Message in a Bottle
Our Year of Eclectic Reading Suggestions


It’s best of the year time, so let’s take a moment and review some of the best book lists we assembled in 2013. We’re in the home stretch for holiday gift-giving now, and if a straightforward best-of list hasn’t satisfied all your needs, these eclectic and typical-Island-Books-quirky collections might be of some help.

Tell Me A Story: Even if you don’t have time to read an entire book, you can still escape to other worlds with these stirring short story collections.

The Library of Forgotten Books: To commemorate the International Day of the Book on April 23rd, we shed a light on some titles that had been hiding in the corners of the store, waiting patiently to share their stories with you. As they say in Catalonia, “a rose for love, but a book forever.”

Self-Help: Who Needs It?: Every January, a chorus of voices, including our own consciences, tell us it’s time to renew, reassess, and remodel ourselves. That gets tedious. At a certain point, you have to take Popeye’s motto—“I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam”—to heart. You’re not so bad the way you are, you know?

For Fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette: We know a book succeeds when the ending comes far too soon and all we want to do is keep reading. It’s like driving at full speed straight off a cliff. Better to find another scenic road rather than fall into the abyss, because when readers get that kind of momentum going it would be a shame to stop. So if you read the delightful Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple and are already hungering for something with the same witty flair, here are some suggestions.

(You might also want to explore our recommendations for fans of Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan and Winter of the World by Ken Follett.)

Book Club Combos: A good novel often piques interest that extends past its back cover, like when a war novel inspires you to pick up a history book. We think you’ll want to read these pairs together.

James and Miriam Read Chocolates For Breakfast: It wasn’t a book list, but James and I read and discussed this shocking coming-of-age novel written in 1956 by then-eighteen-year-old Pamela Moore. (Part II of the discussion is here.)

A Dance To the Music of Time: For denser book club reading, James led the way for a massive literary undertaking this year. There’s a book, or series of books, by Anthony Powell that he’d had his eye on for a while. Collectively the work is known as A Dance to the Music of Time, and it consists of twelve books that were published separately between 1951 and 1975. It’s all designed to hang together as one long story, and looked at in that light, it’s one of the longest novels ever written. Powell surveys the London social scene between the world wars in such amusing style that Time magazine referred to his opus as “brilliant literary comedy” when adding Dance to its list of the best fiction of the 20th century. He has the sophisticated eye for manners of an English Proust, but also a masterly sense of episodic pacing—the eagerness to find out what happens next in his writing is as pronounced as it is for fans of cultish, cliffhanger-filled TV shows such as Mad Men or Game of Thrones. If that doesn’t sell you, how about this? An acquaintance at another bookstore described her time with the series as “the greatest reading experience of [her] life.”

James’s 2013 Anthony Powell marathon will wrap up with a final installment on Boxing Day, so it’s not over yet.


Elizabeth Gilbert’s Creative Genius


One of the most surprising books I read this year was Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things. It’s a massive and triumphant work of fiction, tracing the life of an extraordinary female botanist during the 19th century. The protagonist, Alma Whittaker, could be the female version of Charles Darwin. In fact, she develops her own similar theory about survival of the fittest, right around the time Darwin published The Origin of Species. Rather than the ecosystem of the Galapagos, the behavior of Alma’s large variety of mosses leads her to the same revolutionary conclusion. She just doesn’t publish it ahead of Darwin.

Alma’s father was Henry Whittaker, an Englishman who became the richest man in Philadelphia. He was an enterprising botanist and thief who made his fortune by selling his revolutionary plant samples to a pharmaceutical distributor. His story is the precursor to Alma’s and sets the stage for her scientific pursuits.

A spinster until the age of 48, Alma is not the kind of woman who would have ever read Gilbert’s bestselling memoir of self-discovery, Eat. Pray, Love. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the Elizabeth Gilbert we met in Eat, Pray, Love created this bold and science-driven character. The only thing the two appear to have in common is they both went on long and arduous journeys to different countries to seek out truth. The narrator in Eat, Pray, Love was looking for meaning, self-knowledge, and love throughout her journey, but Alma is merely looking for facts both large and small, from the truth about her deceased husband to the secrets of the universe. She already knows who she is, and her sense of identity and self is never truly in question.

I’m a huge Gilbert fan, especially after meeting her several years ago right after the publication of Committed (the follow up to Eat, Pray, Love). She’s just as lively, charming, and compelling in person as she is on the page. I could feel all her warmth and energy pouring off the pages of The Signature of All Things, but I would never have expected her to write it. How did she go from her past work to this utterly unique and different novel?

The explanation came to me by chance. I stumbled across Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk from 2009, “Your Elusive Creative Genius." Gilbert talks about the notion that genius might come from a higher being, and that knowing that might give artists the confidence to get up every day and do their work without fear of failure. She takes the responsibility of success off the artist’s shoulders and encourages them to keep hacking away. Gilbert’s father was an engineer, and as she explains, he never felt frozen or terrified to do his job each day. Most people don’t stop working because they fear they won’t make a masterpiece, so why should artists have to wallow in the crazies?

Gilbert wasn’t preaching God here, don’t misunderstand me. What she was trying to do was validate an artist’s right to consistently do their work as an occupation and a craft. Coming off the tremendous success of Eat, Pray, Love, she must have struggled greatly with the expectations when people suggested her best work might already be behind her.

In the context of her TED talk, it makes sense that Gilbert matured into a writer who would create a heroine far stronger and more self-assured than the person who appears in her own memoir. She obviously found herself long after she thought she’d “found herself” during that big journey that became such a bestseller.

Her TED talk is motivational, but what’s truly inspiring is Gilbert herself. Not only has she continued to reinvent herself and grow as a writer, but she keeps showing up to do her job. And by doing that, she is making sure that her best work isn’t behind her. If The Signature of All Things is any indication, her writing will only continue to ripen and improve with age.


A History To Be Thankful For


The traditional Thanksgiving menu is the same every year: turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pie. This year, instead of my usual apple pie, I tried to spice things up with a salted caramel apple pie. The recipe sounded amazing, but at the end of the day it didn’t taste all that different from my usual version (which is always good to begin with). Next year will be much of the same, whether I try a new recipe or not. When I think of that menu, I think of the store, which also remains a constant with only slight variations.

We’ve been guilty of putting a great deal of store nostalgia on the blog this fall, so I solemnly promise this will be the end of it for awhile. But as everyone poured out their hearts on social media this past weekend, waxing poetic about the things they’re thankful for, I couldn’t help but resist sharing three last pictures that sum up our gratitude at Island Books.

Above you’ll see a photo of our children’s section, and if you look in the upper right hand corner you’ll see this picture is circa 1985. It doesn’t look all that different, does it? Today, some of the books on the shelves have gone from apple pie to salted caramel apple pie, but basically it’s the same slice now as it was back then.


Here’s the chalkboard we prepared for our recent anniversary celebration. On it, you’ll see the names of every Island Books employee over the last 40 years. It’s not that big of a list, and what’s particularly unusual in today’s work world is how long most of these people worked for Island Books. When you don’t have much turnover, the list of employees remains small.


Here’s my favorite picture. Do you recognize these characters? The menu of booksellers hasn’t changed much. I don’t know the exact year offhand, but Roger’s hair is significantly less gray. This is not a recent picture. Does anyone else know the year and can you name them all?

This year, we’re thankful for making it through 40 years of doing what we love best. The books that flow through our shelves may change, but our passion for reading and bookselling remains as steadfast as ever.

We hope you had a warm and memorable Thanksgiving.


A Conversation With Tom Nissley, Author of A Reader’s Book of Days
imageThis Saturday is Small Business Saturday, and we have the good fortune of having local writer Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days and Jeopardy! champion) as our guest bookseller. We started the conversation with him here, but if you come by the store on Saturday between 2 and 4pm, you can pick it up yourself where we left off. He’ll be gracing the store with his amiable presence and all kinds of literary recommendations. Don’t miss it!

Island Books: A Reader’s Book of Days is essentially a literary calendar and merges two worlds: the history of great writers as well as fictional characters. Are there particular authors who used detailed dates in their novels, and do you think they based their fictional dates around events in their own life?

Tom: I had never really paid attention to how novelists used dates before, but once I started working on this book I suddenly started to care about that very much! Some of my favorite novelists (Marilynne Robinson, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf) rarely tell you what day it is in their stories—and you wouldn’t really want them to. But some novelists are maestros of the date, and use them to great effect. Nabokov has dates all over his books—Lolita was born on January 1, for instance—and so do Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and H.P. Lovecraft. I think part of what makes the Sherlock Holmes stories so effective are all the specific details: the London street names, the kinds of cabs Holmes and Watson take, and the exact dates when, say, the five orange pips arrive (January 4) and the Red-Headed League is disbanded (October 9, 1890).

As far as tying stories to their own lives, the classic example is James Joyce, who chose June 16, 1904, for Bloomsday, the day Ulysses is set, because it was the day he went on his first outing with his future wife Nora Barnacle. But I loved discovering some other connections between authors and their books, like the way Toni Morrison used her birthday for the opening scene in Song of Solomon and Maurice Sendak hid his in the background of In the Night Kitchen. And of course Harry Potter shares his birthday, July 31, with his creator, J.K. Rowling.

Island Books: When is your birthday and what noteworthy events happened on that day? Was that the most interesting day for you to research? If not, what day was?

Tom: I’ve always been disappointed that my birthday, June 24, has never been much of a day for famous birthdays or events, so I was particularly happy when I read back over Annie Proulx’s story, Brokeback Mountain, and saw that perhaps the central moment in the story, when Jack and Ennis see each other again after four years and are drawn together so violently Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth, takes place on June 24. And I was even more pleased when I went through the story and did the math and realized that it had in fact taken place on June 24, 1967, my exact birthday.

In general, I ended up being more interested in the stories I found to tell—no matter what date they fell on—than the dates, but one thing I did like doing was taking some of the most iconic dates in our history and coming at them from a way you might not expect. November 22, 1963—whose fiftieth anniversary we’re celebrating this month—was not only the day Kennedy died, but C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley too. There’s a story in the book of Huxley’s wife wanting to give him a last shot of LSD to ease his way into the afterlife (in keeping with his long interest in psychedelic experimentation) and wondering why the doctor and nurses in their house were watching the TV instead of their patient. And September 11, 2001, was also the day that Calvin Trillin’s wife Alice died in another part of Manhattan, and the day his fellow New Yorker writer Ian Frazier came to the end of the cross-continent trip he describes in Travels in Siberia and found out what had happened at home when he called his wife at home in New Jersey.

imageIsland Books: Have you become superstitious about certain dates after researching the book?

Tom: I’m not too superstitious to begin with, but I think if anything writing this book has made me less so: I realize that wonderful and terrible and just flat out weird things can happen in writer’s lives on pretty much every day.

Island Books: Tell us about your PhD in literature. What did you write your thesis on?

Tom: Do you really want to know? My dissertation did get published as a book about ten years ago, but as far as I know the chair of my PhD committee and my mother-in-law are the only people who have read the whole thing. It’s called Intimate and Authentic Economies: The Self-Made Man from Douglass to Chaplin, and even at the time I couldn’t have summarized it very well for you. But I did make sure that most of the writers I wrote about for it—Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown (the author of another well-known slave narrative), Benjamin Franklin, Horatio Alger, Nathanael West, James Weldon Johnson—made it into A Reader’s Book of Days too. (I especially like the Alger story, about the first biography of him, which was written as a joke and a hoax—making up all kinds of things about his life—but was taken as fact for decades.) The last chapter of my dissertation was on silent movies—I didn’t have a chance to include any of those in this book, but I’m writing a novel on that fascinating subject…

Island Books: Your love of trivia radiates from RBOD. Did you begin thinking about this book before or after you became a Jeopardy! champion? How much would you say your Jeopardy! experience influenced the book?

Tom: I was thinking about writing a book like this before Jeopardy!, although I didn’t come up with the format until afterwards. But I have always loved a certain kind of book—a book that looks like a reference book, but is really an idiosyncratic book of stories rather than an organized book of facts. The Book of Lists, one of my favorite books as a kid, was like that, and I had a couple of others in mind as I wrote this one: David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film and Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract. Neither of them would be the first place you go if you just wanted to look up a fact, but if you wanted to get caught up in browsing and learn a hundred things you didn’t even know you didn’t know, they are perfect.

I’m not sure if my Jeopardy! experience affected the book itself very much, but it did make me a little more confident that people might read it.

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

Tom: I have lots of different kinds of favorites, but for the last few years there are three books that I’ve thought of as the Triumvirate that rules my imaginative world, in part because they are just fantastic novels, but in part because they helped me figure out the kind of fiction I want to write (and am slowly trying to write): Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. Just weird, brilliant books, which are quite willing to tell as much as show in a very imperious way, which goes against everything writing students have been told to do for ages.

Island Books: Why do you think you’d make a good bookseller at Island Books?

Tom: I’ve always wanted to be a bookseller! One of my favorite days every year has always been when I go to a bookstore some time in December and spend hours browsing through the aisles looking for the right books for all the people on my holiday lists. I love surprising someone with the right book for them (especially if they didn’t even know it existed). I also feel like I’m reading the books vicariously through them—either a book I’ve been intrigued by but haven’t had time to get to myself, or one I love and like to imagine them enjoying for the first time, or one I’m not even sure I’d like but think they might!


New Children’s Titles

The Bookstore Twins are 14 months old now (don’t ask me where the time is going). Between the hours of 7am and 7pm, you won’t find me reading any of that delicious fiction and nonfiction I recommended over the last two weeks. I’m only allowed to touch those goodies right before bed, as long as I can stay awake.

If I’m not hauling the kiddos off to store or library story times, or letting them drive Roger and Co. crazy by dismantling bookshelves at Island Books, I’m encouraging their interest in reading right on our living room rug. With children’s books, illustrations are everything, especially as I’m trying to teach my toddlers a vocabulary. If kids aren’t captivated, they won’t focus.

Goodnight Moon is the standby and they can’t get enough of it, but honestly, I’m tired. Pat the Bunny has been chewed to pieces. For my own sake if not for the munchkins, it’s time for something new. Fortunately, Hanukkah and Christmas are on the way. Here’s what my kids will be unwrapping.

imageFriends by Eric Carle: Every parent loves Eric Carle thanks to The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This year he’s sharing a more personal side, with a story based on the loving bond Carle shares with his wife. In Friends, a boy’s best friend moves away and he embarks on a journey to find her. The kids only appear in the beginning and end of the book, and the middle includes vibrant pictures of the river he swims across, the meadow he walks over, and the flowers he picks for his friend. Their reunion makes for a satisfying ending.

Carle’s latest is obviously perfect for my boy/girl twins, but the story has a nice message for everyone about the effort we make for those we care about and the transcendent nature of friendship. Another strength of Friends is the colorful illustrations that are so clearly Carle’s. Kids will look at the book long before they’re able to read or even understand the text and recognize the style. It’s apparent these creations belong to the same world that Carle’s caterpillar and brown bear reside in, and because of that, opening the pages feels like returning to visit a landscape we already know.
imageThe Tortoise and the Hare by Jerry Pinkney: I love this cover so much that even if I didn’t know anything about what was inside or that Pinkney won the Caldecott for his other fable, The Lion and the Mouse (also a magnificent cover), I’d still be hooked. What gets me about Pinkney’s illustrations are the eyes. He manages to convey so much personality in the animals’ expressions that the story tells itself with very little text. And is it just me, or does that tortoise look just a little bit like Roger Page?

Slow and steady wins the race, and beneath that tired and I-am-not-amused expression gleams wisdom gained from experience. This sporting event happens surrounded by cacti and the landscape of the southwest, and the country flavor of the spectators’ clothing adds humor and charm. The watercolor illustrations are gorgeous and will keep kids studying the same pages over and over.


Cinders by Jan Brett: Much like Pinkney, Brett is a master of setting and atmosphere. Her chicken Cinderella story takes place in Russia, and it’s the wintry nature of each page that gives the book a chilly yet glamorous mood. The ice-covered buildings and elaborately-dressed chickens are sumptuously illustrated.

This is a humorous fairytale, and the chickens are filled with personality and ridiculousness. Keeping chickens is popular in the Seattle area, and if your kids spend any time around the real thing, they’ll crack up seeing their goofy animal friends as part of the story.


Amy Tan, Anita Shreve, and Adriana Trigiani For Fall Reading

Last week we talked about nonfiction, but if that category isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Today I’ll point you towards some new fiction I think you’ll enjoy, which reaches all the way from China to England to Italy. Before I spread out the wares, however, one side comment about fiction as a holiday gift. Sometimes we hesitate to give novels for fear of gifting something the recipient won’t like. It can seem easier to present a cookbook to someone we know likes to cook. Let me encourage you to take the leap this season and take your friends and family somewhere they wouldn’t otherwise visit. Sometimes the pure escapism of an enthralling novel is just the respite from real life that people need, and the push of a gift can encourage them to take a journey they wouldn’t otherwise pursue on their own. I assure you that stretching someone’s imagination is a wonderful gift.

Now, without further ado, have a look at these new titles.

imageThe Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan: Inspired by a family photograph that implied her grandmother may have been a courtesan, Amy Tan decided to revisit her favorite topicsmother/daughter relationships and the juxtaposition of Chinese and American culturein the context of a Shanghai courtesan house at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike her other novels about Chinese women coming to America, this time the immigrant experience moves in the other direction, from San Francisco to Shanghai. The Valley of Amazement will inevitably be compared to Arthur Golden’s bestseller about Japanese courtesans, Memoirs of a Geisha, but fans of that novel shouldn’t expect an equally satisfying love story. What they will get is the similar level of detail and powerful atmosphere of a world both remote and compelling.

In Valley, a young American girl named Lulu becomes pregnant and leaves her family in San Francisco to follow her lover, a Chinese artist, back to Shanghai. When it becomes clear that his traditional family will never accept her, she is forced to make her own way in the world and goes on to open a successful house of pleasure. She raises her daughter, Violet, among the courtesans, and when Violet is a teenager, Lulu decides to return to America. A vengeful suitor tricks Lulu into leaving Violet behind and convinces her Violet is dead. Violet is sold into life as a courtesan. Doomed love affairs and the kidnapping of her own daughter, Flora, make Violet’s life story a sad repeat of her mother’s history,

There is no enlightenment in Tan’s new novel, just hard lessons and painful heartbreak. The author’s characteristic humor and and insight bring the lavish and mysterious courtesan world to life. You might not always like these characters, but you’ll become immersed in their world and feel their heartbreaks.

imageStella Bain by Anita Shreve: Amidst all the fiction set during or right after World War II, here comes a book set against World War I. It’s 1916, and a nurse’s aid suffering amnesia due to shell shock is trying to carry on with her life. Her name may or may not be Stella Bain. She turns up on the London doorstep of a surgeon and his wife, August and Lily Bridge, who take her in and help her uncover a deeply repressed trauma in her past. Fans of Downton Abbey will find a similar tone within the pages of Stella Bain.

The book begins in the present tense, to help readers experience the confusion and fear that Stella feels due to her amnesia. As the past comes to light, Shreve switches to past tense. This doesn’t always work in fiction, but here it’s fine thanks to Shreve’s masterful storytelling skills. She doesn’t embellish, and her careful use of words allows genuine emotion to well up between the lines.

There’s a particular elegance in all of Anita Shreve’s novels which sets her apart from other writers. In contrast to the hidden world described in such detail in Valley of Amazement, Stella Bain is far more familiarrife with characters that feel closer to home. I suspect book clubs will flock towards Stella Bain for its simplicity and the questions the book raises about memory, motherhood, and love.

The Supreme Macaroni Company by Adriana Trigiani: “‘All families are crazy.’ ‘Why is that?’ ‘People are involved,‘“is a classic Trigiani line that sums up what the story is all about. Heartwarming humor and the warmth of family are the author’s trademarks, and the third and final installment in Trigiani’s Valentine trilogy (Very Valentine and Brava, Valentine are the first two) is as charming and vivacious as the others. If you haven’t read the other Valentine books, or anything by Trigiani before, never fear. You can jump right in without the background, and at the end you’ll be delighted to know there are two more books filled with these lovable characters.

Valentine is a New York career woman before her time; an ambitious and creative shoe designer who excels in the family business. As the book opens, Valentine’s older lover Gianluca, an Italian leather tanner, has just proposed to her. The plot takes us through their hurried wedding and into a marital struggle everyone can relate to: how to manage career and family. Their large and boisterous Italian family only complicates things.

While The Supreme Macaroni Company is as warm and clever as the rest of the trilogy, it also takes on a more serious tone. What Valentine hasn’t realized at the beginning is that getting married means her life needs to change, and the issues she faces on the way to that realization will pull at reader’s heartstrings.

What I love most about any of Adriana Trigiani’s books is the feeling they leave you with—that you’ve received a big effusive hug from a long-lost friend. That’s a pretty great gift.


Yes to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tom Nissley, and Ann Patchett

In the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing a few hand-picked new books in three different categories: nonfiction, fiction, and children’s. It’s gift-giving season, after all, and there are plenty of choices. Each bookseller at Island Books has their favorite new releases, and you can browse a broader selection of our current staff picks here. Before you arrive at the store, however, let me introduce you to some of my favorite new arrivals. We’ll kick off today’s post with some notable nonfiction.

imageThe Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Yes, it’s 928 pages. But if you’re familiar with Goodwin’s work, you know that she’s going to give the complexity and scope of her subject its due. In this case, for the first decade of the 20th century, a short book just won’t cut it. Goodwin’s books are known for covering momentous events in American history through the eyes of great leaders. In The Bully Pulpit, Teddy Roosevelt and his chosen successor, William Taft, take center stage. The rupture of their relationship (culminating in the election of 1912, which Roosevelt won in a landslide after deciding to run against his protégé) had a tremendous ripple effect, both on the presswho stopped glossing over the news and became muckrakers during that timeand the publicwho received their first glimpse into the behind-the-scenes politics, thanks to the press.

The surprise here is Taft, who Americans know little of beyond the fact that he was so fat he once got stuck in a White House bathtub. Readers will almost feel sorry for him.

imageA Reader’s Book of Days by Tom Nissley: Local author, Jeopardy champion, and former Amazon books editor Nissley has been busy reading and stashing trivia in his already-too-big brain for years, and lucky for us, he’s put all of it to good use in a remarkable literary calendar of sorts. Nissley recommends you begin A Reader’s Book of Days by looking up your birthday. I did so (mine is February 10th) and learned that on that day, E.L. Konigsburg was born, Laura Ingalls Wilder died, and three bestsellersDomestic Manners of the Americans, True History of the Kelly Gang, and Just Kidsbegan brewing due to little-known and entertaining events that I won’t go into here. Nissley’s book is somewhat mind-boggling in it’s wealth of far-flung knowledge, and will easily dazzle any book lover. You can get a good sense of Tom’s charm on his blog.

Some good news for fans: Nissley will be at Island Books at 2pm on Small Business Saturday, November 30th, working as one of our staff and hand-selling some of his favorite titles. We’re looking forward to having him, and know our customers will enjoy a fresh face behind the counter! He might even be willing to sign a copy of his book…

imageThis Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett: All indie bookstore employees, customers, and supporters love Ann Patchett simply for opening her own independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville, Tennessee. But the place to know this incredibly special author and person in a one-on-one manner is within the pages of her books, and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is the book that will let you know her the best. This collection of essays, some republished from earlier points in her career and some written specifically for the book, covers far more than just her experience in marriage. From stories of her first freelance job working for Seventeen magazine (“[They] went a long way to beat any ego out of me”) to a vivid childhood memory of her father reading her a Christmas story over the phone (“…in the kind of explosion of understanding that happens sometimes in childhood, I got more and more…There was no gift that could have made me feel my father really knew me the way that story did”), nowhere is Patchett’s life more vivid. It’s not just the stories themselves that are so good, but her deep well of understanding and humanity which make the storytelling so arresting.

One theme that comes up again and again: Patchett always knew she wanted to be a writer. She reiterates that like a mantra across many of her essays. And whether Patchett realizes it or not, she’s indirectly telling us that yes, people can and do live their dream. This is not just the story of a happy marriage, it’s the story of a happy career, one we can all admire and emulate. Even better, we can reap the benefits of her generosity with the written word.


Pride and Prejudice, The Maid’s Version

imageOctober brings us an interesting effort to capitalize on the magic of both Jane Austen and Downton Abbey. Author Jo Baker turns Pride and Prejudice on its head, offering a glimpse into the servants’ lives at the Bennet household.

Before you roll your eyes, pause and hear me out. I am not a fan of Austen reinventions. I am, however, a Downton Abbey watcher (thanks to James), although in my humble opinion the show jumped the shark after the first season or so. I also have this habit of sighing when offered a novel that so clearly has been written with the intention of catering to the market. When I worked as an editor, I can’t tell you how many times I reviewed book proposals billed as “Jurassic Park meets The Da Vinci Code" or "Romeo and Juliet retold as a western” or some other premise clearly riding the coattails of an earlier success. I understand how necessary it is for authors to appeal to a mass audience nowadays, but I always worry that a gimmick is just a pig with lipstick. Give me great writing and an original story any day over a book that’s trying too hard. So when I see a new novel billed as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, I’m skeptical. The good news is, Longbourn is what it claims to be, and refreshingly so.

Longbourn is a slow burn (no pun intended), growing in power the further you read. I didn’t want to like it necessarily, but when I felt myself getting sucked in too much to put it down, I conceded that Baker has done something right. The smartest thing she did is avoid an attempt at Austen’s voice, and Longbourn succeeds as a completely different type of novel than Pride and Prejudice. Sarah, the young maid, is our heroine and she is easy to like; her ambitions are small and her life of crippling housework and drudgery makes her a character to both pity and admire. She doesn’t possess the sparkling wit of Elizabeth Bennet; instead Sarah is humble and introspective. Her steadiness gives Longourn a refreshing heart and soul. It makes sense that the servants wouldn’t be as lighthearted as the masters, because there life simply isn’t as carefree.

The Bennets’ staff is small, led by an older married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and their two orphan housemaids, Sarah and Polly. A mysterious man named James joins the staff at the beginning of the book, getting off on the wrong foot with Sarah and putting a series of events in motion. The Pride and Prejudice plot is the backdrop for what happens in the servants’ lives, but don’t expect the Bennets’ storyline to sparkle the way it does in the original. Here the interchanges between Elizabeth and Darcy are entirely missing, so the only juicy back story Longbourn offers surround Wickham and Mr. Bennet. I won’t give those twists away. Mr. Collins is also portrayed in a much more sympathetic light. Essentially the plot revolves around Sarah, her flirtation with a black footman who works for the Bingleys, and what happens between her and James. Steeped in the grittiness of a servant’s life, the outcome resonates in a way that the upstairs characters’ fates never could.

On a broader scale, Baker’s vision is a historical novel as much as a romance, examining a life of endless servitude in the English countryside. If readers can look past the Pride and Prejudice connection and see Longbourn as a standalone, I suspect the book will be more appreciated. For those that love the Bennets, the way the servants focus on the flaws of the upstairs characters could inspire some defensiveness. But when we read Pride and Prejudice, did we ever stop to think of the consequences of Elizabeth dirtying her petticoats? The servants are the ones who pay the price. If you’re able to distance yourself from the Elizabeth in the original, gaining Sarah’s perspective is rewarding and eye-opening.

There is one plot twist at the end of Longbourn that feels like a stretch. It involves a major character from P&P and casts a whole new light on the original story. I’ll be curious to hear how others digested it.


Cindy Scares Me…


The days have been growing shorter, and now it’s dark by the time the kids go to bed. There’s a brisk chill in the air too. Fall is announcing itself.

Late the other night, I sat up working on our monthly newsletter. I was grasping for time in between my one-year-old daughter’s separation anxiety screaming fits. Her twin brother hasn’t exhibited her recent behavior, thank goodness, but she virtually howls.

Roger had asked Cindy to help me compile the Halloween booklist for adults. I love a good thriller and and have read far too many of them, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read a full-fledged horror novel. I was sifting through new titles to include when I opened Cindy’s email.

Cindy, as you know, has rung up hordes of titles at the front counter and always has her finger on the pulse of what customers like. She took Roger’s charge seriously, and her suggestions went above and beyond the scope of the list I was trying to cultivate. So I felt it was only appropriate to share her deeper thoughts on the blog as to what you should be reading for Halloween. Her list was so good that I nearly woke my peacefully sleeping husband just so I didn’t feel so alone in the house. With my daughter finally silent, I felt like shrieking myself. The very names of some of Cindy’s books sent chills up my spine, as I began to picture ghosts, murderers, and vampires roaming in my backyard.

First Cindy gave me this list of authors:
H.P. Lovecraft
H.G. Wells
Edgar Allen Poe
Bram Stoker
Mary Shelley
Ray Bradbury (The Halloween Tree)
Whitley Streiber
Peter Straub
Clive Barker
Ira Levin
Robert McCammon
Tanith Lee
Joe Hill (20th Century Ghosts, Horns, Heart-Shaped Box, NOS4ATU)
Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book)
Stephen King (Dr. Sleep)
Peter Stenson (Fiend)
Adam Mansbach (The Dead Run)

Then she went more specific with these titles:
The Historian
The Turn of the Screw
Woman in Black
Interview with the Vampire
Haunting of Hill House 
Haunted Washington
Bad Seeds
Ghosts: Recent Hauntings
Poe’s Children
(ed., Peter Straub)
The Big Book of Ghost Stories (ed. Otto Penzler)

I’ll add Tana French, Jo Nesbo, and Sophie Hannah to Cindy’s list of authors and Every Last One, Before I Go to Sleep, and Sister to her list of specific books.

I used to read horror novels under the covers with a flashlight when I was a teenager, long after I was supposed to be asleep. I read all the early Stephen King and Flowers in the Attic like that and scared myself sick. It may have been a long time ago, but just thinking about reading some of the books on Cindy’s list brought back those memories. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And when my daughter started a fresh round of screaming, I nearly screamed with her.

Halloween is coming. Lock your doors and read yourself into a tizzy. It’s kind of fun.


Island Books in 1986

Do I have a doozy for you this week. Look closely at the image below. This, my friends, is a letter Roger Page wrote to the staff at Island Books 27 years ago. Of course, he typed it on one of the typewriters that adorns our shelves in the store today.


It’s a bit prophetic, no? Roger keeps this little gem in a book of memorabilia that tells the story of the little bookstore that could. What’s so notable is how relevant his comments are, decades later. The Goliath to our David isn’t Waldenbooks nowadays, but we are still chugging along, same as we always were and following the same philosophies.

imageWho else besides me remembers Waldenbooks? I remember hanging out in one at the mall as a teenager, surreptitiously trying to read Sweet Valley High for free. It was a supermarket all right. Eventually Waldenbooks became part of the Borders chain, which as we all know went bankrupt in 2011.

The artifact speaks for itself, but the only way this letter to staff shows its age is through the name of Waldenbooks, the uncomfortable attitude towards computers, and the mention of James Clavell’s Whirlwind. (Whirlwind was set in a turbulent Iran after the exile of the Shah in 1979. It came out in ‘86 and is now out of print). Otherwise, Roger could have written the same words today and they would be just as true.


James and Miriam Read Chocolates for Breakfast, Part II


(continued from part one)

Miriam: I tried to read CFB without being influenced by the context of the back story, but I agree Moore was out to do more than just shock. To me, it read a bit like a novel written out of anger and the desire to indict adults. I can’t say I sympathized with Courtney or Janet (or the voice of the narrator). While Moore did a great job depicting why the girls behaved the way they did and how lonely they were, their blatant disregard for their own well-being made it difficult for me to care for them, probably because they didn’t care much for themselves. Courtney seemed like a narcissistic, depressed, and angry young woman. Both she and Janet were calculated manipulators, as evident here: “It had worked, by God; she knew it would…she sensed she would win this man’s interest, and that was all she wanted. She would never forget that first day, when she found that it worked.”

There has been much debate about authors who create unlikable protagonists. Claire Messud spoke at length about that scenario, and the bottom line is, characters don’t have to win a popularity contest to make a stellar novel. In fact, I’d argue that authors who can write a spectacular book without sympathetic characters possess a special talent. Pamela Moore had it.

Did you like the characters, James? I’m going out on a limb here by admitting my favorite character was Courtney’s last boyfriend, Charles. Even if he was condescending and self-righteous, he had a good head on his shoulders and was the only person who seemed interested in what would be good for Courtney (maybe Miss Rosen did too, because by cutting Courtney off she saved her further scandal and heartbreak. Or maybe Miss Rosen was just looking out for herself). Courtney’s other love interests, Barry, the bisexual actor, and Anthony, the spoiled rich kid, were both selfish and immature and never had Courtney’s best interests at heart. Although I will give Anthony credit for letting her go in the end.

Who was your favorite character? I’m curious if you’re going to pick one of the women since I picked one of the men. I’m wondering if it’s easier for us to sympathize with the opposite gender because we can’t identify as closely with the characters…

James: It didn’t occur to me to like any of the characters, I don’t think. They’re all flawed, most of them badly, with the possible exception of Miss Rosen, but as you point out, we don’t really get to know enough about her to determine whether she’s nice or just tries to seem that way. Charles has his charms, but he came off as unpleasantly arrogant to me. Anthony is an interesting case; I’m not even sure Moore wants us to see him as a real person. He appeared to be a refugee from another kind of book entirely, a figure out of Byron or Wilde. Given all that, I’d have to say that Courtney was my favorite. Depressed, angry, and acting out, sure, but I blame her situation more than her self.

Speaking of depression, I thought Moore was amazingly prescient in the way she handled the topic. Her descriptions of Courtney’s cutting and her mood swings (that we would now call manifestations of bipolar disorder) seemed almost anachronistic, they were so good. Those issues are treated frequently in fiction these days, even in teen and tween novels, but back in the ’50s they weren’t.

For me, a lot of the value of CFB comes from its being a document of its times, but for Moore’s sake I wish she’d grown up a few decades later. As a college-aged kid of today she’d probably have better access to psychological support and see more avenues of expression open to her. Of course, she probably wouldn’t be compelled to create the protagonist and write the book she did. The emblematic novel of jaded youth from my era was Bret Easton Ellis’ vapid Rules of Attraction, and things have gone downhill from there. Look at Snooki.

Miriam: I’ll take Pamela Moore over Snooki any day (just from the photo in this column, compared to any of Snooki’s photos). I agree about Moore’s portrayal of depression, because let’s face it, part of the reason these characters are compelling is because they’re all somewhat depressed. I felt it most at the beginning, when Courtney slept all the time; what a subtle but familiar behavior. Her method for pulling herself out of the excessive sleeping was to lose her virginity and engage in an entirely inappropriate affair, which was also painful and telling. I suppose I can see why you like her, because underneath all her posturing she’s definitely a little girl lost. I agree also with your take on Anthony, who was definitely like a Dorian Gray or even Gatsby-type character.

Warning, readers: big spoiler coming so stop now if you want to be surprised.

James, let’s talk about Janet’s suicide. Did you see it coming? Moore clearly sets it up to be the parents’ fault, whether it’s Sondra’s choice to kick Janet out or Janet’s father’s for nearly choking her. Obviously something bad was looming near the end, but I was waiting for a scene where Janet confronts Courtney about her affair with Anthony and it never came.

Ultimately, it’s a rebel without a cause story, one that I enjoyed. Good pick as usual, my esteemed colleague. Keep ‘em coming.

James: I didn’t see Janet’s death coming, but only because the story seemed to be setting Courtney up for a fall. Not necessarily literally, mind you. I felt the tragedy of the existing ending, and I guess it makes sense that Janet, who was a bit less sharp than Courtney with a home life a bit more screwed up, would succumb to her demons first. Still, it seemed almost a cop-out for the author to deflect the oncoming train away from her heroine. It didn’t ruin the book, but it did make me think that Moore wasn’t quite as rebellious as she set out to be. Hard to say whether it was her own muse or the publishing environment of the time that required her to leave open the possibility of redemption. Writing a truly black ending wasn’t then and isn’t now a great career move. I know she went on to produce a few other novels that weren’t nearly as popular; maybe she became less reticent and those were even darker.

I hadn’t planned to go on a 1950s jag, but right after I finished CFB I turned to a short book called In Love by Alfred Hayes, which came out three years before Moore’s debut and was just reprinted by New York Review Books. It’s another story of doomed romance, but it made for an interesting contrast. It’s less energetic than CFB, and more frank about how mid-century men and women wooed each other without trying to be salacious about it. The characters aren’t entering a world that has no place for them, they’ve found their place and lived in it so long that it’s grown shabby. Worth a look for anyone who’s in the mood for some aged whiskey to chase CFB’s bathtub gin.

You may rightly be afraid of a hangover, Miriam, and need some time away from boozy books, but we should definitely do something like this again. It’s always a pleasure to read along with a colleague possessing such exquisite taste. I mean you too, blog followers!

James and Miriam Read Chocolates for Breakfast, Part I

imageJames threw a fun curve ball at me recently. He suggested we read and blog about Chocolates for Breakfast together. Why have we never had this brilliant idea before? We’ve been running Message in a Bottle for two years now and always toss ideas back and forth. So it’s about time we lined up our reading schedules and hashed our opinions out online. We are different readers and I’m not quite sure how this little public book club experiment is going to go, but if it’s anything like our editorial meetings I’m sure it’ll be a good time.

A little background, first, but be warned there are spoilers in this paragraph. Chocolates for Breakfast is a coming-of-age novel written in 1956 by then-eighteen-year-old Pamela Moore. It was a huge bestseller but eventually went out of print in 1967. The publisher recently decided to revive Chocolates for the first time in 45 years. The plot revolves around fifteen-year-old Courtney Farrell, whose parents have put her in boarding school following their divorce. Her mother is an aspiring actress in Los Angeles and her father lives in New York. Courtney develops a crush on a female professor who rejects her, and her roommate and close friend Janet watches her sink into a depression. Eventually Courtney’s mother takes note and invites her to come and live in LA. Courtney goes and enters a world of sophisticated and jaded adults. She experiences her first romantic affair with an older homosexual actor, which ends after he returns to his male lover. Her mother fails to find work, but her father’s financial situation improves and he offers to finance a move to Manhattan. There Courtney reconnects with her school friend Janet, who lives with her abusive and alcoholic father and depressed mother. Janet brings Courtney into a world of alcoholic rich kids. Eventually Courtney takes up in a loveless and strange affair with Janet’s ex-boyfriend, a European rich kid who lives in a hotel with his parents’ money. A more practical and strait-laced suitor enters Courtney’s life at the same time that Janet moves in with her to escape her father’s abuse. When Courtney’s mother gets fed up and sends Janet home, Janet finds her mother has entered a sanitarium. After a terrible encounter with her father, Janet jumps off her balcony to her death. The novel ends with Courtney ending her affair with Janet’s ex and heading off to dinner with her practical new boyfriend, presumably to clean up her act and grow up.

Okay, friends, that sums it up. Now I’m turning the conversation towards James. Feel free to listen in and participate by leaving your comments below.


imageMiriam: First of all, what was it that appealed to you about Chocolates for Breakfast and gave you the idea that we should read it together? I was initially surprised you would be interested in a girl’s coming of age novel, since you’re not the typical audience for this type of book. I suspect it was the backstory more than the premise that caught your eye. As you know I naturally gravitate towards this kind of thing, being that Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld is one of my favorite novels. The problem is so many are poorly written. That’s not the case with CFB. If anything, I was shocked that a teenager actually wrote it. The voice is so mature it’s hard to believe the protagonist (and especially the author) was so young.

James: What? I have a lengthy track record of appreciating such novels. There was … let me see … The Bell Jar, and …. I’m sure there was another one. OK, you got me. Without the backstory I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up at all. When I heard that the publisher wanted to resuscitate a book that was more than five decades old, I was intrigued, and then I read a fascinating interview with the author’s son at The Rumpus that sealed the deal. He never knew his mother; you mentioned above that Moore was a teenager when she wrote CFB, but not that she killed herself less than ten years later, while her infant son slept in the next room. I don’t usually care too much about the autobiographical aspects of fiction, but the knowledge I had about her life (not just her death) made CFB feel almost like a novel within a novel for me.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed in it. As you say, it’s much better written than most similar books. There might be a few too many mentions of “slim, young” bodies, but otherwise Moore’s very careful with her words. I particularly liked this observation about Los Angeles: “The palm trees, of course, were lit by floodlights because it is man’s business to improve upon actuality.” Note the 1950s-appropriate use of the masculine general there.

It’s not too surprising that she could capture Courtney’s voice, but she also manages to get very successfully into the heads of several older characters. When Sondra’s bothered by Barry at the bar, the narrator says on her behalf, “The best way to treat a difficult child was to ignore him.” Sums up Sondra’s philosophy on child-rearing pretty well. Detachment parenting, anyone?

One of the other appealing things about CFB was its bookishness. I love that Moore felt comfortable name-dropping Finnegans Wake so often (although it always appears with an unnecessary apostrophe, which I’m going to blame on an over-zealous copy editor in 2013).

But the most delicious aspect is probably the scandal of it all. You probably have to read something at least this old to get such a strong sense of taboo-busting. I don’t think Moore set out purely to shock, though. I think she was trying to talk in a serious way about the effects constraint has on young women, especially American women. But you are one of those, so you’re better positioned to comment on that.

(continued in part two)

New from Jhumpa Lahiri

imageYou’re going to read many, many raves about The Lowland this fall, and the good news is, all the applause is well deserved. The cover is a big clue about how good the book is, because there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about it, not even a color. There’s no need to sell what’s on the pages because the writing speaks for itself.

Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth, all of which are superb. The Lowland is her new novel and already on the long list for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. That’s because The Lowland is nothing short of a triumph. Lahiri is at the height of her powers and one of the best writers in literary fiction today. I’d venture to say that if you’re going to read only one novel this fall, this should be it. I’ll stake my reputation on the recommendation.

The Lowland is the story of the Mitra brothers from Calcutta: Subhash, the dutiful scholarly one, and Udayan, passionate and opinionated. While Udayan becomes increasingly involved with the 1960s Mao-inspired Naxalite political rebellion, Subhash goes to America and adapts to life on the seashore of Rhode Island to pursue a graduate degree. Udayan marries a studious girl named Gauri, only to become the victim of his self-invited political violence. As always, Subhash returns to India to clean up Udayan’s mess.

But that’s only the premise. The nuanced beauty of the novel is in the consequences, and the psychological implications for Subhash and Gauri in particular. The landscapes of Calcutta and Rhode Island serve as an evocative background for a story that resists melodrama, instead exploring the implications of youthful decisions and how they drive a person’s destiny. Lahiri has a particular talent for showing the passage of time in a manner that feels incredibly real and deep, not rushed or glossed over. There’s a way the setting sinks into you over the course of the book. She lets you feel like you’ve been fully immersed in her world.

One question the book raises (without releasing spoilers) is: What are the consequences of keeping secrets from our children, and what happens when they find out the truth as adults? Lahiri’s answer might surprise you. It’s not about the answer though; it’s the question that will weigh on your mind and wrench your heart.

imageAs longtime readers of this blog know, I often discuss books with my mother-in-law, who is always up-to-date on a variety of genres. When I bragged to her that I had an advance copy of The Lowland, I thought she’d be impressed. Instead I was shocked to discover she’d never read any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work. “You must read The Namesake immediately,” I practically shouted, and to her credit, she did. (How many times have we all pressed a book on someone to have the recommendation disregarded? Or felt that glimmer of annoyance when someone gives us an unsolicited command to read something?) She was up here to see the grandchildren only a week later and she was devouring The Namesake. I don’t know how she did it since the twins filled every waking moment. But at the end of the trip she was done and raving about how much she loved it. She immediately pre-ordered The Lowland rather than taking my physical copy because she wanted to read it on her iPad (Kobo app, people, Kobo; support the indie bookstore over the unnamed giant corporation).

So if you don’t take my word for it, take my mother-in-law’s. Jhumpa Lahiri is as good as it gets, and The Lowland is her best work yet. Literary yet accessible, heartbreaking yet restrained, I absolutely loved it.


Is J.D. Salinger Back From the Grave?

imageThere are some fantastic nonfiction titles coming out this fall, but one in particular is making a big splash before it even hits the shelves: Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno. The 720-page hardcover goes on sale this Tuesday, and last week, enough people had read advance copies to start the buzz. According to Shields and Salerno, Salinger had five unpublished works that he planned to release years after his death (he only published four during his lifetime).

The Salinger biography is coming out alongside a documentary of the same name, also produced and directed by Shane Salerno. Probably the most famous reclusive author of the 20th century, Salinger is a compelling topic for the media storm coming this fall. There’s plenty of tidbits we don’t know about him. Interested parties will not be disappointed, because the book and movie drop plenty of bombshells. 

We know some of the distressing facts about Salinger’s life already, like the fact that his bestselling novel, Catcher in the Rye, played a role in at least three shootings, including the headline-making murder of John Lennon. People say no one else came as close to capturing an iconic coming-of-age voice the way Salinger did. He was the voice of teen-angst, one that troubled young people often unfortunately used as justification for violent actions. We also know that Salinger saw far too many horrors of war as he stood on the front lines of World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge and D-Day at Utah Beach.


The new biography offers up additional reasons to believe Salinger was an unhappy man. There’s the claim that Salinger only had one testicle and the deformity played a role in why he chose to become a recluse. We also learn a great deal about his love affairs, which don’t paint him in a good light (such as the anecdote about him breaking up with the young Jean Millerafter a five year courtshipthe day after they finally consummated the relationship). He repeatedly pursued teenage girls (who were often half his age) initially via correspondence, and eventually turned cold towards them and broke their hearts.

The Salinger mystique leaves me conflicted about the existence of this new biography and skeptical about the motive for posthumous publication. For a man that removed himself from society so definitively, it seems unlikely he would appreciate this intrusion into his deepest secrets. This is not someone that let a biographer follow him around or interview him. He shunned attention. So I can’t imagine he would appreciate this level of scrutiny.

Besides my discomfort over prying into the life of someone who kept his door deliberately shut, I’m confused as to why Salinger would plan to publish his later work after his death. Whether the author is alive or not, publishing is still asking for attention. What was his motivation?

My fear is the books are going to be a huge let-down. Shields and Salerno claim the first new book should arrive in 2015, and by then there will be so much anticipation and hype that almost anything is bound to be a disappointment. Either way, the new books will be the most intimate look yet at Salinger’s mind after he became a recluse. In some ways they will arguably tell us more about him than the upcoming biography.

While the curious will flock to the wealth of media on Salinger this fall, I predict the new books, when they arrive, will be the greater gem. After all, there are far more fans of Salinger’s writing than of the man himself.


Elmore Leonard, 1925-2013


When Elmore Leonard passed away on August 20th at the age of 87, he left behind more than 40 novels and nearly as many films based on his work. The public bought over 8 million copies of his books. He was the granddaddy of today’s crime novelist, a unique and confident writer with an unmistakable wisecracking style. Leonard knew what he was doing, plain and simple, and Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing contains timeless and simple advice that all writers should take to heart.

Incredibly, he always wrote in longhand on unlined yellow notepads. Today’s top crime fiction writers, including Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, cite Leonard as a tremendous influence. When it came to writing crackling dialogue, he was the master. He was known to his friends and fans as “Dutch,” a nickname given to him as a sophomore in high school referring to Emil “Dutch” Leonard, a pitcher for the Washington Senators.


If you’re inspired to read something by Leonard there’s a plethora of options. I recommend Get Shorty, about a Miami loan shark who bets big on Hollywood and the gangster who wants him dead, and Rum Punch, about an aging airline stewardess who has been smuggling money into the U.S. and makes a plan to keep the cash for herself. Both are fantastic and inspired equally good movies (Rum Punch inspired the film Jackie Brown, which was Leonard’s favorite film adaptation of his work).

Elmore Leonard lived most of his life in Detroit, and once threw the ceremonial first pitch at a Detroit Tigers game against the Seattle Mariners. He claims to have practiced in his backyard by measuring out 60 feet and throwing at a wire fence to make sure he could throw in a straight line. He said that at the ballpark, they don’t want you messing up the mound, so you’re only 50 feet from home plate. That was Leonard, enough of an overachiever to practice with 10 extra feet, yet someone who could also relax and take great pleasure in whatever he did. One of his famous rules of writing was “if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” The point being that you should never look like you’re trying.

Once when asked about his success, Leonard said, “My purpose is to entertain and please myself. I feel that if I am entertained, then there will be enough other readers who will be entertained, too.”

People say “Dutch” was always the coolest guy in the room. I believe it.


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