Message in a Bottle
James and Miriam Read Chocolates for Breakfast, Part II

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(continued from part one)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James and Miriam Read Chocolates for Breakfast, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(continued in part two)

New from Jhumpa Lahiri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Miriam

Is J.D. Salinger Back From the Grave?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Miriam

Elmore Leonard, 1925-2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Miriam

Breaking Bad By the Books

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Admit it. You’re as much of a junkie as the meth addicts on the show. Yes, I’m talking about Breaking Bad, the AMC show that’s dominating the awards, ratings, and media coverage as it enters its final season. If you need to get up to date, here’s a great video summary.

I don’t even know how I got into this series, since the premise—high school chemistry teacher turns cancer patient turns meth-cooking drug lord—doesn’t sound like my cup of tea at all. But my husband started playing it in the background while I was trying to read, and somewhere into the first season Walt, the chemist gone wrong in the name of his family, threw what looked like a bag of meth at a Tuco, the sociopathic Mexican drug kingpin, uttered the line “You got one part of that wrong. “That is not meth,” and blew out the windows of a building with his homemade explosive. I was suddenly compelled by the character development, and the next thing I knew my book had been left in the dust and I was watching Breaking Bad Netflix marathons late into the night.

With the end of the series dangerously close, I can safely say the obsessed fans will be left wanting more. Since we’re not going to get our fix from television much longer, it seems like a good time to compile an appropriate reading list.

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Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: This one is probably the most obvious, since the key moment when Walt’s DEA-agent brother-in-law realizes who Walt actually is comes when Hank opens up Walt’s copy of Leaves Of Grass (while he’s in the john, no less) and recognizes the handwriting of the inscription to “W.W.” The book has been inscribed by Gale, the now-dead-because-of-Walt meth cook who gave Walt the book. Not surprisingly, Walter White and Walt Whitman share the same initials, and almost the same name.

Breaking Bad has repeatedly alluded to Whitman’s poetry, even using it to title some of its episodes, like Gliding Over It All. But it’s the poem When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer that best captures Walt’s transformation from a passive and conventional man to becoming “the one who knocks" (that’s not a Whitman reference, just a quote from one of Walt’s all-time best scenes).

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Complete Short Stories by Franz Kafka: Walt’s sidekick Jesse Pinkman goes to group therapy, and after describing his job (without any specifics), the group leader comments that it sounds “Kafkaesque.” Jesse agrees, but he clearly doesn’t know what the term means. Working in a high-stakes meth lab certainly is freakishly bizarre, even if neither Jesse nor his group leader understands exactly what they’re saying.

The dreamlike and alienated nature of Kafka’s stories echoes the magic of Breaking Bad; they are funny, grotesque, critical, and symbolic all at once.

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Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden: When Hank ends up in the hospital after his near-death showdown with the Mexican cartel brothers, Walt brings a copy of Killing Pablo to the hospital for his son, Walt Jr., who is sitting by Hank’s bedside in awe of his uncle’s heroism. The book tells the story of the hunt for drug lord Pablo Escobar and how he was caught because of a trace on a phone call he made to his son, Pablo Jr. Ironically, the trace was made by Hugo Martinez, Jr., the son of the Colonel leading the investigation.

Obviously there are parallels between Killing Pablo and Breaking Bad, and the reference on the show plants the early question: Will Walt Jr. side with his dad, the drug lord, or his uncle, the DEA agent, when and if the time comes to choose?

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Difficult Men by Brett Martin: Filled with salacious detail, Difficult Men goes behind the scenes of some of the best shows on television, including The Sopranos, The Wire, and of course Breaking Bad. Here you’ll find out how these shows were made and the way all those strong personalities managed to collaborate and make such great entertainment. By the way, did you know that Breaking Bad was originally set to film outside Los Angeles, rather than in its trademark Albuquerque location? Thank goodness that didn’t play out. Albuquerque is a character itself on the show.

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The Last Narco by Malcolm Beith: This one is sort of the “next generation” after Killing Pablo. Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, Mexico’s notorious drug capo and one of the world’s richest men, is basically the last Mohican of Mexican drug lords. The Last Narco's nonfiction narrative is a fast-paced race as the DEA and Mexican authorities close in on one of the most dangerous and feared men in the history of the world's largest drug empire.

—Miriam

Let’s Talk Shop

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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

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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

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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

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