Message in a Bottle
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

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

imageJoshua Ferris made a splash back in 2007 with Then We Came to the End, his wry-yet-profound satire on office life. Somehow he managed to put his finger on the one thing all workplaces have in commondistractions. The bagels, gossip, and desk chairs of his fictional advertising firm became universal symbols of how difficult it is to be in the present when you’re muddling through a workday.

In 2010 Ferris brought us The Unnamed, an overly self-conscious story about a man who literally could not stop walking. The Wall Street lawyer who suddenly finds himself walking out of meetings and away from his family is just the kind of man who longs to be in that office from Then We Came to the End. He wants distractions, but his body won’t let him have them. The walking disease ruins his life, and while the metaphors and meditations on modern life offer up plenty to think about, the protagonist never found a direction and neither does the reader. By veering off into too many subplots and existential tangents, Ferris lost us. The Unnamed was a textbook case of sophomore slump.

As a reader who had adamantly believed in Ferris’s talents after his debut, I was sorely disappointed by The Unnamed. Enough so that I almost didn’t pick up his next effort. But I did, and it’s with great pleasure that I assure you his new novel coming this month, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, returns to his first brilliantly funny, original, and complex chord and follows through on the promise of greatness we first saw in Then We Came to the End. Readers: I, for one, am so glad that Ferris is back.

While you might not think you want to read a story about a dentist (one who nags all his patients to floss, no less) and his peculiar case of identity theft, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour transcends this bizarre and strangely clever premise. Paul O’Rourke runs his own Manhattan dental practice on Park Avenue and spends most of his time considering how his life could either be much worse (those bums on the street) or much better (those gorgeous urban women rushing by in high heels that don’t give him the time of day). Anxious and brooding, Paul is utterly unable to just be and has a pattern of completely losing his own identity in relationships. He’s an atheist but longs for religion if only so he can have the experience of belonging to something. Paul refuses to have an online presence despite the growing need to sustain and advertise his practice, and instead spends his free time obsessing over the Red Sox or making pathetic late night phone calls to his ex-girlfriend (who is also his employee and office manager).

So imagine Paul’s shock when someone mysteriously sets up a website for his business. From there, the identity theft continues with the appearance of a Facebook page and Twitter account. Whoever has created Paul’s online identity has done a good job with one bizarre exceptionthey’ve turned him into a religious man. The “About Me” section on his website features what looks like a biblical quote. Soon this online religious identity has people so fooled that even Paul’s ex-girlfriend wonders if he’s become his online persona.

Ferris is an tremendous fan of Thomas Pynchon, and the emulation of style and ideas is evident here. This is a book rife with inner monologues and razor-sharp dialogue, and it’s dense. The themes of belonging, family, religion, and the absurdity of our world run by technology are both thought-provoking and daring. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour will challenge your intellect. You will need energy to read through the dense territory of O’Rourke’s world, but you won’t be disappointed.

image—Miriam

Organizing Your Home Library

imageNo, this is not a picture of Island Books (thank goodness). This, my friends, is what happens when you tackle some home reorganization. Far too many of your possessions get shoved into the home office.

Don’t be misled by the bookshelves. That’s only a fraction of the books in my house. The rest are in boxes or scattered randomly across the room. But my purpose today is not to complain about the mess that is my house, because eventually we’ll get it put back together again. Instead, I’m here to pose a question. How do you organize your bookshelves?

As I watched this mess pile up, I took note of where my books have been living. When we originally moved in in 2010, it made some sense. My husband’s books were mostly separated from mine. His were mostly medical journals, history, classics, narrative nonfiction, and science. Mine were mostly literary fiction, thrillers, more classics, ballet books, and some young adult. By keeping our books separate we had some categorical clarity.

I did try to keep books by the same author together, so we had sections for  Stephen King, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and the Nancy Drew set from my mother-in-law’s childhood. But that’s where the organization ends. As the years went by things disintegrated. Gardening books were tossed sideways on top of Tana French psychological thrillers. Advanced copies of books I’ve never gotten to were crammed in by memoirs like A Beautiful Mind and The Glass Castle. Worst of all were the bottom shelves, which you can’t see in the picture. My two innocent-looking poodles had gotten to those books. Besides the various chew marks, there was a giant urine stain on the side of Three Cups of Tea. They must have been mad about the inaccuracies and financial impropriety that tainted Mortenson and Relin’s bestseller.

The state of my home library is causing more guilt and distress than the state of my house (it’s a disaster). Island Books is a haven. At the store, books are lovingly and beautifully organized, deliberately placed on shelves according to category and the alphabet. While these books aren’t in their final home, they are there waiting as nicely as a groomed puppy in a pet store window. (Confession: It’s not just my books’ lives that degraded after leaving the store. My dogs need a haircut too.)

So, fellow book lovers, I need some feedback. The time is coming to clean up this mess, and this time I want to do it right. How do you organize your home library? Alphabetically? By subject? Cover color (just kidding)? If this mess ever gets organized again, I swear I’ll keep putting things back where they came from and add new books appropriately. But don’t hold me to it.

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—Miriam

Long Live the Dragon

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My 19-month-old twins like Mercerdale and Luther Burbank, but their favorite outdoor play spot on the island is Deane’s Children’s park. It’s my preference too because the lush surrounding trees and ferns mean they can’t take off running as easily.

There’s another big reason to love this gem: the dragon. The original 50-foot, six ton dragon was created in 1965 by an artist named Kenton Pies. Just this past year, the Parks and Recreation Department tracked down Pies in Montana and commissioned him to rebuild the dragon. Late last fall, the new and improved structure made an impressive debut. Generations of families who grew up playing on the old dragon brought their own kids to make a tradition out of the new one. My kids love crawling through the stomach, playing peek-a-boo around the jaws, and cautiously sliding tummy-first down the tail.

As you can imagine, the real-life dragon has inspired much talk about dragons beyond the park. Now when we read books with dragons in them, we can ask the kids, “Where’s the dragon?” and they can point to it, even if they aren’t saying the word yet. The best is when we are walking towards the park and I ask them where the dragon is. They know exactly what I mean, and the fingers immediately point and a bunch of unintelligible baby-gibberish comes pouring out (which I translate to: “Yay! Dragon! Yay!”). Basically, dragons are a hit.

My children aren’t the only ones who love dragons, as James will attest. As soon as he saw the subject of this post he jumped in with such a long list of dragon books that I nearly choked on my coffee. Not surprisingly, James’s spunky 3-year-old daughter loves dragons too. So after some careful culling, here are some favorite dragon books from both of us to fuel the fire:

imageDragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin: Kids always laugh out loud at this silly one. You don’t want to know what happens when the dragons eat hot salsa. Not a good mix with fire-breath.

imageWhen a Dragon Moves In by Jodi Moore: Word to the wise: don’t ignore your kid at the beach. The hero of this story builds a sandcastle while his parents tune him out. Lo and behold, a dragon moves into his creation. When no one believes the boy’s warning, the dragon runs amok.

imageThe Best Pet of All by David LaRochelle: Unable to convince his parents to get him a dog, a boy negotiates a pet dragon if he can find one. Well, he does, and the dragon is a terrible pet. When the dragon won’t leave, they have no choice but to scare him offwith a dog.

imageHush, Little Dragon by Boni Ashburn: This one is a take-off on the lullaby “Hush, Little Baby,” and features a mother dragon catching various humans to serve as her baby dragon’s bedtime snack.

imagePuff the Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow: No dragon list would be complete without Puff, of the song of the same name. Yarrow found a cute way to make the potentially sad ending more upbeat, so no need to fear the final pages. Sing your way to Honalee.

imageEast Dragon, West Dragon by Robyn Eversole: Two dragons who are scared of each other are forced to meet and overcome their fears. Great illustrations and a nice little message about friendship.

imageHave You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light: Here’s the newest dragon book on the shelf. This is much more than a counting book. It’s impossible not to laugh at that bright green dragon doing goofy city activities.

imageLovabye Dragon by Barbara Joosse: This sweet story about a girl and a dragon who love each other makes dragons look about as scary and dangerous as teddy bears.

image—Miriam

Why Is This Night Different?

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Why is this night different from all other nights? If you’re Jewish, that’s one of the famous four questions your youngest will be asking at tonight’s seder. Yes, Passover is here again. I’ve written about this holiday before, but this year I’ve been thinking less about Haggadot and more about fiction that allows us to reflect on Passover, probably thanks to Peter Matthiessen’s powerful new book, In Paradise. His death less than two weeks ago will no doubt add another layer of the silent reflection needed to process his final work.

imageA three-time National Book Award Winner, Matthiessen liked to address difficult subjects like the destruction of nature and peoples by the hands of men, the American Indian movement, and men wrongly convicted of murder. He enjoyed speaking for those who couldn’t speak for themselves.

In Paradise tackles perhaps the toughest topic of all: the Holocaust. The plot centers around a meditative retreat at the site of a former Nazi death camp. Matthiessen was a Zen Buddhist, and said that he had long wanted to write about the Holocaust but refrained because he wasn’t Jewish. The protagonist of In Paradise, Clements Olin, seems to be a fictional version of the author. Olin was born in Poland to a Jewish mother, but taken to America as an infant and baptized. In the book, he returns 50 years later with a faded picture in his pocket, to search for his mother in the place where she may have died.

The cast of characters is a mixture of Buddhists, Jews of European and Israeli descent, priests, nuns, the offspring of Nazis, aging survivors, etc. There is a simmering tension between them as they go about their daily meals and tours and meditations. Olin grows ashamed of his infatuation for a nun, but the pessimistic tone of the entire narrative turns when a cantor leads the group in a Hebrew prayer for peace. The participants join hands and start to move in a circle, inspired to dance. Someone cracks a smile, and suddenly many of the reservations about the retreat start to dissipate.

It’s at this scene that Matthiessen begins to play out the controversy that the novel might incite among readers. How should the characters approach their death camp retreat? They experience the same mix of emotions that readers might feel approaching fiction about the Holocaust. Is it exhilarating or is it profane? Is there redemption through suffering or is it simply horrifying?

Passover celebrates how God freed the Jews from slavery and led them out of Egypt. Each year we tell the story of how the Jewish baby Moses was found and brought up by Egyptians, how Moses saw God in a burning bush, and how God brought ten terrible plagues on the Egyptians to convince Pharoah to let the Jews go free. In the story of Passover, suffering leads to redemption. We rejoice in our freedom and remember how hard it was to achieve.

That seems to be the purpose of Holocaust fictionto remember suffering and be grateful for the outcome. It’s human nature to try to find a reason for pain. In retrospect we often choose to see justifications for horrors that just don’t make sense otherwise. So when we stop to ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” remember that the answer (not the one written in the Haggadah; the personal one) is probably a little bit different for everyone. It all depends on how you see a tragedy.

image—Miriam

The Library Book Sale and the Pleasure of Whim Reading

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The Friends of the Mercer Island Library book sale took place last week. I often take my kids to the weekly toddler story time, so afterwards we wandered over to pick out one or two children’s books. It should come as no surprise that the next thing I knew, I was walking out of the library with a stack of books higher than my head.

Because the book sale consisted of local donations, browsing through the stacks felt like raiding the libraries of my neighbors. There’s something to be said for seeing your community through the lens of their bookshelves. If these are the books the people around me are reading, I’m perfectly content to be here.

Not surprisingly, my pile consisted of titles like Dora’s Potty Book and Curious George at the Zoo. But once I’d stocked up for the kids, the whole experience turned into a game of “I always meant to read that! It’s only two dollars….” I had to force myself to put back the massive tomes I knew I’d still never get around to reading, like The Son by Philipp Meyer. I was getting overwhelmed.

imageThe one book I grabbed that wasn’t a meant-to-have-read was Sea Glass by Anita Shreve. I knew nothing about it except that I’ve always enjoyed Shreve’s books. It had also been ages since I bought a small paperback that looked like a beach read. Sea Glass ended up being the only adult book I didn’t put back.

At home, my overburdened nightstand glared at me when I added this used novel published over ten years ago. When would I have time and energy for such an obvious indulgence? Beneath it were all the books I’d been trying to read, everything from advanced copies of upcoming novels to books about my children’s developing brains. With over twenty books in my stack and life’s myriad of obligations pressing down on me, not to mention two demanding toddlers, what do you think I did?

It wasn’t the laundry, that’s for sure. That very night I crawled into bed at ten and stayed up two more hours to read my guilty little pleasure. Sea Glass is the story of a marriage that starts out well and goes on to face great challenges, set during the Depression in a textile mill town. As she always does, Shreve describes her characters so vividly that you can nearly visualize the way they walk, talk, think, and feel.

The ending, which I polished off the second night, left me sad and uplifted at the same time. I closed the book and sighed the same way I do after a last bite of chocolate cake.

Sea Glass is exactly the kind of book I can see myself donating to the Friends of the Mercer Island Library book sale come next year. And it’s exactly the kind of book someone else should buy there. Some books are meant to stay on our shelves, to be read once and then admired for what they represent as much as what’s inside. But others are for passing on, not necessarily something to brag about reading, just a fleeting escape like a warm bath.

That’s why a book sale like the one at our library is so important. While Island Books is the perfect place to buy a gift, an eagerly anticipated new hardcover, or that huge bestseller everyone is talking about, it’s nice to have a place to pick up an old two dollar paperback to enjoy and then pass along. If you can make the time, reading on a whim is an indulgence I highly recommend.

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—Miriam

Swindlers, Liars, and Pranksters

It’s April Fool’s Day this week, which means The Onion will wreak their annual havoc, Google will reach new creative heights, and my mother will celebrate her birthday. Despite these amusing and upbeat events, April Fool’s Day isn’t the innocent holiday it appears to be. A day dedicated to making people fill stupid and gullible has a definite dark side. With that in mind, here’s a short list of books that seem appropriate on April 1st.

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The Great Brain Reforms by John D. Fitzgerald: There are eight books in The Great Brain series, but this one is my personal favorite. Set in a small Mormon town in southern Utah, the series chronicles an ordinary boy named J.D. and his life alongside his big brother T.D. (aka “The Great Brain”). The Great Brain is known for tricking people out of money, but in The Great Brain Reforms, T.D. supposedly repents and tries to correct the error of his ways.

While you need to read the other books in the series to fully appreciate The Great Brain Reforms, what’s different about it is that this is the part when J.D. realizes that T.D. isn’t as great as he thought he was, and worse, his big brother’s crimes aren’t as harmless as he once thought. So J.D. takes it upon himself to “fix” the Great Brain. The town children put T.D. on trial and he’s finally contrite. Despite the Great Brain’s repentance, at the end J.D. (and we) come to realize that despite the temporary triumph, T.D. will never change. And honestly, readers would never want him to, because as long as he’s not playing tricks on us, he couldn’t be more entertaining.

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Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong by Juliet Macur is new on the shelves, and if you’ve followed Armstrong’s long career and felt as deceived as most did when his true nature came to light, this book is worth a crack.

Macur did her research, and what came out of her exhaustive interviews is an account that reads like a thriller. She gives both a sympathetic and heartbreaking portrait of the man at the center of one of the most scandalous stories in sports history. Armstrong’s lies were no April Fool’s Day joke, but he sure pulled the wool over our eyes like no one else in recent history.

The Hoax by Clifford Irving became a 2007 movie with Richard Gere, but the book is even more compelling than the film. Here’s a caper to end all capers, written by the perpetrator himself.

imageBack in the 1970s, Clifford Irving and his friend Dick Suskind convinced a major New York publishing house that they were writing the definitive biography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Irving claimed he had unparalleled access to Hughes, assuming that the recluse would never draw attention to himself by denying their claims. Irving and Suskind forged letters, hoarded private documents in the name of research, and fabricated interviews. Irving’s wife laundered money and helped them in their deception.

What’s especially entertaining about The Hoax is Irving’s attitude and near-gleeful joy at what he nearly managed to pull off. His writing is heartfelt and astute, and charming enough to make readers forget he’s a bluffer of outrageous proportions.

The Great Brain Returns, Cycle of Lies, and The Hoax offer some upbeat and some more serious deceptions to shock and amuse us on this not-so-innocent holiday. But if you tire of reading about other people’s bad behavior and decide to play a trick of you’re own, you can always stop by the store and ask Roger for some ideas. Something tells me he might have a trick or two up his sleeve.

image—Miriam

Novels That Predicted the Future

imageHere’s something I don’t believe in: fortune tellers. But this recent story from The New Yorker gave me pause. It appears that Vassily Aksyonov’s 1979 novel, The Island of Crimea (unfortunately out of print), envisioned Russia annexing Crimea, in a situation where the citizens bring the invasion upon themselves. Basically, the same thing that happened this past week. But I still maintain that authors aren’t fortune tellers. I will, however, concede that their suggestions might plant seeds. You never know what people will take away from a book.

Science fiction in particular loves to envision the future. Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story presented a future in which the United States defaults on its debt, economic chaos ensues, and China scolds us for being irresponsible. Sound familiar? Speculative fiction has a good chance of being right if the author assumes that things will always get worse.

Another quirky one is Robert Heinlein’s invention of the waterbed. His 1961 novel Stranger In a Strange Land contained a detailed description a bed filled with water. His vision was so precise that when Charles Hall invented the modern waterbed in 1968, he couldn’t get the patent until 1971 because Heinlein owned the intellectual property. Heinlein claimed to have had the idea as far back as the 1930s.

imageTom Clancy’s prescience is positively scary. His 1994 novel, Debt of Honor, portrayed an attack similar to 9/11, and his 2010 work, Dead or Alive, chronicled the capture of a sadistic criminal similar to Osama bin Laden. H.G. Wells did us no favors either with The World Set Free, which described the atomic bomb and may have been the original inspiration for all kinds of atomic weapons.

Politics, economics, and espionage aren’t the only areas touched on by prophetic authors. Technology is a big one too. Doesn’t this paragraph from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 science fiction novel 2001: A Space Odyssey describe something very similar to the iPad?

"When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug in his foolscap-size newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers…Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-size rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination…"

This is all very well and good, but we can rest easy that the events and devices described in these examples have already come to pass and we are still alive and well. The bigger question is, what hasn’t happened yet that some visionary author has already put to paper? As much as I enjoyed Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle about an imaginary tech company that basically takes over the world, let’s hope we aren’t in for living our lives under 24/7 mass video surveillance.

Can you think of some other novels that predicted the future? If so, share them below.

image—Miriam

Counter Intelligence: The Weight of Blood

imageEvery so often, a fairy tale happens. The Weight of Blood may be a dark and foreboding novel, but author Laura McHugh’s story is as happy as they come. She deserves everything good that comes her way, because The Weight of Blood is simply outstanding. I haven’t experienced such a strong sense of atmosphere in a book in years.

McHugh grew up in Iowa and various small towns throughout the Ozarks. She loved to write but never knew how to pursue it in a practical way, so she spent ten years working as a software developer. Right around the time she sold her second short story, she became pregnant and lost her job. Her husband encouraged her to use the time to work on a novel. She did everything the hard way, the way that seems impossible to most aspiring writers. She wrote her novel, sent queries to agents, and as soon as people started reading the manuscript they went crazy with excitement. Her story never got buried in the slush pile, and soon agents were fighting over the right to represent her. Housewife from the Midwest with no MFA and nearly no publication history sells her first novel in a competitive international auction. It was just that good. A Cinderella story.

The plot centers around the disappearance of two young women in the fictional town of Henbane, Missouri. It’s been seventeen years since Lucy’s mother Lila, a newcomer in the tightly-knit community, arrived and soon mysteriously vanished, and recently Lucy’s mentally disabled friend, Cheri, was found brutally murdered. When Lucy takes a summer job at her uncle Crete’s restaurant, he sends her out on a side job to clean out a trailer in the woods. There she finds signs of a struggle and a necklace she had given Cheri, which pushes her to find out what really happened to her friend.

Meanwhile, the novel shifts to the past, when Lila first arrives in Henbane to take a job with a much younger Crete. Her beauty and mysterious past as an orphan makes her a compelling figure in the small town, and soon both Crete and his brother Carl develop feelings for her. But Crete is angry when Lila prefers Carl, and his revenge reaps terrible consequences.

imageAs Lucy pursues her investigation into Cheri’s murder, she discovers secrets about Henbaneand her relativesthat will make her question just how deep family loyalty should run. Lucy’s revelations shed light on what happened to her mother more than a decade before, but the truth unmasks a truly horrifying underbelly of a seemingly benign small town.

What makes this psychological suspense novel stand apart is McHugh’s vivid and luminous writing. Her ability to evoke a local vernacular and cloak the scenes with the lush Ozark setting creates a world all its own. She deftly layers a ruthless evil beneath the niceties of a small and isolated community, and the result is a page-turner that will haunt you long after you finish reading. I can’t wait to read McHugh’s next book. She left me wanting more.

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—Miriam

Potty-Training by the Books

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If my title didn’t stop you from reading further, this is your second and final warning that this could get dirty. Yes, I’m going for a potentially messy topic today: potty-training books. Not the ones for adults. The ones for kids.

The bookstore twins are only 17 months old, but I’m running out of energy with this never-ending diaper routine. We change about 8 diapers a day at this house. It’s expensive. And exhausting. And frankly, odoriferous.

I’ve been reading up, both books and online, and taking advice to prepare myself for tackling this daunting parenting task. I’m told with twins, rewards are a terrible idea. If one sees the other winning M&Ms all day and can’t manage to earn one, it could get ugly. The only reward that makes sense is that if they sit on the potty, we read them a book. Thankfully, for my kids reading is a reward. They want to be read to all the time. So I must be doing one little thing right (and dozens wrong, but at least the book thing is covered). Or they just have my genes.

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A friend told me to keep a special stack of “potty books” right by the toilet that they only get to read when they’re up on the throne. So I’ve started collecting a few. The first one is Potty by Leslie Patricelli. She writes a series of adorable toddler books that are all worth taking a look at, especially No No Yes Yes, which we particularly like because there’s a picture of the baby eating dog food out of the dog disha serious problem in our house. I’ve read the kids Potty once so far (just on the floor, to test run it for this blog), and they loved it. The text is minimal but it’s all about the pictures. I actually could make up plenty of extra text to go along with them. The storyline in all these potty books is pretty much the same (no surprise endings with brown stuff on the walls, please!). The cute little baby has to go and doesn’t want to go in his diaper. He studies what the dog and cat are doing. He goes and sits on the toilet with his diaper on, realizes his mistake, and takes it off. Then he sits, and sits, and waits, and waits, and once the dog and cat fall asleep he finally does his business. Everyone shouts hooray and he finally gets big kid undies. My kids loved the undies picture the best, who knows why. But the book is an undeniable hit. They’ve been leafing through it over and over while I write up this review. I even had to stop to break up a tussle as they grabbed it away from each other. Always a good sign for a book’s merit, if not for my sanity.

I picked out three other books: Where’s the Poop? by Julia Markes (they are crazy about lift-the-flap books), Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi (this one cracks me up because it’s both silly and scientific), and Diapers Are Not Forever by Elizabeth Verdick (straightforward, sweet, and enthusiastic). They’re stacked up nicely by the toilet. Now we just have to see how many times I can stand to read them. That’s the true test of a children’s book anyway. Can the parent sustain reading it 40 zillion times? If the answer is yes, we should probably give that author an automatic Newbery. (It goes without saying that parent deserves an award too.)

There’s probably a fairly limited amount that can be done with this sort of book, but it’s a category that never goes out of style. These are the books I never noticed until these kids took over my life. I laughed about them before, and I’ll laugh about them after, but while I’m potty-training this is no laughing matter. Could getting the right potty book be the difference between weeks and months of diaper dependence? Probably not, but you never know with parenting and we’re all doing our best to get it right. So if anyone else out there has a favorite in this category, by all means, speak up. As the lovely smell of a child who has not used the potty wafts past me, I can easily say that I’ll be sincerely grateful for your recommendations.

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—Miriam

What’s a “Well-Read Life?”

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Most readers like lists. Specific lists can be easy enough to digest. We make plenty of them for our monthly newsletter, everything from our Library of Forgotten Books to book club combos to favorite short story collections.  Lists are a good way to make sense of a shelf like this endless one at the Seattle Public Library, where the choices seem endless. But Amazon’s latest editorial list, 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime, unnerves me. Billed as “a bucket list of books to create a well-read life, from the Amazon Book Editors,” their selectionsand their explanations behind the choicesare confusing.

I’m going to link to their list now for the purposes of our discussion; but if any of you so much as think of clicking through and buying any of those books on Amazon instead of supporting your local independent bookstore, I’ll have to hunt you down personally. But do peruse Amazon’s blurbs for why they think you should read each particular book. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because it’s “the trials of a ghetto nerd?” Gone Girl because “marriage can be a real killer?” I’m not sure why these are lifetime musts.

Granted, the Amazon editors must have known the world would jump all over them when they undertook such a bold list. And I give them credit for tacking such an ambitious undertaking.  But there’s no way anyone could try to boil that subject down to 100 books and please everyone. They must have expected backlash over all the legendary works they ignored, from Shakespeare to Moby-Dick to Madame Bovary. But seriously, The Hunger Games and Valley of the Dolls? Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Hunger Games, but does that merit inclusion in a list of such heavy implications?

I’m not the only one to pause over Amazon’s list. Jay Parini, a writer and teacher at Middlebury College, wrote a compelling argument for CNN about the same subject. He raises a good point when he asks, “Are these the 100 books you must read before you die or the 100 books Amazon will probably sell you before you die?”

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It’s always worth noting where recommendations are coming from. If you’re looking for a lifetime reading list, it probably makes more sense to look into the minds of some of the greatest thinkers in history rather than corporate employees. What kinds of books did someone like Theodore Roosevelt recommend to his friends? (Yes, that’s a picture of his personal library in Oyster Bay, New York.) Now there’s a list to ponder, and a fully-lived life to admire. We have to assume that Roosevelt’s reading list influenced who he was and how he lived his life.

Here’s another great resource for reading lists worth pondering. You can review TIME’s List of of the 100 Best Novels, The Modern Library Best 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and my personal favorite, The 100 Favorite Novels of Librarians (because you know they’re definitely not trying to sell you anything!).

Everyone loves to weigh in on this debate, but ultimately the question is, are you reading to be able to say that you’ve read XYZ and are a so-called “well-read person,” or are you reading because of the experience? 

I have a hard time pressing these general lists on individuals, because not everything will be to everyone’s taste. I, for one, was not so excited about some of the works on these lists when I tried to read them. And the reason there is so much hot debate over must-read lists is that the essentials truly are different for everyone. The purpose of a reading list is to offer new ideas, not make the audience feel inadequate, and that’s my gripe with any list that implies you haven’t lived a complete reading life without living up to the list-makers expectations. I really don’t think missing out on some of these specific works will make anyone less of a complete reader. The only serious reading folly I know is not to read anything at all.

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—Miriam

One Sugar Plum Too Many?

In the next month, two ballerinas are making their debuts off the stage, as authors. Jenifer Ringer, who is about to retire from an illustrious career as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, will actually be at Town Hall in Seattle on Wednesday, March 5th. Peter Boal, the artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and her former colleague, will be interviewing her. Although going out these days is a rarity, my beloved husband will tend the home fires so I can go hear her speak.

Misty Copeland is the other ballerina, and she’s a soloist with American Ballet Theatre. So what makes Ringer and Copeland unique enough to merit their own autobiographies? There are a number of reasons both of them are taking the spotlight in a whole new way.

imageRinger was an up-and-coming dancer at New York City Ballet back when I was a student at the company-affiliated School of American Ballet in the mid-1990s. Everyone admired her because she was impossible to miss onstage. Her personality sparkled unlike anyone else. But even back then her weight was a topic of conversation, simply because she wasn’t as painfully thin as most of her colleagues. Behind her spectacular stage smile hid a great deal of insecurity and the threat of eating disorders. The company let her go for a time because of her weight, but eventually she returned and advanced to principal rank. She was a true star there.

In 2010, the notoriously cranky dance critic from the New York Times essentially called her fat when he implied Ringer looked like she’d eaten “one sugar plum too many” as the lead in the Nutcracker. That review set off a firestorm of controversy and put her at the center of a charged public conversation about eating disorders. The buzz led to an appearance on Oprah. While performing principal roles with the New York City Ballet for over twenty years may not merit a book contract, an Oprah stint almost always does.

This is not to say that Ringer doesn’t deserve every accolade. She’s earned her stripes and is truly a role model. Her book, Dancing Through It, goes inside the ballet world and chronicles her career, struggles with eating disorders, falling in love and marrying one of her dance partners, the epic sugar plum comment, and how her faith helped her overcome her challenges.

Unlike many of her dancing colleagues, Ringer is also a mother of two young children. Her life took a bizarre and tragic turn last fall when her husband and son were attacked in a stabbing spree in Riverside Park (everyone is okay now). This month, she’ll take her final bow onstage and retire from New York City Ballet after two decades of memorable performances.

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Misty Copeland’s memoir, Life in Motion, is a different kind of ballet story. Aside from her dancing, Copeland is the third African-American soloist and first in two decades with American Ballet Theatre in New York. She’s been called the Jackie Robinson of ballet. Despite a late start in dance, at age thirteen (most professional ballerinas start by seven at the latest), she advanced quickly and by age fifteen had won several awards and began fielding professional offers. She joined American Ballet Theatre in 2001.

Copeland’s teen years were fraught with drama, as she became the center of a custody battle between her mother and her ballet teacher. Despite her economic challenges and the almost non-existent presence of African Americans in classical ballet, Copeland’s talent and perseverance turned her into a role model and a success story. She’s become a strong advocate for opening up ballet to minorities and the underprivileged.

I suspect both these memoirs will portray the dance world in a certain exalted light, which is to be expected from two women who have committed their lives to the art form. What’s important to keep in mind is that while Ringer and Copeland’s stories are inspiring, the vast majority of African American dancers, and those who struggle with their weight, will never become professionals. That said, anyone who loves dance or appreciates against-all-odds stories will find plenty to enjoy within both memoirs.

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—Miriam

We Pulled Our Head Out of the Sand

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Last week the American Bookseller Association’s Winter Institute took place right here in Seattle. Elliott Bay Book Company hosted Tuesday night’s Opening Reception and the place was swarming. There was so much excitement over what we do that the books nearly fell off their shelves with self-importance.

When we weren’t tending the home fires at our store, we had the good fortune to join about 500 of our independent bookselling colleagues for three days of educational seminars, networking, and special events. We even had the opportunity to host visitors at our store during the Institute’s local bookstore tour. It was a pleasure to see ourselves through the eyes of our colleagues, who work as hard as we do to keep the independent bookselling community thriving across the country.

Roger looked positively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hustling between seminars, and when I met up with him before a presentation about social media he had a twinkle in his eye. Those who know Roger will laugh, since we all know that Roger and the word “twinkle” don’t exactly mesh, but I swear on a stack of Shakespeare our favorite bookstore owner had the look of an inspired man. “Watch out,” he said, “I might just raise my hand during this session and make you get up and brag about our blog.”

I rolled my eyes at him. The truth is we’ve been making up this online presence thing as we go along. To finally confront what we’re doing stacked up against the nation’s best intimidated both of us. Often we feel like we’re throwing spaghetti at the wall.

The panel included Whitney Keyes, author and marketing expert, Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and Amanda Bullock of Housing Works Bookstore in New York. What resulted was a lively discussion on the merits of Facebook vs. Tumblr vs. Twitter vs. Pinterest vs. Vine vs. Instagram. Roger didn’t make me brag, but he did comment on our commitment to making our online experience an extension of what you find behind the counter at our store. I have to say I was very proud to be his employee after that. It was evident that his philosophy resonated with the others in the room.

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One thing we noticed was that the most social media savvy bookstores seem to have mastered the short form, like quick links and pictures on Tumblr, or a steady stream of tweets. Here’s an example of the cool stuff other stores are doing: Housing Works bookstore in New York has this great Pinterest board with pictures of authors in shorts. Yes, our colleagues are just that creative. How do they come up with this stuff?

Upon hearing some of these inspiring examples, Roger and I looked at each other, raised our eyebrows, and started scribbling various illegible notes. We know that the short form hasn’t been our style. While most other bookstores confessed to running out of ideas for their blog, that’s something we know we do well. In fact, our blog seems to be a particularly unique and well cultivated aspect of our online presence. If only more people knew about it! But the lighter, more youthful chatter of Twitter and many Tumblr users still eludes us.

In 2014, we want to expand and serve our community better in the online arena. So please, give us your feedback regarding our virtual presence here, on Facebook or Twitter, or when you stop in to say hello. We want to give you what you will use and enjoy. Our customers don’t tweet us, and in fact, most of our Twitter followers come from the publishing and bookselling community rather than our beloved locals. How can we change that? Tweet us! Facebook us! Be our friends, both in person and online, because we are yours, 40 years and counting.

—Miriam

What Are Kids REALLY Reading These Days?

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We know what our customers buy and we know what they tell us. What we can’t do is look into every child’s bedroom and inspect exactly what they’re reading. Just because adults buy specific books for the children in their lives doesn’t mean the kids are enjoying them. And I’m starting to think social media, and our age difference, is adding to my gap in understanding what’s genuinely happening in the minds of today’s kids.

Case in point: I was teaching a ballet class the other night and I asked my preteen students to name their favorite pop music. They all looked at each other nervously, as if they didn’t want their friends to judge their taste. “Justin Bieber?” I ventured. Snide laughter followed. “New Direction?” Dead silence. Then one girl raised her eyebrow and said, “You mean, One Direction?” I turned red as they all rolled their eyes, again indicating I was completely out of touch. They mumbled a few other answers of bands I’d never heard of and immediately forgot. It was time to move on so I could regain my dignity.

As I drove home from that class, I wondered if I was as out of touch with children’s books as I was with music. Everything I see in popular media, from People magazine to Facebook, communicates that Justin Bieber and Newexcuse meOne Direction are the hottest things around. Could I have been that off?

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My assumptions about what kids are reading these days come from our bestsellers, and what the children and teens I’m close to tell me. Recently I read Pippi Longstocking to my 7-year-old stepdaughter (her choice). That was one of my favorites as a kid and I was happy to see it has endured.

I asked a 17-year-old Mercer Island High student what she was reading and  she said One Hundred Years of Solitude, because a boy she liked had challenged her to read it. When I asked her if she liked the book, all I received was a casual shrug. The information was useless. I wanted to hear the books that kids are passionate about, but at that age maybe it’s better that they just take it all in without getting overly into anything so subversive as Catcher in the Rye. Who knows?

I suspect that kids are reading older books much more than adults, who tend to look for the next best thing. Children, who have more time and less discretionary funds, seem to spend more time in libraries than adults. They’re more likely to find old classics there than new releases. Kids also don’t follow current affairs like adults do, so the same timeless stories are more important than the latest true crime case or celebrity memoir.

I’m also willing to bet that the long tail theory applies even more to kids as they get older. While yes they may have spent a brief period of time reading The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, as time goes on they’ll more likely find books that suit their individual interests, the way I used to read the Satin Slippers series (now unfortunately out of print) because I loved ballet or my brother read about Wilbur and Orville Wright because he wanted to become a pilot.

In any case, when choosing a book for a child, the best thing to do is get a sense of what they like. It’s easy to give them a generic bestseller, but if you make the mistake of giving them Justin Bieber when they like Death Cab for Cutie, you’re going to look like an idiot. Trust me.

—Miriam

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