Message in a Bottle
Let’s Talk Shop

image

On a recent trip to Bainbridge Island, my family wandered into Eagle Harbor Book Company on Winslow Way. If you haven’t been to that indie bookstore, I highly recommend a Sunday morning excursion. If you’re coming from Seattle you get the pleasure of a lovely ferry ride (particularly great in the summer), a stroll along the charming town of Winslow, perhaps brunch, and the experience of a homey, impeccable book buying experience.

I couldn’t help but notice the qualities Island Books shares with Eagle Harbor, like the welcoming staff counter, the children’s section tucked magically in the back, and the prominent display of shelf talkers highlighting the booksellers’ unique tastes. Whenever I visit another bookstore, I note the aspects I like and ponder how we could do better. I enjoyed the extensive staff pick shelf and vacation-like atmosphere.

The recent hubbub about Obama endorsing Amazon, Jeff Bezos purchasing The Washington Post, and William Lynch’s departure from Barnes & Noble has inspired renewed rumblings about the value of independent booksellers. I’ve read countless soapbox statements about the importance of indies and physical books and I’ve spouted my own self-righteous monologues about the subject on this very blog. I’ll try not to regurgitate anymore of what you’ve already heard, but more than the latest news, my experience shopping at Eagle Harbor Book Company brought the subject back to the forefront of my mind.

image

As I walked through the children’s section at Eagle Harbor Book Company that day, I carried my then-9-month-old son strapped to my chest. He’s a curious guy, always watching and reaching out for things that catch his interest. I’ve proudly noticed he gravitates towards books. As we browsed, he reached out and pulled Touch and Feel Farm from the shelf. It’s part of a DK series that features tactile pages, perfect for babies to touch and explore textures. I picked up his choice off the floor and went to put it back on the shelf, but he waved his arms out to the side and shouted “dadada” at an ear-piercing decibel. When I brought the book back to him he reached out to pet the soft yellow chick fur on the cover, his eyes filled with amazement.

"Wow, I guess he likes that book," commented a member of the staff, watching him and chuckling. She proceeded to bring over some other titles that offered the touch-and-feel experience. We laughed at him as he eagerly babbled and grabbed at different options.

Don’t let me mislead you into thinking Touch and Feel Farm is the ultimate in baby books, because a week later both my twins were squealing over a different title at the library. Rather than having an eager bookseller applauding their enthusiasm, we received a sharp shush. My kids don’t know the meaning of shush yet, so I had to leave when they didn’t quiet down.

I’m a big advocate of the library, but when it comes to finding new books for the babies, nothing beats an independent bookstore. The kids can’t pull a random title off the shelf at Amazon, and they aren’t old enough to follow library etiquette.

—Miriam

A Thought-Provoking Read: Me Before You

imageSummer reading season is almost over, so as you pack your bag for your final August vacation, I have one new paperback to tuck into your suitcase: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Before I give you the description, let me preface it by saying, yes, this could have been a maudlin tearjerker, but what makes it so good is that it’s not.

Louisa is the most ordinary girl you can imagine. Uneducated and unskilled, she works as a server in a local cafe, doesn’t have hobbies, and still lives at home with her parents, sister, and nephew. Her small British town sits under the shadow of its one tourist attraction, a castle, and she’s never left. Her long-term boyfriend Patrick is a personal trainer and as boring as Louisa.

Enter Will, a former high-stakes businessman, risk-taker, and playboy whose wealthy parents own the town’s castle. After a freak accident renders Will a quadriplegic, he attempts suicide and puts his family on high alarm. They decide to hire someone to monitor him, and when Louisa loses her job at the cafe, she’s the person who enters their lives.

Louisa hates the caretaker job, and more than that, she hates Will, who is bitter, rude, and resentful. His family is equally difficult. If she didn’t need the money so much she would quit. Then she learns that after his accident, Will’s girlfriend turned his back on him and became engaged to his former best friend. After his first suicide attempt, Will agreed with his family that he would give his new life a final trial period, and if at the end of the set time he still wanted to die, they would support him in a medically-assisted suicide.

Pity takes over and Louisa makes it her life mission to convince Will life is worth living. She concocts elaborate outings and pushes him relentlessly to rediscover why life is good, but in the process she comes to realize all the parts of her own life that have been missing. And, predictably, the two fall into an unlikely love affair. The question that develops is, will he or won’t he? Will the beauty of living triumph over the hardships?

Me Before You is something of a Beauty and the Beast tale, but it raises difficult ethical questions. The language and writing initially come across as pedestrian. I wondered early on how could this book become extraordinary when it seems to be written in such a colloquial manner. But the power is in what is being said rather than how, and the progression becomes increasingly emotionally raw. These aren’t literary characters, they are ordinary people, and the language suits them and what happens in their lives.

Warning: the ending will push you. It’s an excellent pick for book clubs. This is one of those reads that sticks in your mind, and you might find yourself staring into your morning coffee and putting yourself in Louisa and Will’s shoes. What would I do if that were me? I asked myself countless times when I finished the last page, long after I tucked the red cover back on the shelf.

image

image

With all that said, Jojo Moyes’ last book about an amnesiac whose biggest clue to her former life appears in the form of a love letter, The Last Letter from Your Lover, and her new novel releasing on August 20th about a marriage split by war, The Girl You Left Behind, will probably end up on your reading list after you finish Me Before You. I greatly enjoyed The Last Letter from Your Lover and am looking forward to The Girl You Left Behind, but I’m going to recommend you get to know Moyes’ talents by picking up Me Before You first. She graduates to a new level of ability with Louisa and Will’s story, and it’s a breakthrough you won’t want to miss.

—Miriam

Royal Reading

imageFor once, the top story of the week was happy news. Yes, the big announcement was simply “woman has a baby,” but the world has been eagerly anticipating the arrival of William and Kate’s child since their wedding in 2011. They promptly named the boy His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge. The chosen name gives several nice nods to royal relatives, from the baby’s great-great-grandfather King George VI to the Queen’s middle name (Alexandra), to Prince Philip’s uncle and his grandfather, both named Louis.

Now that the newest Prince George has arrived, those of us that love a good royal story can begin to speculate on his destiny. Will he be a model of appropriateness like his parents, or a roguish bad-boy like his Uncle Harry? Will we see Diana in his likeness and personality? What kind of parents will Wills and Kate be? There are plenty of compelling questions about this particular baby, but we won’t know the bigger picture for many years. So in the meantime, why not turn to books to learn about the new baby’s predecessors? What possible scandals, love affairs, and political challenges could be in His Royal Highness’s future?

image

The King’s Speech by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi:
For some reason I doubt that Prince George’s great-great grandfather, George VI, was as handsome as Colin Firth in the Oscar-winning movie, so for a more accurate mental picture you might want to try the book. George VI was painfully shy and cursed with a terrible stammer.  This inspiring stories tells how, with the help of his wife and a maverick speech therapist, George VI rallied his nation as World War II began. Fingers crossed that the new prince avoids his namesake’s stutter and shyness, and instead inherits his courage and determination.

image

Philip and Elizabeth by Gyles Daubeney Brandreth: The new prince’s great-grandmother and great-grandfather fell in love when they were teenagers. Their marriage has endured beautifully despite their differences. While they love each other, Prince Philip’s profound respect for Queen Elizabeth’s royal duties has played an equally huge role in the success of their marriage. It seems that Kate has the same respect and understanding with William, and if history repeats itself, the solidity of their union will be an ongoing success. Will Prince George be as fortunate in marriage as his great-grandparents and parents, and who will the lucky woman be?

One of the strengths of Philip and Elizabeth is the portrayal of husband and wife as typical married people. It’s fun to read  their ordinary gripes about each other and the details that characterize a real marriage.

image

The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown: The editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, Tina Brown, knew her book on Diana would be highly anticipated. Who else could deliver the same level of journalistic integrity and insider gossip on such an iconic figure? Brown’s portrait covers everything from Diana’s role in royal politics, to her relationship with the press, to her rivals and enemies, and of course to all the sordid details of her romances. What kind of grandmother would Diana would have been? It’s nice to at least imagine her watching over her son’s greatest accomplishment and glowing with pride. Little George will learn all about Princess Diana as he grows up, and hopefully he’ll remind us of her.

image

The White Princess by Philippa Gregory: Okay, so I’ve veered off into fiction, even fiction that isn’t quite as directly related to HRH as the rest of my list. But we can’t talk about royal reading without throwing out the name Philippa Gregory. No one does the “inside-the-royal-court” genre better than her. If you like to imagine the intrigue, deceptions, and dangerous ambition that used to drive the workings of the historic royal court, Gregory’s fiction is the place to turn.

Her newest historical novel follows Princess Elizabeth of York, who is forced to marry Henry Tudor to unify a country divided by war for decades. When they marry, Elizabeth is still in love with Henry’s dead enemy Richard III. The possibility that Elizabeth has a missing brotherwho would be the rightful heir to the throneis Henry’s greatest fear, and eventually, Elizabeth may have to choose between them. Henry’s on the verge of crazy with obsession and fear, as many of Gregory’s male characters are (their burden of responsibility tend to be astronomical), and Henry’s mother is a wicked witch, but Elizabeth is witty and aware of the ironies of her situation. It’s not as good as The Other Boleyn Girl, but The White Princess will keep readers turning the pages and imagining if any of the scenarios will be anything like Prince George’s real life.

If the public sentiment is any indication, that little baby will inspire the passion of the public for many years to come. That means there are going to be many, many books about him, but until he’s done something besides eat and sleep, the best way to look forward at royal life is simply to look back.

—Miriam

Pen Names

imageThe big news in the book world last week centered around an author you may have heard of: J.K. Rowling. What does Rowling have in common with an author you probably don’t know, Robert Galbraith? Well, as it turns out, they’re the same person. Rowling followed in the footsteps of many famous authors, including Stephen King and Agatha Christie, by using a pseudonym to write in anonymity. Galbraith’s supposed debut novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, is suddenly on everyone’s must-read list. No one was ready for the reveal, and the scarcity of copies adds an even more lustrous allure. Those who own first editions are going to make a pretty penny if they choose to sell their books.

This isn’t the first time J.K. Rowling has changed her byline. After all, her real name is Joanne. Would we have all fallen in love with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone if we’d known immediately the author was a woman? We’ll never know, but this Robert Galbraith business is a nice role reversal. Obviously people are much more interested in reading it now that everyone knows the author is a woman—a particular one.

Richard Brooks, an editor for the U.K.’s Sunday Times, uncovered the truth about The Cuckoo’s Calling. An anonymous tweet led to the discovery that Galbraith had the same agent, editor, and publisher as her 2012 novel, The Casual Vacancy. Brooks put two experts to work doing computer analysis on the text, and they gathered enough evidence to approach Rowling’s representatives. She confessed.

The text analysis is another blog altogether, but in a nutshell, analyzing bigger words and themes doesn’t prove anything. But a writer does leave a particular thumbprint by using the same prepositions repeatedly. For example, some writers would say “to the left” versus “on the left” or “by the left side.” What the computer analysis does is count up the number of times that usage appears in a manuscript and compare it to another manuscript by the same author. It’s not foolproof evidence, but it was enough to spur on the chase.

The question of course is, was this a stunt? If so, it was a lucrative one. The Cuckoo’s Calling shot right to the top of all the bestseller lists and took over the headlines. Rather than deny the allegation, Rowling humbly took credit. Last Thursday, the Huffington Post refuted the stunt claims and revealed that the leak came from an entertainment law firm. One of the partner’s wives told her best friend the secret, who then decided it was a good idea to send the news out on Twitter. Talk about a breach of confidentiality.

Regardless, the word is out and everyone suddenly wants to get their hands on a copy of The Cuckoo’s Calling. As you can imagine, that’s easier said than done. We had none in stock when the news broke, and it’s no surprise the publisher isn’t saying when exactly they’ll have the next printing ready to distribute. The big winner? Ebooks.

I’m not an ebook reader at all, but in this case I bit the bullet and immediately downloaded a copy (plus The Fault in Our Stars by John Green—got a little carried away). Within five pages it was obvious the voice was Rowling’s. I would never have guessed if I didn’t already know, but once the writing is on the wall it’s impossible to miss. Knowing wasn’t necessarily a good thing, except that I never would have picked the book up otherwise. Because I knew it was her, I kept thinking there would be magical explanations or occurrences. I know why she used the pseudonym. There’s just no getting away from the fact that she’s the author of the Harry Potter series. Just like after Bryan Cranston moves on from Breaking Bad, he’ll always be Walter White to his fans.

Here’s a confession: although I used to love the Harry Potter books, once I saw the first movie adaptation I quit reading the series. It was like I lost my taste for it and I don’t know why. Maybe it was that the scope of Rowling’s imagination was so broad that I resented seeing it condensed into a film. So I’m rather looking forward to revisiting her writing in a new and less cannibalized way, which is why I rushed to download the book immediately. I want to get to it before too many media vultures chew it up and spit it out. I’m hoping to reconnect with her again, since the bottom line is she is, and always has been, a fabulous writer. I can understand her desire to write under a pseudonym. Just like I want to read her without expectation or the burden of her past, I imagine she’d like to go back to writing with the same freedom. Unfortunately, she’s not going to get it, at least not this time.

Let us know if you read The Cuckoo’s Calling. We’d love to hear some customer feedback.

With all that said, I’ve got to go. The twins are still napping and my ebook is waiting…


—Miriam

Fictional Houses

image

My husband and I have a passion for fixing up houses. We started on our old Capitol Hill home, and in fact it was one of the greatest bonding exercises at the beginning of our marriage. Since we bought our Mercer Island fixer-upper, we’ve spent every possible waking moment working on it. Three years later I can look around and think, I remember the Sunday morning we woke up early and just decided to paint that wall purple, or I can’t believe how many times we stayed up late browsing the internet and pondering that light fixture. The house is already much more than a houseit’s a physical representation of memories that remind us of the good life we’ve built together.

I’ve had houses on my mind lately, maybe because of a house for sale on West Mercer Way. It’s a 1910 historic Mercer Island home, known as the Symphony House, and I often admired the gardens when I drive past it. Someone mentioned that the house’s original kitchen used to be in the basement, à la Downton Abbey, to accommodate the servants. That alone set my mind spinning with all kinds of possible stories. So this week I’ve been pondering some books that feature a home as one of the major characters. Here are a few that have always appealed to me.

image

Green Gables, the farm from Anne of Green Gables: Lucy Maud Montgomery visited her cousins’ farm when she was a child, and the house and land inspired her bestselling series about Anne Shirley, the imaginative red-headed orphan who grows up on a farm on Prince Edward Island.  The real Green Gables received national park status In the 1930s, but the surrounding farmland has been developed into a fancy golf course.

image

Bramasole, the Italian villa in Under the Tuscan Sun: Restoring an old villa in the Tuscan countryside sounds satisfying. Removing brambles from an abandoned vineyard, discovering a fresco under whitewash in the dining room, and taking a morning walk by the neighboring Etruscan wall built in the 8th century B.C. wouldn’t be a bad way to live.

image

Tara, the plantation from Gone With the Wind: Margaret Mitchell’s Tara was a fictional place, but it was loosely based on the Clayton County plantation in Georgia where Mitchell’s maternal grandmother spent her childhood. In the book, Tara grew from a small, four-room house to a large, rambling mansion of whitewashed brick and timber “built according to no architectural plan whatever, with extra rooms added where and when it seemed convenient.” When the epic film version came out, Mitchell was reportedly dismayed at how little Tara resembled her description in the book. Still, I wouldn’t say no to the movie version (pictured here).

image

The crumbling English castle in I Capture the Castle: Dodie Smith’s story of teenage Cassandra chronicling her life in the British countryside is just as charming as the old ramshackle castle that serves as the setting.

Houses in fiction aren’t about the architecture or the furnishings so much as the characters that inhabit them, and a smart author can use the descriptions of a house to imbue their inhabitants with personality as well as destiny. Watching a great house rise and fall and rise again, like Tara, is an apt metaphor for the rhythms of life. A crumbling house begs to be fixed up, appealing to our ambitious nature without forcing us off the couch to do the work ourselves. And a farm ripe with produce and flowers fills us with hope. We might not be able to physically go home again, but reading about a good house can give you a similar safe and cozy feeling.

—Miriam

Can They Reimagine Shakespeare?

image

If you’ve never fully wrapped your head around Shakespeare’s work, a new opportunity is coming your way. Hogarth Press, a division of Random House, recently announced they’ve recruited some notable authors to recreate the Bard’s work. The “covers” are planned for a 2016 release date to go with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Billed by the publisher as “a ‘major’ new project re-imagining Shakespeare’s canon for a 21st-century audience,” Jeanette Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) will take on The Winter’s Tale and Anne Tyler (The Accidental Tourist, The Beginner’s Goodbye) is rewriting The Taming of the Shrew.

Maybe all the good stuff has already been written, because this reinvention of the classics is a huge trend. Val McDermid, Joanna Trollope and Curtis Sittenfeld are all currently writing reworkings of Jane Austen. (I confess an excitement for Sittenfeld’s rendering, since everyone knows how much I love her.) And how many times have we seen Shakespeare 2.0, like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (Hamlet in northern Wisconsin) and Serena by Ron Rash (Macbeth set in 1930s North Carolina)? Not to mention all the movies, like 10 Things I Hate About You and of course West Side Story.

image

The snob in me has her hackles up. After all, my annual childhood family vacation was always at the Utah Shakespearean Festival, where we’d see two plays a day for five days and hardly come up for air. I credit diving into the real thing at such a young age as part of the reason that little in the way of reading intimidates me. So my inner skeptical voice keeps whispering, “It’s a publishing industry conceit just to make money. This is going to enable more people to avoid approaching the original plays and the beauty and poetry of the language will be lost. Why can’t anyone be original anymore?” Of course, Shakespeare himself was guilty of borrowing material, if he even really existed (I’m of the camp that he did).

Hogarth Press intends to do the whole canon of works, and rumor is they’re having a tougher time signing writers up for the tragedies. Everyone wants to do the lighter fare, apparently. Or maybe the shoes are just too big to fill.

Winterson claims to have been pondering The Winter’s Tale for ages. One of Shakespeare’s final plays, it’s one of his genre-defying works and could best be described as a tragicomedy. Much like Othello because the story turns on a fit of wild and unfounded jealously, in The Winter’s Tale King Leontes becomes convinced that his wife is carrying his best friend’s love child. Unlike the tragedy of Othello, Leontes manages to reunite with his long-lost daughter and wife after sixteen years, so there’s a redemptive theme that repairs the tragedy of the first half of the play. Scholars have suggested that Shakespeare borrowed his material from everything from Robert Greene’s Pandosto, The Triumph of Time (published in 1588) to the story of Anne Boleyn.

The Taming of the Shrew is all comedy and much better known than The Winter’s Tale. The main story is a play-within-a-play. A merchant in Padua has two daughters, but he will not let the younger, prettier daughter, Bianca, get married before her strong-willed sister, Katherina (Kate). Bianca’s suitors convince a man from Verona, Petruchio, to wed Kate. The marriage leads to a feisty power struggle between Petruchio and Kate, but in the end they do fall in love and end up with the happiest marriage in the village.

Jeanette Winterson is a controversial British writer, both funny and fierce. Famous for her turbulent lesbian love affairs as much as for her passionate and brilliant writing, she is one savvy 53-year-old. We know this because she proposed to her girlfriend on Twitter this past Valentine’s Day. Winterson was adopted and chronicled her difficult and loveless childhood in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. Critics often accuse her of male-bashing in her work, and yet she has won numerous literary awards.

Anne Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize for her 11th novel, Breathing Lessons, about a long-married couple who go to a funeral and end up on an adventure. She’s a real writer’s writer, the kind that stays out of the limelight and refuses interviews. Her humor is wry and quirky, usually floating gently above tragedy and pain.

The optimist in me retains some hope, as well as curiosity. Hogarth has recruited some excellent and interesting authors for their ambitious undertaking. I don’t expect there to be a middle of the road reaction to these books; they’re either going to be mocked or lauded. Either way, I feel a bit sorry for the authors. The pressure must be immense, especially because their publisher made such a notable announcement three years before the intended publication. Which means Winterson and Tyler have barely started writing, if at all. No big deal, guys. Only the whole world and especially Shakespeare-o-philes everywhere are waiting to judge you.

Then there’s the open-ended aspect of this announcement. Who will the other authors be, and which plays will they choose? I can’t help but dream up some combos. Margaret Atwood for King Lear? Toni Morrison for Othello? Joyce Carol Oates for The Merchant of Venice? Let’s hear your suggestions.

—Miriam

New from Curtis Sittenfeld

Sometimes we choose books because we like the premise. Sometimes the cover captivates our imagination. Sometimes, we are just hopelessly devoted to the author. Most of the time, we go with a recommendation from a trusted source, be it a friend, a book club, or a bookseller. If we’re particularly lucky, our reading choices fulfill all of those criteria.

imageimage

Curtis Sittenfeld’s first novel came to me via a friend’s enthusiastic recommendation back in 2005. Prep had everything going for it according to my taste: the simple and original white cover cinched by a pink and green web belt, the boarding school coming-of-age description, and my friend’s tattered and free copy that she claimed to have stayed up all night reading because she couldn’t put it down. Who doesn’t love that delicious anticipation and confidence that you’re about to read something really really good? And I did. Prep blew me away. It was even better than I had hoped, and that happens so rarely in life (with books, meals, relationships, and so on), that I’ll never forget it. Which is why I continued to recommend Prep for years, although that changed when Sittenfeld’s third novel, American Wife, came out in 2008. Then I switched to pushing American Wife over Prep because it was even better.
imageimage

On June 25, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld will arrive in the store. Those of us who loved Prep and American Wife (I’m deliberately not mentioning The Man of My Dreams, Sittenfeld’s much quieter sophomore effort about a girl starting college and going through therapy as she deals with her parents’ divorce, because it read more like an author’s exercise in developing her craft rather than a blockbuster novel), will be interested in Sisterland's arrival. Prep conjured up astoundingly three-dimensional characters, particularly the controversial and not-so-likeable protagonist Lee Fiora, whose angst-filled life at a boarding school kept us turning the pages. American Wife fictionalized the early life of former First Lady Laura Bush and made what we typically only see as a politically polished persona into a flesh-and-blood person. And boy was her fictional version of George W. entertaining. But when I read the description of her new book, I couldn’t figure out why she chose to write a story that dabbled in the supernatural. The subject matter didn’t seem like her at all.

What you should know about Sisterland is that while it’s packaged and marketed as a book about twins with ESP, this is actually a novel about family ties and the peculiar and memorable characters of Kate and Vi. Fortunately for Sittenfeld, she’s so good that she can rise above a potentially silly premise. The secret to her particular brand of literary magic is her attention to detail and incisive observations, which she manages to execute with a sort of laid back flippancy. Her style is far more appealing than the efforts of many contemporary authors, who laboriously try to be insightful. It can be exhausting to read a self-conscious writer who is clearly intent on being good. Sittenfeld just is.

The characterization of the twins is what makes the book; they feel like real people. Kate and Vi grow up with a severely depressed mother and a reserved but caring father. They spend their childhood carrying on an elaborate charade, where they secretly prepare dinner every night so that when their father comes home he won’t know their mother spends the entire day in bed. They both realize early on that they have something they called “senses,” an ability that leads to social problems in high school and later helps them team up to find an abducted child. 

As adults, Kate (who changes her name from Daisy to become more “normal”) marries a kind professor named Jeremy and becomes a stay-at-home mom to a three-year-old girl and six-month-old baby boy. Vi’s life takes a different direction. She dates both men and women and make her living as a psychic. When we first meet the sisters, Vi goes on television and predicts that their hometown of St. Louis will be hit by an epic earthquake. Is she right? That’s the question that drives the novel, and wreaks havoc on Kate’s life in all kinds of unexpected ways.

There are several other pressing issues that drive the action along. Is Jeremy having an affair with his coworker and their good friend Courtney? Is there an unresolved attraction between Kate and Courtney’s stay-at-home husband, Hank? Do Vi and Kate really have senses, or are their so-called premonitions just plain old instinct that they’ve over-dramatized in their heads?

In the hands of a lesser writer, these questions might not carry enough suspense to keep readers up long past bedtime, desperate to find out the answers. But by the end of the first chapter I was hooked.

I’m not a psychic myself, but I can tell you what I anticipated when I picked up Sisterland: a great book. While I wouldn’t push Sisterland ahead of Prep or American Wife (American Wife remains my favorite), it’s still Curtis Sittenfeld, diligently working on her craft, and once again I’m left applauding her. Not everyone will like the ending and I’m still pondering if I did. I don’t think it matters though. You don’t even have to like her premise, her covers, or her characters to thoroughly enjoy her books, and that alone is one hell of a talent.

—Miriam

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

image

Mercer Island is a community filled with pocket neighborhoods, and I’m fortunate to live in one. Tucked among a cloister of houses on the west side of the island, I’m surrounded by some extraordinary families who have made this place their home for nearly half a century. We moved here almost three years ago and were immediately taken by the fact that people who live here just don’t leave. Our 1937 house had only two owners before us, both who raised their families and stayed for forty years. We should be lucky enough to do the same.

As I’ve grown to know and love our neighbors, the subject of Island Books comes up at almost every gathering (and not just because I work here). At book clubs, Christmas parties, Fourth of July fireworks, baby showers, and just a glass of wine for no reason on a sunny day, the stories come pouring out. I’ve heard about families who paddled over from Seattle on a canoe before the I-90 bridge existed, bonfires and tree-climbing, a cabin built during a summer of pot smoking, teenage boys spying on the pretty neighbor girl in the shower, territorial feuds, landslides, weddings on the lawn, dead bodies, and even naked dinner parties. And through all those threads: Island Books, Island Books, Island Books.

Last night my husband and I tiptoed over to our closest neighbors for a glass of wine after the babies fell asleep. We were near enough to our house that the baby monitor still worked, lest you question our parental devotion. As our dogs romped on the lawn, the conversation once again turned to Island Books. My beloved neighbor, who we shall affectionately call L, described how every year she takes her 90-something-year-old mother to the bookstore to do her holiday shopping. We set her mother up in a chair and the staff brings her book after book, struggling to choose just the right titles. The process is as diligent as a wine connoisseur performing an exacting taste test. L admits she could easily take care of the gift selection for her mother, but the process itself is a present to her mother she would never take away. As Roger told L, “Your mother is one of our queens.” We put her on the throne and let her luxuriate in a lifetime of book-loving. L’s mother treasures her relationships with the booksellers, particularly Nancy and Lori who breathe special life into our children’s section.

I loved the joy on L’s face as she told me the story, and even though Christmas is about as far away as it can get, it made me think of snow and carols and the beauty of that time of year. I keep saying I want to sit down with my neighbors and interview them for this blog, but it seems to keep getting away from me and their stories are almost too abundant. So today I thought I would just write a sappy little ditty for our customers about how nice it is that Island Books is such a tight-knit thread in our community. If you’re ever at a local party and need a conversation starter, all you need to lead with is, “Has anyone been to Island Books lately?” Trust me, people have plenty to say on the subject. They might complain that Roger seemed cranky last week, but then they’ll go on to talk about how much they love him, and his amazing wife Nancy, and each individual bookseller, all of whom have been at the store for ages and ages. I try to soak in each and every story, just because it makes me happy that we have a local independent bookstore that we can be so proud of. And once in a while, I brag that Roger gave my husband and I his old push lawn mower. I fancy it gives me street cred among the old-timers.

—Miriam

Judy Blume Assured Us We Were Normal

imageimage

Much of the discussion around Judy Blume books has to do with her controversial topics. Her frank discussion of sex in Forever…, masturbation in Deenie, and menstruation in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (to name a few) put many of her books on the banned lists. In another writer’s hands, these subjects could be crude and offensive, but it’s Blume’s purpose in using them that justifies her boldness. She just wanted kids to know these things were normal and okay. And thank goodness she saw the need for there to be books where sex doesn’t lead to teen pregnancy or an STD, masturbation doesn’t lead to blindness or depravity, and menstruation isn’t as scary as it sounds. How many of us let out a huge sigh of relief when we read her books?

Something great is happening in June for Blume fans: the first movie adaptation of one of her books will be hitting screens in select cities and on video on demand. How is it possible that it’s taken so long? Apparently Blume and Hollywood didn’t see eye-to-eye on how her books should be translated to film, and so it makes sense that her own son Lawrence ended up directing Tiger Eyes, the story of 16-year-old Davie Wexler who is trying to come to terms with her father’s murder. (Here’s a clip of Chelsea Clinton interviewing Blume, and watch the Tiger Eyes trailer here.) Written in 1981, Tiger Eyes was Blume’s husband and son Lawrence’s favorite of her works (although Lawrence is also known to favor Summer Sisters and hopes to make that one into a movie someday too).

Tiger Eyes may be one of Blume’s tamer books (she admits it’s the only one she censored at her publisher’s recommendation), but it’s still rife with charged topics like alcoholism, religion, and racism. Although the premise turns on an act of violence, the book is really about Davey’s personal growth and the ways that people cope with fear.

There’s been plenty written about Judy Blume and her books (you could spend hours googling her, as I did), so I won’t repeat any more of that here. What I want to say is that I hope that the new movie gets a younger generation excited enough about her books that the media takes notice. The bestsellers in tween fiction these days all have fantasy elements and show little of real girls living in real cities and dealing with real-world problems. Much like The Facts of Life and Family Ties-type sitcoms have disappeared from our television screens, the media has just stopped offering that kind of material. They seem to be caught in the trap of, “Twilight was a hit, let’s keep going in that direction,” and so the real world tough stuff never gets a green light. Yes, companies and authors want to make money, but they’re taking the easy way out. I find it amazing how much our culture wants to avoid real life. Even reality television is scripted. Authenticity is more challenging to create. But what do we really want our kids to get out of the books they read? Yes, we want them to be entertained and imaginative, but we also want them to learn self-acceptance and find the answers to questions they’re too embarrassed to ask out loud. Judy Blume understood that better than anyone. Even though they’ve had to update the dated details in her books, the heart of her stories are timeless.

It’ll be fun to see the Tiger Eyes movie. What will be even more enjoyable, however, will be watching my kids pick up a Judy Blume book in about ten years. I won’t worry about the frankness of her writing. I’ll just be grateful my kids will have such a wonderful and honest friend.

—Miriam

LOFB: The Best of Everything

image

James wrote an intriguing post last week about Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, his pick for our Library of Forgotten Books. The Bookshop is about a widow who uses her small inheritance to open the only bookstore in a small seaside town.

I had to laugh, because my recommendation for the Library of Forgotten Books is Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, a novel that focuses on the publishing industry and follows several young women struggling to make their careers in New York. Our recommendations say a lot about us, don’t you think?

image

First published in 1958, The Best of Everything had a youthful exuberance for Manhattan and the can-any-woman-have-it-all question that never fails to arouse interest. Click here to read a behind-the-scenes article from the New Yorker by the original editor. Although we might think we know this story from Sex in the City, keep in mind that The Best of Everything long pre-dates it and came out in the 50s, when women in the workplace faced a whole different level of sexism and loneliness. Some themes are timeless, and the cast of characters, including Caroline, the smart and ambitious aspiring editor; April, the naive small-town girl who relies on her sexuality; Gregg, the one who self-destructs over a doomed love affair; and Barbara, the single mother trying to support her family, all ring true for the time period. They look to each other for friendship, advice, and encouragement.

The book delivers a dated message that a woman’s happiness relies on the security of love and marriage. Short-sighted notion or not, the broader and more important theme that will resonate is how difficult it can be for women as they become independent and venture into the wider world. The strong woman living a deferential life is still present today, as is how vulnerable young women can be at an age when random events and naive choices can determine their whole future.

Sexism in the workplace isn’t as ancient as you might suppose, as evidenced by the recent feminist manifesto that ruffled a lot of feathers, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Reading The Best of Everything today shows how much has changed, yet the fact that we still need a book like Lean In is testament to how much is the same. None of the female characters in The Best of Everything could even imagine a life like Sandberg’s, but Sandberg is still negotiating the challenges of sexism in the workplace and balancing career, marriage, and motherhood. Those struggles will always be there, no matter how far we punch out the glass ceiling. That’s why The Best of Everything is a much more serious novel than it might seem. The harder Caroline, April, Gregg, and Barbara try to “lean in” and rise above their circumstance, the more the ways of the world strangle them. Their stories will make modern twenty-something readers grateful to be living their young adulthood today rather than back in the 50s.

Barbara sums it up this way: ” ‘I’m just like a man,’ Barbara went on. ‘I have to work like a man, fight for my job like a man, think like a man. I don’t want to be a man, I want to be a woman—and I know damn well I’m not a woman at all even at my better moments, I’m just a young girl with so many responsibilities it throws me into a state of shock.’ ”

On a lighter note, lest you think I’m recommending something too serious, the author and former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Michael Korda called the book “the very prototype of the hot women’s novel.” The Best of Everything was shockingly candid about sex compared to other fiction of the era and truly led the emergence of the chick lit category. Along with its cynicism, Jaffe’s novel is replete with gossip, intrigue, the boss from hell, meaningful friendship, and dramatic love affairs.

Rona Jaffe once said that The Best of Everything is a “very human, very universal story about the difference between what one wants and what one gets.” I’d say that about sums it up.

—Miriam

Hell Hath No Fury

image"How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know," is the opening line of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, and immediately it’s obvious this is going to be an emotionally charged journey. Why is the narrator so angry? It takes the whole book to find out, and it’s worth the read. Her own thwarted ambition is just the tip of the iceberg. Since the narrator begins in the thick of an emotional reaction, we know from the beginning her telling might not be perfectly reliable. It is, however, intriguing. And honestly, how many times have we secretly found it entertaining to listen to an angry woman rant?

An interview that Messud gave about her new book raised a buzz-worthy debate about the importance of liking a main character. She deftly pointed out that the expectations were different for female characters as opposed to male characters, who aren’t required to be as likeable. You can read more about that intriguing debate here, but I’ll save that topic for another post.

I found the premise of The Woman Upstairs both surprisingly intimate as a follow-up to Messud’s tremendous and sweeping 2006 novel, The Emperor’s Children, and reminiscent of the 2006 film (not the book it was based on necessarily, but the movie) Notes on a Scandal. I wondered if Notes on a Scandal inspired Messud at a time when she must have been pondering her next project. (If you haven’t seen it, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett give compelling performances. They were both nominated for Oscars.) The story of a spinster who becomes obsessed with a wife/mother is both creepy and sad, especially since to the observer it’s obvious that the spinster is never going to get what she wants out of the situation. We’re left to judge: which is the greater crime? Obsession, or betrayal?

imageIn The Woman Upstairs, Nora Eldridge is a schoolteacher approaching forty. While in her twenties, she was on track for a cosmopolitan career and traditional marriage but left it all behind presumably to become an artist. Instead, she ended up caring for her ailing mother and teaching school in Cambridge. When the novel begins, Nora is still grieving the death of her mother and leading a nondescript life as the unremarkable “woman upstairs.” Her life is lonely and claustrophobic until the newly-arrived-from-Paris Reza Shahid joins her third grade class. He’s the child she always wished she had, and after some other kids bully Reza, Nora has the opportunity to meet Reza’s glamorous Italian mother, Sirena. Before long, Sirena asks Nora to share a rented studio space so they can both work on their art. Nora’s work involves building miniature dioramas of famous artists’ rooms, but Sirena is already an accomplished professional artist and her audio-visual displays are as big and dramatic as Nora’s are small and controlled. Nora also meets Sirena’s husband, Skandar, and before long Nora has fallen in love with all of them. The “love” grows into an unhealthy fantasy life and Nora becomes increasingly obsessed with the entire family, and Sirena in particular.

Sirena decides to create an artistic representation of Alice’s Wonderland and enlists Nora’s help. Sirena films people’s reaction to her art, and Nora doesn’t realize that the camera is on all the time. Alone one night in their art studio, Nora forgets that Sirena can capture the full scope of her fantasy life on film. The repercussions of that evidence, and the separate and complex relationships that develop between Nora and Sirena, Nora and Skandar, and Nora and Reza all lead to a heartbreaking series of events.

What’s so masterfully done here is the complexity of the main characters. We can love them and hate them simultaneously, because Messud paints such a clear picture of how their strengths are also their greatest faults. Was Nora a lonely and naive victim or a pathetic stalker? Was Sirena as talented and magnanimous as Nora imagined or the most selfish person on the planet? And did Skandar act as he did out of passion or cruelty?

image

In contrast to the intimate nature of The Woman Upstairs, Messud’s prior novel, The Emperor’s Children, had a larger cast of characters and was more of a statement about the time period. That was the story of three privileged, entangled Brown graduates in the months leading up to 9/11. At first it seemed to me that the only thing the two novels had in common was the high quality of their craftsmanship. On a quick reread and further reflection, I realized that the two books share something else: a focus on the gap in relationships between what’s real and what’s perceived. All of Messud’s characters believe they’re living one life when in reality they’re living a far less flattering existence. No matter which story she’s telling, Messud has an uncanny ability to satirize and humanize her characters in a distinctive and memorable way.

I loved The Emperor’s Children just as much now upon a reread as I did when I read it seven years ago, so if you’re looking for a big meaty story to chomp down on, I highly recommend it. If, however, you want something more intimate and burning, try The Woman Upstairs. Either way, get to know Messud’s work. Her talent is remarkable, and her fiction utterly unique.

—Miriam

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card came out when I was seven. My brother was obsessed with the book, and like any bratty younger sister, I refused to read it on the simple principle that he liked it so much. I also dismissed the entire genre of science fiction back then, after struggling to understand the hype about Frank Herbert’s Dune and failing miserably. (Should I try that one again 20-some years later? Feel free to speak up. Maybe I was just too young to understand it.)

In any case, my brother is a persistent guy, and a few years later he wore me down by writing a long inscription and gifting me my very own copy of Ender’s Game. It was probably my high school graduation or some such event, which my brother used to liken me to Ender. “You too are heroic,” he wrote, and with that kind of flattery I had no choice but to continue reading.

Dune became an absolutely terrible movie back in the 80s, but until now, no one has tried to butcher Ender’s Game. Although the film won’t be out until November 1st, the first trailer just started making the rounds. I can’t decide if I’m excited or fearful. Being that The Hunger Games movie satisfied me (and I’m a huge fan of that series), I’ll remain optimistic that Hollywood can do justice to another classic story of kid saves the world. Orson Scott Card is one of the film’s producers, so at least he’s keeping a watchful eye on things.

Ender’s Game, like The Hunger Games, takes place in the future. Earth has been repeatedly attacked by an alien species and is on the brink of destruction. A special military school trains gifted children in the art of war, preparing them for the final battle to protect their planet. Ender Wiggin is the youngest of three children. His brother Peter torments him, but his sister Valentine is his closest friend. Though small, Ender gets into a fight with a much bigger and stronger boy and (accidentally) kills him. The incident attracts the attention of Commander Graff, who sees promise in Ender and recruits him to the Battle School. Under rigorous training, Ender becomes a leader, and former war hero Mazer Rackham takes Ender under his wing. As the final battle with the aliens looms, Ender breaks the rules in order to fulfill his potential.

The timing of the Ender’s Game movie seems like an attempt to capitalize on The Hunger Games audience, but I’m not sure it will have the same fan base. Ender’s Game won the most prestigious awards in science fiction, the Nebula and the Hugo, but that was back in the 1980s.  I don’t know of many adults who have read it for the first time since then, although it remains popular with the younger set. That said, both the protagonists in Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games employ brutal violence while remaining utterly blameless. Readers get to live out the fantasy of destroying the enemy without becoming the bad guy. There’s a dark appeal in that and it may be the a big reason for the success of these novels.

Will you be going to see The Ender’s Game movie? If you haven’t read the book, now would be a good time to form your own impression before Hollywood weighs in.

—Miriam

New from Khaled Hosseini

image

It was with anticipation that I stayed up late a few weeks ago to read my advance copy of And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. The book opens with a fable about parental love that a father tells to his son and daughter as they travel from their small Afghan village to Kabul. The story sets the stage for a novel about familial heartbreak and the length and depth of love.

The siblings Abdullah and Pari share a special bond. Since their mother’s death, Abdullah has basically been both father and mother to little Pari. So it’s with surprise and horror that upon their arrival in Kabul, their father sells Pari to a childless couple in order to make ends meet. The children are ripped apart and their lives are changed forever.

Abdullah returns to their small village with his father, and Pari becomes the daughter of a privileged and deeply unhappy couple. Pari is so young that she loses the memory of her original family, yet as she grows up she knows in her heart that some essential part of herself is missing. Her adoptive mother, who is caught in a loveless marriage (**spoiler: we later find out that her husband is gay and spent his entire life in love with Pari’s real uncle, their chauffeur), looks to Pari to fill the gaping hole in her heart. It’s a terrible burden for an adoptive child to bear, and the repercussions will only grow and worsen as mother and daughter age.

Much like Hosseini’s other novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, the heartbreaking and shocking initial premise quiets down into a mellower second half of the book, as the characters grow older and become more fixed in their identities. It’s inevitable that as they pass into middle age, their stories lose steam and veer towards the maudlin and depressing. In fiction, as in life, it’s the formative events of youth that move us in a way that adulthood never can.

I loved the first half of And the Mountains Echoed, but to be honest the second half somewhat lost me. Maybe the bar had been set too high at the beginning. While perhaps more true to life, the ending left me unsatisfied. I won’t spoil it for you, but I’ll be curious to hear what our readers think when they reach the end. Without the vigor and energy that Hosseini brought to his first novel, the new book reflects a writer that, like his characters, may have grown tired with the whole endeavor.

—Miriam

Attempting an Audiobook

image

This past week I listened to my very first audiobook. Generally I prefer to take in information by reading with my eyes and reserve my ears for music. My husband, however, loves listening to NPR and talk radio. So as we embarked on a road trip from Mercer Island to southern California, I suggested we meet in the middle and try something new: an audiobook.

image

image

We each picked a title for which we hadn’t yet found the time. I chose In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson—not exactly light fare. The book is narrative nonfiction about America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, William E. Dodd and the critical period in history leading up to World War II. Larson draws a compelling picture of Berlin during the rise of the Third Reich and demonstrates why the world failed to understand the extent of the evil coming into power. Beasts was a huge bestseller and I know a number of people who found it fascinating. Since my husband likes history and nonfiction I thought we would both get into it.

My husband chose The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. He knows I like fiction. We tried The Invisible Man first, and quickly learned a lesson. The beginning was agonizingly slow, and unlike when you read a physical book, it’s not so easy to skip forward. Description after description of the man checking in at his lodging and hiding his face, the suspicious hostess finding excuses to pop into the room and assess her mysterious guest. His face is covered in bandages and glasses and a hat. We knew there would be more to the story—it’s a classic, after allbut we just didn’t have the patience.

So we moved on to The Garden of Beasts, skeptical that the problem was not The Invisible Man, not audiobooks, but us and our lack of concentration. We persevered nonetheless. It was slow going at first, but early on I could tell that the narrator’s voice agreed better with us and that the language and subject matter were more compelling. Soon we were discussing what Berlin must have been like during that time period and all the various characters and relationships. I liked that listening was more of a social experience that we could have together, as opposed to when I read a book while he does something else.

If you’re going to try an audiobook, keep in mind it requires different skills than reading. I recommend choosing something fast-paced and meticulously written, and if the narrator’s voice doesn’t please you it will be hard to get lost in the story. Even though I generally prefer fiction, I found that listening to nonfiction was similar to listening to the news and was a good genre for an audiobook.

I won’t lie; I enjoy reading more. But it wasn’t bad. We survived a two week road trip with 7 month old twins and two toy poodles, and while I wouldn’t do that long of a road trip again, I’d be willing to repeat the audiobook experience the next time I have to spend a few hours in a car. It was efficient. I hate to miss out on time I could have spent reading, after all.

—Miriam

Books In Light of Today’s Tragedies

image

After a week like the last one, I struggle with what to write in this venue. It would be silly of us to overemphasize the importance of books in light of the recent events. I’ve turned away from the half-finished pile of titles on my nightstands and tables to watch the news incessantly, even during a road trip to southern California visiting old friends and family. As I introduce my infants for the first time to important people in my life, I can’t help but feel the shakiness of the world they’re entering and worry about how they will understand the tragedies of our nation.

Before bedtime we hold our babies in our laps and read them a story, just as generations before us all over the world have put their kids to sleep. These enduring books, like Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? are a comfort: stories that remain unchanged in a constantly changing world. I see the safety these stories provide and they reassure me that my kids will always have one place to go where they will feel safe.

image

Books serve many purposes, but today I’m thinking about how they can make you feel at home. Safely tucked in bed, when I’m scared and lonely and worried during the day, I can still crack open my old copy of Pride and Prejudice and know a world where children do not die and true love prevails. The biggest problems are who to marry. I know I’ll turn back again and again to these safe worlds and appreciate the comfort they provide. That’s the role that books, and the safe haven of bookstores, play in relation to today’s tragic events. For that I’m deeply grateful.

—Miriam

Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus