Message in a Bottle
Novelty Acts and Promise Fulfilled

It’s always been tough for a writer to get published, but it’s getting increasingly tougher to get published again. If your debut novel wasn’t a blockbuster, your track record works against you. Sold 5,000 copies? Too bad. Instead of taking the time to figure out how to grow that number, many publishers would rather buy a lottery ticket by taking a chance on an unknown. It makes promotion easier. Hey, did you hear that this NEW author might sell 100,000 books? Or a million? She’s NEW, you know!

This is why we see so many of these Top 20 Under 40 lists and so few that feature Best Middle-Agers. Promise is often more attractive than performance. The ultimate expression of this attitude may be an article posted at The American Reader called “10 Under 10: Writers to Watch.” It purports to catalog the leading literary voices of the generation after the next generation. Some highlights from these interviews:

C.C. Lewis (age 7)
author of “What the Unicorns Forgot”

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How long did it take you to write your first book?

Two years. I changed a lot in the process. I grew with my characters. 

Did you ever consider not becoming a writer?

Last week I thought about being a nurse.

Owen Tinder (age 6)
author of “My Driveway”

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What was the inspiration for the piece included in the “10 Under 10” series?

“My Driveway” was really tied to the advice to “Write what you know.” I knew that I could write the best piece of fiction about what I was deeply familiar with. I think that’s what gave the book that deep sense of intimacy, especially the now-infamous gravel scene. I find it helpful to limit myself to a subject or an area and work within those boundaries. It’s too hard to just sit down and say, “I want to write about Teaneck.” It’s just too broad a subject. Imposing those limits, from the garage door to the end of the curb, is what inspired the novel and allowed it to function. In the end, the fact that I’m not allowed to cross the street by myself turned out to be completely inspirational.

There’s a lot more, including quotes from other precocious tots such as “Of course I adore Cheever” and “I’m under contract with Picador for a new work—part memoir, part fictive Borgesian penseé. I don’t think I’m allowed to say much more than that.” Pitch-perfect satire and sheer deadpan hilarity.

imageThe piece immediately reminded me of a legitimately great work of fiction on the same topic that first saw print in 1972. The novel Edwin Mullhouse carries an explanatory subtitle: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright. It was in fact written by Steven Millhauser (yes, Millhauser’s Mullhouse—surely we’re supposed to confuse the names), and it’s an extraordinarily layered story of childhood concerns and adult obsessions. The Jeffrey character relates a biography of the abbreviated life of his friend and classmate Edwin, proclaiming him an unsung genius of letters, but it’s clear from the start that the subject is a perfectly ordinary boy. Jeffrey, somehow speaking as an adult though a child himself, is the real focus of the account, and it’s his desire for acclaim that drives the book and Edwin’s career to a conclusion. 

Millhauser is unmatched in his ability to evoke feeling through detail. When he describes a teacher’s frilly handkerchief or the sensation of peeling a candy dot off a strip of paper, it’s as though he’s slowed time itself so that the reader can finally appreciate what each moment means. When you view that rich, descriptive texture through the controlled distortion of a lens held by an untrustworthy narrator, you have a Nabokovian masterpiece in your hands, a kind of Pale Fire, Jr.

I don’t know if Steven Millhauser appeared on any lists of up-and-comers thirty-five years ago, but I do know he’s still working at the top of his game. We Others, a collection of new and selected stories, appeared just recently. In them, as critic Russell Potter said, “mechanical cowboys at penny arcades come to life; curious amusement parks, museums, or catacombs beckon with secret passageways and walking automata; dreamers dream and children fly out their windows at night on magic carpets.” The work proves that imagination can be youthful at any age.

—James

Best Of 2011

Those who subscribe to our email newsletter already know that the biggest awards of the year have just been handed out, the equal of the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, and Tonys put together. We’re speaking, of course, about the prizes for appearing on our list of the best books of 2011. Weighty gold statuettes depicting a book-holding castaway on a desert island, colloquially known as Rogers, are on their way to the winners now, along with the customarily exorbitant honoraria. 

Closer to the opposite is true, of course. We put a list like this together every year, and if there’s one concept always in mind, it’s that it doesn’t mean very much. It’s impossible to rank any kind of art, literature included, in terms of objective quality, for one thing. Even more significantly, it’s impossible for anyone to keep up with everything that’s published in a calendar year, even avid readers like us. Who knows what wonderful books escaped our attention in 2011? Knowledgeable as we are, we do like to remind people that we’re not authority figures or cultural gatekeepers. When we make recommendations, think of us not as drill-sergeant principals wearing severe suits with power ties, but as friendly, sweater-clad guidance counselors in argyle socks. All that said, it’s fun and even useful to look back at the year and choose some outstanding titles to feature. So much so, that I’m taking a further step and highlighting the highlights here.

Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife is the kind of book it’s a pleasure to promote. The author has described it as “a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans.” It’s a delicately balanced mix, juxtaposing the hard-hitting truths of urban life against the myths and superstitions of family and village history. It’s a richly-written, assured, ambitious novel that’s all the more impressive when you consider that Obreht was born in Belgrade as recently as 1985 and came to the US at the age of twelve. Shades of Nabokov and Joseph Conrad. I’d like to resent this upstart whippersnapper’s success, but the book is just too good for that.

Moonwalking with Einstein is another debut work that I was glad to stumble on before the hype machine got hold of it. At a glance it seemed like a wacky, disposable thing, almost an overgrown magazine article, but the title was enough to get me to open the advance copy I’d been sent, and within a few pages I was hooked. I subsequently learned that Joshua Foer had taken home a substantial advance and the book was getting a major push from its publisher, and after finishing it I could see why. Recounting Foer’s involvement with the U.S. Memory Championships, it’s an extremely engaging and amusing memoir that’s also remarkably informative. He refers to the book as an example of participatory journalism, but it’s a model of popular science and history writing, too. This level of talent seems to run in his family.

Both of the above titles have enjoyed considerable publicity, but flying slightly below the radar we find Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. We’ve blogged about this one previously, so I won’t say more about it now except that it’s the kind of story we love—I’m talking both about the story the book tells and about the story behind the book’s (re-)publication. Without dedicated readers who didn’t honestly love it, Tony and Susan wouldn’t be around to appear on our list at all.

There’s more to say about every book on the list, really, but I don’t want to take up too much of the time you could be spending reading them. I’ll just throw in some honorable mentions, first to Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams for accomplishing so much in so little space, and then to Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve for making Roman-era philosophy and Renaissance-era handwriting so fascinating, and finally to Ken Jennings’s Maphead for having the cutest dust jacket photo of 2011. 

—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.

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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