “What would Roger say?”

Chris Doeblin owns both Book Culture bookstores, located near Columbia University in Manhattan. His employees recently pursued unionizing in order to gain more holiday pay, promotions, and health insurance. On the management side, the economic realities of independent bookselling necessitate cutting costs. Doeblin prioritizes maintaining his business above retaining his employees. The move to unionize resulted in Doeblin’s firing of several key staffers, and an uproar in the surrounding community.

The recent expansion of Book Culture contributed to Doeblin spreading himself too thin. During such uncertain times for the independent bookstore industry, his concern for his own personal investment understandably kept him up at night. He told the press he’s losing money, and the volatile negotiations with the union seem to have made him an even more stressed and angry boss. While the employees were eventually rehired and concessions were made, it’s hard not to envision a work environment at Book Culture that’s both disrespectful and depressing.

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There’s not much else we can say from across the country, except that we feel for both the owner and the employees. Bookselling, like other passion jobs like acting, dancing, and teaching, operates under the notion that the people working in the business are doing it as much for the joy of the work as for the pay. But it would be nice if both owners and employees didn’t have to fight so hard to make ends meet.

We can only hope that the team there can figure it out. The independent bookselling business has enough external threats to keep us up at night. The last thing we want to see is a good indie bookstore self-destruct from within.

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—Miriam

Goodnight World Book Night

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Sad news, fellow book lovers. After three years and a tremendous effort by publishers, writers, booksellers, and more, World Book Night is suspending operations.

James wrote about his experience with World Book Night back in 2012. Looking back at his blog, you can already see the writing on the wall. His initial effort to hand out Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to his softball team sounded disappointing. James took home half the copies he tried to distribute. “Too busy,” was the response. When people are turning down a free bestseller because they never have time to read, that’s depressing. But it’s also reality.

The program failed due to lack of funding. World Book Night officials were unable to secure outside grants, and I can see why. How could they document the results? There’s no way to prove that giving away free books increased overall book sales or helped the book industry. We don’t know if it even increased reading, because chances are many of those free copies ended up on a dusty shelf or at a yard sale. Despite plenty of buzz on social media, what did the World Book Night actually accomplish?

That’s a sad question for a book lover and reading advocate. At the time he wrote his blog, James said he wasn’t demoralized and intended to participate the following year. But things change over time, and it just wasn’t as easy to get excited the next time World Book Night came around. He wasn’t the only participant I know who developed a growing antipathy to the event.

imageI suppose there was a bit of a missionary aspect to the process. While people weren’t handing out bibles, they were trying to convert non-readers into readers. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do when you’re dealing with adults. Most recipient’s reading habits were already formed by the time they received their free copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

The way I see it, the problem with World Book Night was the way it was targeted. I suspect if we all went around trying to give free ski lessons to random adults, the response would be, “too busy / scared of hurting myself / don’t have money to get hooked on an expensive habit / hate the cold” and so on. But, if we tried to give ski lessons out to a bunch of random kids (the necessary parental participation aside), many of them would jump at the chance to expand their horizons. Why couldn’t World Book Night be World Book Morning at the front door of local elementary schools?

Just a suggestion. Still, I’m sorry to see the program go. Like many old school and romanticized notions about books, this was an effort that was out of touch with reality. Sigh.

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—Miriam

So Bad It’s Good: Literary Junk Food and The Bachelor

imageIsland Books customers are some of the smartest and most intellectual people around. We read sweeping and complex works of fiction, hard-hitting political memoirs, and epic histories. For our children we buy books that model the kind of citizens we want them to be, from coming-of-age novels to the classics. We go to the symphony, the ballet, and the theater. Our families, our careers, and our leisure activities bubble up in banter with the staff, proving over and over that our store serves a special and highly educated community. 

And yet. Dig a little deeper, and you might find that the same customer who joyfully read Melville and Woolf in college and buys books like The Goldfinch and Hard Choices loves to read People magazine. Get to know that customer after a few more languid visits to the store, and they might even let it slip that they love to watch The Bachelor.

You might be surprised to know that among the educated and upper class wealthy Americans, one of the most popular primetime television shows is indeed The Bachelor. And if you’re smart and you’ve watched even a few of the 18 seasons, you know the show isn’t really about romance. Finding love is only the premise, but the fascinating part is the discrepancy between what the cast members think they’re showing the viewers and what they’re subconsciously putting out there for public judgment.

If you appreciate the complex psychological aspects of the show (ambition! competition! greed! delusional thinking!) you know that the real fascination is with what isn’t being said on television. Whether it’s due to contractual obligations with ABC or sheer terror, up until now the only person who has boldly pulled back the curtain on the show is the blogger Steve Carbone, better known as Reality Steve. Not only has he successfully spoiled most of the endings to The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor Pad since 2009, his blog is so entertaining and popular that he makes his entire living by running the site. (Personally, I love his sarcasm and have lost hours of my life to this guy. I find knowing the spoilers makes the show even more enjoyable because you watch the behavior and editing through different eyes.)

Now, a new voice has emerged next to Reality Steve to give us the down and dirty on what happens behind the scenes. Other contestants have written books that sunk like stones, mostly filled with dating advice and inspirational cliches. Finally, here comes the most candid and shocking memoir Bachelor fans could have ever hoped for. I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends by Courtney Robertson just hit The New York Times bestseller list, and that’s because what’s between the covers is as satisfying as a hot fudge sundae.

Every good Bachelor fan knows Courtney Robertson. She was the winner of Season 16 starring Ben Flajnikand the most reviled villain the show ever produced. Did I mention she’s a model? When she showed up at the “Women Tell All” episode at the end of the season, her fellow contestants nearly ripped her to shreds. Her sound bites included comments like, “These girls have no idea what I’m capable of” and “I almost want to rip her head off or…shave her eyebrows in the middle of the night.”

When Flajnik proposed to Robertson on the season finale, fans were in an uproar. They hated her with a passion. But was she that bad…or was it the editing? And what role did Ben Flajnik play in all of it? Amidst rumors of him cheating, their relationship still managed to survive an entire year. Still no one was surprised when they broke up. But so many questions remained.

I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends answers every single one of those questions and more. The media has picked up on the more sensational parts of the book, like what really happened when Robertson and Flajnik went skinny-dipping (you’ll get every last detail). There’s also the truth about what happened in the fantasy suite, Robertson’s experiences dating other celebrities before the show, and how the whole breakup with Flajnik played out. But that isn’t what sets the book apart. Anyone can dish gossip out if they know it. There are two things that make her memoir such a good read, and it isn’t the salacious details. One is how honestly she shares her feelings throughout the experiences. These are adventures most of us will never have but have diligently watched, and it’s fascinating to hear from her perspective what it’s like to conduct a romance on television and in the public eye. The other great part is her small anecdotes about all the people she met along the way, from descriptions about one contestant’s annoying habit of referring to herself in the third person to how she and her cast mates coped with stomach problems during filming. All of it is so real it could only have come from someone with the most inside scoop.

You can read I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends in just a few hours. It’s addictive. There’s no need to like anyone in the book, including the author, to have a blast reading it (although you might find yourself reconsidering your opinion of her if you watched her on the show). And I won’t judge you if you take a break from your impressive reading list to devour this book candy. It’s summer, after all.

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—Miriam

There’s a New Kid in Town

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In one of the most well-read communities in the country, Seattle indie bookstores have a reputation to uphold. We live right next door to a bookselling internet giant that cannot be named, so there isn’t room for mucking around in the book business. It’s sink or swim.

There’s a mutual admiration society around here among the local bookstores that have endured. So when a new kid arrives in town, we cross our fingers and hope they can make our local bookselling community that much better.

Santoro’s was the neighborhood bookstore over in the Phinney Ridge/Greenwood area for 9 years. Owner Carol Santoro sold the store in early 2014 to Ballard resident/Jeopardy champion/former Amazon editor/author Tom Nissley. If his name rings a bell, it’s because he’s hand-sold books at our store and popped up on this blog before.

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Nissley reopened the store about a week ago, and my husband and I took an evening trip over there to high-five him. There’s a mom-and-pop ambiance brewing over there that could only make Roger and Nancy Page proud. In addition to Tom and his charming wife Laura, three generations of their family were on hand to work the cash register, write shelf talkers, and ensconce themselves in the community. Their whimsical and personal touch is all over the freshly redesigned space, including creative signs for the fiction (“True”) and nonfiction (“Made-Up”) sections, an Interurban streetcar bookcase, a Ferris wheel on the wall, and Laura’s personally designed Glittersweet handbags (which made a perfect birthday present for our babysitter).

Personally, I think the best and most unique part of the store is the unbelievably curated selection of books. I suspect Tom has read at least half the titles on display. It’s a small store, so there’s no room for anything extra. While any title can be ordered per a customer’s request, the tables and shelves are remarkably deliberate, sparse, and bursting with personal attention. Much like our own Island Books, you’ll find an owner over at Phinney Books almost every day, ready and willing to talk your ear off about all the books he loves, and which books he thinks will most suit you.

Phinney Books is tucked right next to the 74th Street Ale House and across from Bluebird Microcreamery & Brewery, so they’ll get plenty of foot traffic. (We hit both those spots afterwards.) It turned out to be a perfect date night.

So if you’re over in that neck of the woods or just tired of spending all your free time and cash at Island Books, check it out. And tell Tom and crew that we said hi.

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—Miriam

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

imageThis might sound strange, but after finishing the just-released memoir My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, I realized I’m guilty of incorrectly judging a book by its cover color. Although an advance copy had been sitting on my nightstand for quite some time now, I kept pushing it lower and lower in the pile for the simple reason that the predominantly brown cover didn’t appeal to me. I never even bothered to read the jacket copy, so I wasn’t even avoiding the premise or description. It was just that the cover made it seem like anforgive meoverly masculine book.

It’s not the first time I initially passed on a brown cover that held treasure between the pages. The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer was an almost completely brown cover, and oh did I resist reading that one, even though it was the talk of the publishing house I worked for at the time. It was Moehringer’s memoir of growing up fatherless in the local bar in Manhasset, New York. Instead of romanticizing a booze-filled past, this coming-of-age portrait has something for everyone, from father-son story to first love to adjusting to college to finding his way as a journalist. And all of it is recounted with the knack of someone who spent hours telling stories to a colorful cast of characters in a bar; the kind of person who could make you down his writing faster than a good drinker could chug a beer.

imageWith that aside, what I’m intending to tell you about is My Salinger Year. I somehow overcame my aversion to the cover and stayed up far too late reading it two nights in a row. Enough random sources had been whispering in my ear and urging me to crack it open that I finally reached the point of feeling obligated. To be honest, I only noticed the cover included a girl in the window of the apartment after I’d finished reading the whole book. All I’d seen was brown brick.

I should have read the description because it soon became clear this was a book I had to read. It’s a memoir of Rakoff’s year working as an assistant to an established literary agent, right around the time that most offices were just starting to shift to using computers. This was exactly the era when I started my first internship in the editorial department at Simon & Schuster, and my god reading this book was like being there all over again. From feeling so poor that you had to be satisfied with coffee for lunch to yearning for 500 pages of assigned reading per night, the experience of being an assistant in the literary world of Manhattan comes completely to life. This is The Best of Everything in the 90s (I wrote about that 1958 glimpse at the young publishing assistants’ world here) and will easily captivate the same audience.

Although the title implies this book is about Salinger, it’s really a coming of age story about Joanna Rakoff. (If you’re looking for a book about Salinger, read this post instead). Her boss represents “Jerry,” as he’s reverently called around the office, and her interactions with Salinger as well as with his piles of fan mail could actually have been with any number of legendary authors. Even the anecdote about Judy Blume’s appearance in her office could have been about any big writer. What’s universal about Rakoff’s job is what appealed to fans of The Devil Wears Pradaa proximity to and yearning for artistic greatness that makes young and as-yet-unaccomplished 20-somethings particularly vulnerable.

imageWhile she deals with a lackluster relationship based on rebellion, Rakoff begins responding to Salinger’s fan mail. She soon abandons the agency’s recommended form letter and engages in the fans’ attempts to start a dialogue with the author of Franny and Zooey and The Catcher in the Rye. But she’s never read a word of Salinger’s writing. Again, this just isn’t a book about him at all. What comes out is a portrait of a likeable and slightly lost young woman working on her own voice. She feels like the kind of person that anyone who reverently loves books will feel a kinship towards. As she transforms from wide-eyed and awestruck apprentice to a confident aspiring agent who sells her first story, her character nearly bursts off the page with authenticity.

The ending, which jumps forward in Rakoff’s life, has a strange and almost disjointed feeling to it. While it does tie in the significant role Salinger played in her life, there is a part of me that wishes we could have just left the barely-adult Rakoff trudging towards the subway with a bag full of manuscripts. But I suppose every young assistant must grow up eventually, including myself.

Like Rakoff, I’ve never read a word of Salinger except maybe part of Franny and Zooey in high school (but if so, I don’t remember it). So I was impressed with myself for getting up the morning after I finished My Salinger Year and pulling Catcher in the Rye off the shelf. I read the first two chapters last night and damn is it good. What took me so long? Well…I guess I wasn’t excited about the plain red-brown cover.

There’s a moral in this whole story. Something about not judging a book….well…you get the point.

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—Miriam

Teen Summer Trends

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The stellar box office performance for The Fault In Our Stars is only one piece of evidence that the young adult genre is heading in a new direction. For years YA has been overrun by dystopia, thanks to the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games. But now, thanks to John Green and perhaps Rainbow Rowell (who wrote the bestseller Eleanor and Park) we’re getting back in touch with the side of teenagers that fell in love with Judy Blume.

Could it be that teens are ready to look at—gulp—real life? This summer we have some strong candidates for bestsellers about teens who live in the same universe we do. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (see our review here), The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Matheieu, and of course the upcoming film If I Stay, based on the bestseller by Gayle Forman.

Two other recent and notable YA novels come to mind that fit in the realistic category: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han and The Art of Secrets by James Klise. I recommend both.

To All the Boys is about a Korean-American girl who writes love letters to all of her crushesfor her eyes only, as a way of journaling her feelings. But then someone mails the letters and she has to deal with the consequences. What could have been a corny premise is both heartfelt and entertaining in Han’s hands, and as much a story about sisters as it is about teen romance.

Told from multiple points of view, The Art of Secrets is a whodunit about a Pakistani-American teenager whose family’s apartment burns in a mysterious fire. Neighbors and classmates organize a fundraising event to help the family, which leads to unexpected consequences and reveals disturbing secrets. Both dramatic and mysterious, this story offers up plenty of fodder for discussions about race, class, and what it means to be an outsider.

I, for one, am glad to see such a glut of good YA summer reads in this style. I’m tired of dystopia and never enjoyed it much to begin with, so this new wave of realistic fiction makes me happy.

Of course, by the time my almost-two-year-olds start to read YA, this fad will probably come and go again several times. But for now at least, parents of teens can look forward to a vampire-free summer.

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—Miriam

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

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There were a number of us on staff that read advance copies of We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, and the result was plenty of behind-the-counter discussion. When you read it (because you’d be missing out if you don’t), swing by the front desk or get in touch online and let us know your reaction.  We’re curious to hear what our customers think, especially since we continue to discuss the ending.

Here’s what Nancy, Miriam, and Marni had to say about it. Consider this a starting point for further discussion.

image Nancy: We Were Liars is one of those books which leaves me with an unsettling and lingering feeling, full of a certain unease about the characters and their circumstances. I found the book to be very disturbing on all kinds of levels. There is a dream-like quality to much of the book, which I wasn’t sure if it was from Caddie’s drug-addled brain after the “accident” or something else.

As the beginning of the book suggests there is much hidden darkness in the Sinclair’s closets, which they expend a great deal of energy hiding.  The author’s description of the family homes and their personal lives is a convincing setting for the inevitable demise of the thin veneer that they hold up to shield themselves from the outside world. The depiction of the controlling elder Mr. Sinclair and the effect that he had on his adult daughters felt convincing. 

I was completely taken by surprise at where the book led and what the teenagers were capable of doing. They developed as believable characters and their relationships seemed so realistic that I was totally blown away at the final outcome. It is a tough book to discuss, since hardly any real substance can be mentioned without giving away the mysterywhich is what makes the books such a good read.

image Miriam: This book left me near tears and I found myself thinking about it days later. Discussing these kind of “twist” novels is always challenging because we hate to give away the ending, so I’ll tread lightly here on the blog.

I found the most realistic part of the story was the three adult daughters battling for their inheritance and the way their father manipulated them. I could almost imagine an entirely separate novel told from the daughters’ point of view. That seemed to me where the complex relationships remained.

I liked the use of Cadence’s fairy tales to explore the universal themes of inheritance and parental relationships. It didn’t feel like a current day story, and maybe the fairy tales contributed to that historical feeling. I could almost see the whole story through a sepia lens.

So were Gat and Cadence really in love? Lockhart spends a great deal of time romanticizing their relationship, but as the story wears on it seems like Cadence had quite a few delusions going on. Gat had a girlfriend back home too, and the way he told Cadence that she would never understand what his real life was like made me think her feelings were more one-sided than she believed.

My big question is did you see the ending coming? I wondered if I was blind to the obvious. I read plenty of suspense novels, but I was completely shocked by the ending. I was also surprised what an emotional impact it had on me. I didn’t realize I was invested in the characters until the last fifty pages or so. I keep trying to imagine Cadence’s future and how she’ll live with the knowledge she regained, and I just can’t even fathom it.

image Marni: I read We Were Liars yesterday in one long, fevered session on my deck. It gutted me. Completely. Now I have to ponder on it for a day or two and then read it again…because that’s pretty much required once you know what you end up knowing but you can’t say because it’s twisty and angsty and so unexpected that it sucks the breath out of you.

I found the staccato rhythm of Cady’s narration to be very slowly unnervingI didn’t realize how much it was affecting me, until…UNTIL. I did
briefly think that Gat was not among us anymore, as that seemed like a
reasonable conclusion considering how traumatized Cady wasbut then
the other Liars interacted with him so I knew I was wrong. And then
I wanted to weep-laugh for how truly wrong I was.

And then there’s the whole other storythe powerful, manipulative patriarch and the resentful, fearful, passive-aggressive daughters wielding their powers of manipulation and fear over their own children to fight back against all of the control. The wealth and how it leads to conformity and
suppression and image control. And then you see that as the backdrop
for what these teenagers feel not just compelled but entitled to
dothe self-righteousness of it all.

GUTTED. I am not going to stop thinking about this for a while. WOW.

An Author Far More Luminous Than Her Work

imageMaya Angelou’s passing last week felt like the end of an era. I vividly recall her appearance at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. She read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” which emphasized themes of responsibility and coming together despite our differences. Critics praised her performance but disliked the poem itself. Angelou was only the second poet (and first female and African American) to read an inaugural poem since Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. It wasn’t necessary to like the “On the Pulse of Morning” to feel the impact of Maya Angelou. She was the perfect example of her own oft-repeated quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” All I remember of that poem was the sheer force of her presence.

Was there any significant part of African-American history in the last 80-some years that Maya Angelou didn’t touch on? There are some authors who are known for their works, but Angelou was known for her life and her very being. Her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, remains the biggest part of her legacy and a seminal piece of American literature. Set amidst the poverty and racial segregation in Arkansas in the 1930s, that book chronicled how Angelou’s mother’s boyfriend raped her at the age of seven, and by testifying at his trial she incited a riot that resulted in the murder of her attacker.  After that Angelou saw her own voice as a killing machine and she stopped speaking for five years. When she did start to speak again, the voice that came out became the unique narrator of more than thirty books, including poetry, essays, and six autobiographies.  Her voice was unmistakable and impossible to ignore. Oh, that voice.

Angelou wrote long-hand on yellow legal pads. Her voice was both distinct and lyrical, and many of her sentences became quotable quotes. I can’t tell you how many quote books I’ve opened and found her pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout. She loved inspiring people and that’s why she collaborated with Hallmark on greeting cards and gifts. She touched people of all races and classes, from Oprah and the president to theater audiences to students to civil rights activists to children watching Sesame Street. She was neither highbrow or lowbrowher voice belonged to everyone.

This past week we lost a true Renaissance woman. There was no one else like her, not even close.

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—Miriam

Better to Read Bestsellers or Avoid Them?

imageA recent article by Shane Parrish in The Week posed this intriguing argument: that serious readers should avoid bestselling books. The reason being that most bestsellers are forgotten in a few years, and offer minimal help educating us on long-term issues. They also encourage us to think like the masses, potentially smothering our creativity.

I have mixed feelings about his argument. On the one hand, I strongly believe that people should read for pleasure as much as for education. If reading is a chore, it can take on a negative association and feel like one more thing on our endless to-do lists. There’s a great deal of joy to be found in reading what others are reading. A good book can be the seed of meaningful conversation; the kind of conversation that builds relationships and brings people together. It can also help us understand multiple viewpoints and know each other in a way that just living daily life along side someone doesn’t always reveal.

In favor of Parrish’s argument is my dread for those who read only to announce their reading list to others. I agree that reading should be an internal pursuit. And people are different. My father, for instance, reads the most obscure books on religious history and philosophy. Often he can’t even find the titles he wants to read because they are so obscure they go out of print sooner rather than later. I read plenty of bestsellers, but you can also find my nose in a ballet book or an advanced copy of a first novel that someone I know in publishing is excited about. Those often don’t become bestsellers, but some, like The Weight of Blood (which I discussed here awhile back) register on my list of recommendations for years. 

imageParrish agrees that reading what others are reading feels good, but he claims that’s a terrible way to build knowledge, especially since many hits are a flash in the pan. I don’t agree. There are plenty of bestsellers that impart meaningful knowledge that endures. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, for instant, is a spectacular history lesson about crucial moments in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. And how about What To Expect When You’re Expecting? I wouldn’t pass on Goodnight Moon just because others are reading it. No to The Joy of Sex? The Joy of Cooking?

I’ll just modify the argument to “read whatever you want, bestseller or not.” Articles suggesting what to read are always welcome and will reach their intended audience even if the suggestions aren’t for everyone. But articles telling people what not to read? Not my cup of tea. Read for education; yes. Read for conversation pieces; yes. Read for pleasure; yes. Read to pass time; yes.

If it interests you, read it.

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—Miriam

Was His Father the Zodiac Killer?

imageTrue crime is one of those genres that either repels or fascinates readers. I don’t seek these books out, but two that have stayed vividly in my mind for years are In Cold Blood (not because of the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie, although that was excellent) and Helter Skelter (the Manson murders). Those two are the gold standard of investigative nonfiction in that arena, and downright chilling.

This past week, news broke of a surprising and bizarre new true crime account. The book comes from HarperCollins, a respected but sometimes exploitative publisher that was originally supposed to publish O.J. Simpson’s offensive pseudo-confession, If I Did It. Although not quite at the same shock level as that monstrosity, HarperCollins brings us a puzzling premise that was successfully embargoed. No one knew this book was coming until it hit the shelves. In The Most Dangerous Animal of All by Gary L. Stewart, the author lays out twelve years of research that led him to the conclusion that his biological father was the infamous Zodiac killer.

The Zodiac killer was known for five murders in Northern California in the 1960s. He taunted police by sending coded messages to the local media. No one ever cracked the case, despite thousands of tips. The film Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood, was loosely based on the case. In 2007, Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. starred in Zodiac, which chronicled the investigation. For more than 40 years the identity of the Zodiac killer has remained a mystery.

There have been red herrings. In 2012, former police officer Lyndon Lafferty published The Zodiac Killer Cover-Up, which claimed the now-in-his-90s killer was living in northern California. Lafferty’s book was widely criticized for factual errors and ultimately did not name the suspect.

A 51-year-old owner of an industrial cleaning company in Louisiana, Stewart isn’t the first to claim his late father was the killer. In 2009, a mother of five, Victoria Perez, announced that her late father, Guy Ward Hendrickson, was the Zodiac killer. She also told the media he took her along on killings and that she was the author of coded messages sent to the media. Although taken seriously at first, Perez lost her credibility when she later tried to claim she was the illegitimate daughter of President John F Kennedy. Some people will do anything for media coverage.

That invites the question, is The Most Dangerous Animal Of All a cry for attention, a delusion, an incorrect conclusion, or could it bethe truth at last? Stewart interviewed handwriting specialists, forensic scientists, and over 500 others who were either experts or somehow connected with the case. HarperCollins claims the manuscript has been carefully vetted by their attorneys. But why is Stewart bringing his claims forward in this manner, with an embargoed and dramatic book? Stewart tells the media he spent ten years unsuccessfully begging the San Francisco Police Department to compare his DNA with what’s in the Zodiac killer’s files. So maybe this book is a way of strong-arming that to finally happen. It will be interesting to see.

Now, the book itself. Truth be told, I couldn’t read the whole thing. The book opens with the author’s family history (he was adopted) and the writing style didn’t grab me. And, despite the evidence presentedsome flimsy (his father liked codes) and some more convincing (his father’s striking resemblance to the police sketch)the element of doubt remains present, especially considering other past attempts to claim the case had been solved. I wish the book had come out after the DNA comparison had been done. It seems to me a careful publisher would have demanded that kind of evidence prior to publication.

If you’re fascinated by the Zodiac killer, I’d watch the 2007 movie Zodiac before investing in The Most Dangerous Animal of All, at least until Stewart’s claims have been forensically proven. But if it’s just a good true crime account you’re after, I stand behind my recommendations of In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter. You can’t go wrong there.

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—Miriam

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