Message in a Bottle
In Search Of ?

We’ve been doing some sophisticated computer-aided analysis here at Message in a Bottle headquarters, and we’ve determined that—wait, let me examine the precise figures…yes, they all check out—many people are reading our posts. We could even say many, many people. If we were number crunchers instead of word fiends, we might be able to tell you exactly how many, but as it is, we’re pretty satisfied with our results.

Not only do we know that we have readers, we also know how they’re finding us. Somewhat surprisingly, most of you are subscribers. That is, you regularly receive our posts via email. This is really good news as far as we’re concerned, because it means that you like what you’ve read in the past and want to read more of it, whatever it turns out to be. Insider secret: We don’t always know what kind of post you’ll be reading until a couple of hours before you read it. The deadline muse can be very inspiring.

The next largest group of readers visits the blog itself, and many of those are sent to it by the links we put on Facebook each time we make an update. Others follow the permanent link on our store’s website, and still others know that they can always go directly to http://www.mercerislandbooks.tumblr.com to see what’s new.

Now, some of you are forgetful, and you have to do a little searching to find us. We can tell, because records indicate that quite a few of you come to us only after plugging a phrase like “island books message bottle” into Google. Or into Bing, although that’s so far just a hypothetical. This is the equivalent of not knowing a street address but navigating by landmarks. “Turn left at the drugstore and look on the right for the blue house with the weather vane.” Works perfectly well, especially when you’re in your own neighborhood. We’ll leave the porch light on all night, just in case.

That covers almost everybody who visits us virtually, but the most entertaining oddities in the data pile are the singletons, the obscure search terms that directed someone to us just once. These are readers who probably didn’t know exactly what they were looking for and stumbled across one of our posts serendipitously. In some cases, it seems clear that they found something relevant when they arrived, but in others…well, who knows what they were thinking. Let’s look at some examples:

  • drugs jungle central america: I hope this wasn’t someone looking to set up an import/export business. This phrase directed the searcher to Miriam’s fine post about Ann Patchett’s most recent novel State of Wonder.
  • andorrans: I like to imagine that this word was typed into a search engine by a lonely expat from the Pyrenees looking for her kinfolk. If so, I hope she was interested to read a post about vanished nations from the days of yore.
  • fictitious worlds in one scene: Possibly related to the search above, as the natural landing page for this one was this post about realistic imaginary landscapes. Peter Cameron’s Andorra was one of the books mentioned.
  • famous friendships in literature: This led to one of my favorite Message in a Bottle posts, in which Miriam talks about her best friend since childhood and inadvertently calls her a pig. OK, not really. Charlotte and Wilbur from E.B. White’s classic novel do come up, though. 
  • donald barthelme the baby, whats the message: A confused student probably got more (and less) than he bargained for when he ran across part three of my series on books and parenthood
  • ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic: This is a quote from Stephen King that describes the novella, and I used it in this post
  • the north wind and the sun: A Wiccan practitioner? A budding meteorologist? Who knows, but whoever it was found a charming post that’s inspired by a fable from Aesop.
  • how to build a lego hot air balloon instructions: It’s not exactly a how-to, but Miriam did discuss the topic here
  • judas hanged himself: This searcher was undoubtedly surprised to click onto a piece about truthfulness in journalism.
  • how to draw catching fire symbol: One or the other of two posts must have been the destination for this searcher, but neither of them says anything about draftsmanship.

And then there were those searches that will remain forever cryptic:

  • i will have less sader [sic] days ahead: Hopefully true for the person who initiated a brief encounter with us. Feel better, anonymous visitor.
  • cool teen boy picking up something on the ground: Very specific and very strange. Maybe it led here?
  • sweater for book lovers: My mom used to buy patterns from McCall’s, but to my knowledge, I’ve never mentioned it on the blog.
  • french wife swap: Don’t want to dig too deeply here.
  • تالممةعي

Yes, you read that last one correctly. If you read Arabic, that is. And if you do, maybe you can explain what it means and how it led someone to Message in a Bottle. Until we figure that out, I’ll just say marhaban to you, mysterious guest from far away. And the same goes to all of you readers out there.

—James

Imaginary Geographies

If you think about writers creating fictitious worlds, what probably comes to mind first is a certain brand of sword and sorcery or science fiction, where the names seem to be unpronounceable and littered with arbitrary apostrophes, but there are many examples of fantastical landscapes being presented in a realistic way. This kind of hypothetical nation-building is so popular, in fact, that there’s a name for the genre—Ruritanian romance. It was a particularly popular pursuit at the very end of the nineteenth century that rose again decades later. Remember the Peter Sellers movie The Mouse That Roared? That began life as a 1955 novel, and before that there was Anthony Powell’s Venusberg from 1932, set in an unnamed and politically unstable Baltic state. It remains a fresh and funny read in which an English journalist fails to escape an unsatisfying love triangle by getting himself posted abroad, instead finding himself sharing living quarters with his rival. More recently, novelist, memoirist, and biographer Edmund White has shown a knack for translating modern mores into marvelously imaginary locations, notably doing so in 1970s and ’80s works such as Caracole and Forgetting Elena, but there are even more current practitioners of creative cartography.

Andorra is a tiny landlocked country straddling the border between France and Spain in the Pyrenees mountain, but not in Peter Cameron’s world. He borrowed the name but nothing else about the place for the title and setting of his 1997 novel, choosing instead to imagine a sleepy ex-colonial outpost on the coast. In it, an American man tries to restart his life in a completely unfamiliar environment after a tragedy at home, encountering an eccentric and largely indolent group of fellow expats, castoffs, and fading aristocrats. The situations in which he becomes enmeshed seem oddly designed to meet his expectations and comment on his past, which gives the proceedings a tinge of Kafka, but just a tinge, since Andorra is really a comedy of manners. If there’s a subtext, it has to do with the way our personal histories and aspirations cause us to live in worlds of our own making. No doubt explaining why Cameron chose the title he did for his book—with the right kind of blinders on, the real Andorra (or the real Mercer Island) can disappear completely. When this happens to actual people in their everyday lives, it causes any number of problems, but when it happens while reading a transporting piece of fiction like Cameron’s, it’s a delight.

Stephen Marche’s Sanjania isn’t borrowed, but made up out of whole cloth. I was about to say that it’s completely fake, but the depiction of this North Atlantic island nation in 2007’s Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is too convincing for that. It purports to be an anthology of writing from this hyperliterate land, drawing on everything from the pamphlets of its founding fathers to the criticism of its contemporary college professors. Marche gets things started with a stage-setting preface and then tries on as many different styles, voices, and pseudonyms as there are chapters in his book. It’s a showcase of talent, and the whole project adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. It has all the effect of a sweeping historical saga in a briefer, extremely novel form.


If there’s one book that stands atop the rest in this genre, though, it’s Jan Morris’s Hav, released in full in the US just this year. Morris has spent a lifetime traveling the globe and reporting on her experiences in a deeply felt way that gets at the true nature of places, so there’s no one else alive as well-suited to turn an imaginary location into a main character. Jacket copy doesn’t always sum a book up properly, but in this case I think it does: “Hav is like no place on earth. Rumored to be the site of Troy, captured during the crusades and recaptured by Saladin, visited by Tolstoy, Hitler, Grace Kelly, and Princess Diana, this Mediterranean city-state is home to several architectural marvels and an annual rooftop race that is a feat of athleticism and insanity. As Jan Morris guides us through the corridors and quarters of Hav, we hear the mingling of Italian, Russian, and Arabic in its markets, delight in its famous snow raspberries, and meet the denizens of its casinos and cafés. When Morris published Last Letters from Hav in 1985, it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Here it is joined by Hav of the Myrmidons, a sequel that brings the story up-to-date. Twenty-first-century Hav is nearly unrecognizable. Sanitized and monetized, it is ruled by a group of fanatics who have rewritten its history to reflect their own blinkered view of the past. Morris’s only novel is dazzlingly sui-generis, part erudite travel memoir, part speculative fiction, part cautionary political tale. It transports the reader to an extraordinary place that never was, but could well be.” Like many other readers, you might find yourself trying to book a ticket there upon finishing Hav.

But wait, you’re thinking, how can I keep track of all these unruly sovereignties popping up all over the place? There must be some way to corral them all. I do have a suggestion. What better way to administer them than a fictional United Nations? That’s been covered too. People in Glass Houses is a story collection by National Book Award-winner Shirley Hazzard that sets its scenes in the offices of a gargantuan multinational Organization (based on her own experiences with the real UN) whose numbing bureaucracy can’t completely quash optimism, humor, and love. There’s even room for some quiet courage among the ranks of the paper-pushers who populate her pages. 

Think of the advantages of travel to these undiscovered countries unlisted in any atlas—your destination options are almost infinite, no security guards will ask you to remove your shoes, and wherever you go you can always drink the water. And you’ll be in very select company. Flummox your neighbors by telling them all about the time you spent in Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania. They don’t have to know you never left your comfy chair.

James

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