Message in a Bottle
Why Is This Night Different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image—Miriam

The Library Book Sale and the Pleasure of Whim Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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—Miriam

Swindlers, Liars, and Pranksters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image—Miriam

Novels That Predicted the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image—Miriam

Counter Intelligence: The Weight of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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—Miriam

Potty-Training by the Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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—Miriam

What’s a “Well-Read Life?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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—Miriam

One Sugar Plum Too Many?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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—Miriam

We Pulled Our Head Out of the Sand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Miriam

What Are Kids REALLY Reading These Days?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Miriam

Checkmate

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If the Golden Globes inspired you to update your Netflix queue, I have one more film to add to your list. It’s a foreign film called Queen to Play, starring Kevin Kline (in his first French-speaking role) and Sandrine Bonnaire. It’s the story of a cleaning woman who sees a couple playing chess and becomes obsessed with the game. Unable to convince her husband to study chess with her, she begins playing with one of her employers, a reclusive widower. The experience forces both players to grow and change in other aspects of their lives.

My husband and I were both inspired by Queen to Play, and not surprisingly, we started playing chess. While we’re both novices, he played more as a child. I thought we might be evenly matched after the first game ended in a stalemate, but my hopes for that have been shattered daily as he beats me game after game. This is becoming a source of pride, so I confess I’ve started googling chess strategies. My opening is improving but still no win.

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This new chess obsession has brought up memories of one of my favorite books, The Eight by Katherine Neville. It came out in 1988. I read The Eight in high school and it remains heavily on my mind decades later. The book was considered something of a cult classic and has remained in print in more than thirty languages for over twenty years.

A true feminist novel, The Eight is essentially a “quest” novel, much like Lord of the Rings, The Da Vinci Code, or even The Wizard of Oz. Metaphorical in nature, the plot follows two women in two different time periods. Catherine’s story starts in 1972, when her job as a computer expert sends her to Algeria, and Mireille is a young nun in 1790 France amidst the French Revolution. Both women are essentially “pawns” in a larger “chess” game, which involves protecting a legendary chess set called the Montglane service. The Montglane service was once owned by Charlemagne, and presumably holds great power. To protect the set from falling into the wrong hands, the pieces have been scattered across the world. The object of the novel’s “game” is to assemble the Montglane service and discover its secrets before the opposing team. Mireille appears at the beginning of the game and plays a role in dispersing the pieces. Famous figures in history have supposedly played the game and it has continued for centuries. Catherine enter the game as it nears its conclusion, and the players will go to any lengths to win, even murder.

I might be a novice at chess, but I understand that the game is a metaphor for life, and essentially, power. I can think of it as a series of moves, or I can think of it as a story. Like a novel, a chess game has an opening, a middle, and a finish in which the player, like the author, has to close the deal or walk away a loser. Even after all this time, The Eight is good enough to put readers into checkmate. The novel reveals itself just the way a good chess game unfolds and drops its bombshell when Mireille and Catherine’s stories intersect. You’ll never see the finish coming. Neville plays her endgame to perfection.

That movie, Queen to Play, has opened a can of worms in my life. Nowadays all I want to do is play chess and reread The Eight. Anyone care to join me in this obsession? I’ll be at it at least until I can put my husband in check. Literally.

—Miriam

The Fault In Our Movie Poster?

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Here I go again, writing about that author who seems to be everywhere these days. John Green writes bestsellers, garners a legion of online followers, and even appears at Carnegie Hall. There’s always plenty to talk about when his name comes up. I try to be diverse with my posts, so apologies ahead of time if I’m focusing too much on one author. But the movie version of The Fault In Our Stars is coming this summer, and the new poster for the film has everyone up in arms. It’s our duty to discuss it.

Green’s 2012 novel was a smashing success, topping bestseller lists for weeks and appearing on almost everyone’s Best of the Year lists. It’s about two teenagers who meet in a cancer support group and fall in love. The 16-year-old narrator, Hazel, has been living with stage 4 thyroid cancer. Her parents push her into joining a support group and her friend Isaac, who has lost his eye to cancer, joins her. At the group she meets Isaac’s friend Gus, who is in remission from bone cancer. Hazel and Gus start spending time together, but she resists a relationship hoping to spare him from losing her when she dies. True love prevails and they fall in love despite their dire circumstances. Both become captivated by a novel called An Imperial Affliction (it doesn’t really exist, but serves a purpose in the book), and they are able to undertake a trip to Amsterdam to meet the author together. The trip doesn’t go as planned, but they grow closer during the experience.

I’ll stop my recap there because I don’t want to spoil the end for those who haven’t read it. It’s a beautiful book that could have gone wrong in many ways, but in Green’s adept hands the moving story is told with great sensitivity and humor. Reviewers and readers loved the book, with the exception of The Guardian, who called the book exploitative and distasteful. They took issue with a genre they called “sick-lit,” teen books that deal with depression, suicide, and other dark subjects (like Thirteen Reasons Why, The Lovely Bones, etc).

When I was in grade school, the “sick-lit” queen was Lurlene McDaniel. Reading Six Months to Live made me want to be an oncologist when I grew up. All her books had to do with teens struggling with terminal illness, and she handled the subject with care and delicacy. She never led with humor and managed to strike a reverent tone when it came to her questions of life and death. Dramatic? Yes. But not irreverent.

For today’s kids, Lurlene McDaniel is still around but harder to find. And unlike McDaniel, John Green is edgy and his entire canon doesn’t center around childhood terminal illness. He always addresses coming of age issues and fills his books with energy and humor. So this step into “sick-lit” doesn’t define him as an author, and makes him vulnerable to critics just waiting to stomp on a freshman to such sensitive territory.

The question is if the tagline on The Fault In Our Stars movie poster is a joke. Here’s what Green had to say on his Tumblr:

I did not write the tagline.…These things are not my decision. It’s not my movie, or my poster.…That said, I like the tag line.…I mostly wanted something that said, “This is hopefully not going to be a gauzy, sentimental love story that romanticizes illness and further spreads the lie that the only reason sick people exist is so that healthy people can learn lessons.” But that’s not a very good tag line. I like the tag line because it says, literally, the sick can also have love stories. Love and joy and romance are not just things reserved for the well.

That said, I might be wrong. I’m wrong all the time.

Whether you like the tagline or hate it (because I’m guessing people will stick to one extreme or the other), it’s undeniable that the angle has people talking. Like Miley Cyrus, I suppose. The movie would have received plenty of buzz without it, but as they say, bad publicity is still publicity.

I, for one, was initially put off by the tagline. Perhaps it was my old Lurlene McDaniel frame of mind, or the fact that I know too many people with cancer and can’t imagine referring to their “stories” in such an edgy way. Maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy. But teens have a mind of their own, and I can see how the poster might speak to them.

Ultimately it’s going to be how the movie itself is done, not the poster, that matters. But for now, without a trailer even, that poster is our first impression. It won’t stop me from seeing the movie, but I will be approaching it hesitantly.

What do you think?

—Miriam

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

imageFor the next few months, every bookstore you enter, newspaper you open, and website you browse will have The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd splashed all over the place. I guarantee it. Why? Well, yes, it’s a great book, but the real reason is it’s the latest Oprah pick.

Now comes a big confession, which I hope won’t undermine my credibility as your loyal but bumbling bookseller. In November, way before Oprah made her announcement, I had two advanced copies of forthcoming books at the top of my pile. One was The Invention of Wings, which I was eager to read because of how much I liked Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees (The Mermaid Chair, not so much), and the other was a debut novel called The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh. One of my favorite sales reps from Penguin had sent and recommended McHugh’s freshman effort, but new authors are like new friends. Wary person that I am, I proceed with caution and skepticism.

Here’s how it went. I started Wings first, assuming it was a sure shot. It was Kidd’s expert voice and characterization all right, but I lost enthusiasm after about 50 pages. Maybe it was 12 Years a Slave fatigue, but in my mind I thought, here we go again, another slavery story that’s going to leave me feeling depressed. So I picked up The Weight of Blood instead and read it in 48 hours. Since that book isn’t coming out until March, I’ll save most of my thoughts on it for another blog. In a nutshell though: it’s fantastic.

But I digress. As for The Invention of Wings, it fell to the bottom of one of my stacks and I forgot all about it. Then one day, the book was everywhere. Oprah! Oprah! The superlatives were endless. Magnificent! Masterpiece! A triumph!

Well, I had no choice. I like to think I’m not a sheep, but if everyone’s buzzing about a book I want to know what the hubbub is about. So out came my copy and I tried again.

The book is set in early 19th century Charleston and two of the main characters are based on the real-life Grimke sisters, early abolitionists and feminists who helped pioneer both movements. Sarah Grimke is the focus, and at age 11 her parents give her her very own slave girl. That slave girl is named Hetty “Handful,” and her life and Sarah’s will be forever intertwined. As they grow up, both girls search for a better life. Sarah longs to be a lawyer and see the end of slavery, but her conservative family threatens to squash all her ambition. Handful’s restless and defiant mother, Charlotte, dreams of life as a free woman and instills a similar longing in her daughter. Both Sarah and Handful must endure tragedies and disappointments, and along the way they display great fortitude and strength of character which will eventually help them to rise beyond their circumstances. Sarah and her younger sister, Nina, follow a surprising and nontraditional path that takes them up north and out of the life everyone (even the reader) expects for them. Handful, left behind at the Grimke home, demonstrates an internal journey through loss and suffering that is the greatest heart of the book.

The Invention of Wings grew on me as I read along. Sarah, Nina, and Handful are fully fleshed out and admirable characters, full of humanity and toughness. Their story, however, is slow. I had the sense of having read this book before, although of course I hadn’t. While the abuse of slaves is an undeniable part of the story and era, the cruel mistress of the house and the whipping scenes felt, well, clichéd. I enjoyed the book, but I find myself hesitating at the overzealous championing. I have no doubt we’ll sell many copies because readers are always eager to join the Oprah conversation (as I was). But I’m having trouble differentiating the buzz from the book. Once the initial fuss dies down, I’ll be curious to hear our customers’ thoughts. A solid, enjoyable read? Yes. A masterpiece? I’m not so sure.

—Miriam

Under The Wide and Starry Sky

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Life with a toddler (or two, in my case) is not all that different from living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One minute they’re cute and happy as can be, and the next there’s a howling monster in the room. So it comes as a surprise that Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, never had biological children of his own. He had a philosophical view of human nature that perpetuates his work, and knowing his life story enhances the experience of reading his fiction. He spent a great deal of his life confined to a sick bed, and the restrictions on his health allowed him a great deal of time to explore his imagination. Nancy Horan’s new work of historical fiction, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, envisions Stevenson’s life and that of his intrepid wife, Fanny, and their life story is as colorful and broad as the classic novels Stevenson penned during his lifetime.

I liked Horan’s last novel, Loving Frank, about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his scandalous affair with a married woman, and that’s what drew me to Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Besides The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s best known work was Treasure Island. That classic adventure story about pirates and buried treasure has delighted children forever, but I can’t say I felt an overwhelming curiosity about the author. Horan did something smart by beginning with the story of Fanny Osbourne, whose life provides far meatier subject matter than that of her famous husband. For those who enjoyed The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (as I did), the angle is similar. Who was the woman behind the man, and what was her role in his work?

When Stevenson meets his future wife, she is already married and living in France with her children. Her first husband’s repeated infidelities drive her to a separation, and so she leaves him behind in California and takes her kids to Europe to study art. The long journey takes a toll on Fanny’s youngest son, and he falls ill and dies shortly after they arrive in Paris. With her daughter and other son, she retreats to an artists’ colony to grieve. It’s there that she meets the young author, who courts her fervently despite her reluctance.

The course of true love does not run smooth, however, and Fanny’s husband reappears and convinces her to reconcile. She moves back to California with him and leaves Stevenson behind, heartbroken. After a time, she writes and begs him to come to her, so he follows her to California and falls dangerously ill along the way. (The moral of this story seems to be to never travel between California and Europe via boat.) Having always been in poor health, the trip nearly kills him and he appears on Fanny’s doorstep on his last legs.

That’s essentially part one of the book. They marry, of course, and afterwards his poor health drives the rest of their adventures. Roaming from place to place searching for a climate that will help his lungs, the Stevensons spend time in Scotland, Switzerland, England, California, and eventually the south seas. Stevenson’s health is at its most robust at sea, and so a great deal of their later life is spent on a boat. Eventually they build a home in the tropical land of Samoa. They never raise children of their own, but Fanny’s two kids from her prior marriage, especially her son, make up the rest of their family.

The undercurrent of tension in the marriage has to do with Fanny’s own failed aspirations as an artist and writer. She knows she will never be as talented as her husband, and he subtly enforces that opinion, essentially turning a formerly fiery and vivacious woman into his lifelong caretaker. Both their characters change over the course of their lives and they were a strong influence over each other.

Some of the most compelling parts of the novel are when Stevenson is in the process of writing some of his masterpieces. He has a habit of reading his day’s work aloud to his family each night, then stays up to incorporate their feedback. He sleeps at odd hours and works diligently from his bed. While Under the Wide and Starry Sky doesn’t delve into the subject matter of his novels, the energy invested in creating them is on full display.

Imagining the lives of famous writers seems to be a literary trend nowadays. Often the great ones are characterized as lotharios, drunks, and egomaniacs. That’s not the case here, and Fanny is no shrinking violet of a wife. This one is not a short read, nor does it race along at a quick pace, but it covers a full and arduous lifetimeand romancewith great care and elegance.

—Miriam

The Nutcracker

imageIsland Books might be one of the only stores that doesn’t play music from The Nutcracker. The ballet is nearly synonymous with Christmas, and everywhere you go this time of year you’re bound to hear the plink-plink-plink of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation. While the music is familiar to everyone, the story of The Nutcracker is not quite as straightforward. It’s actually somewhat nonsensical and confusing. A girl receives a nutcracker for Christmas who comes to life and battles an army of mice, then turns into a prince and whisks the girl off through the land of snow and into a magical kingdom made of sweets? Huh?

I spent fourteen holiday seasons of my life appearing in various productions of The Nutcracker. I’ve danced almost every female role in the entire production. My childhood holiday memories are filled with moments in the ballet, from the little boy who played Fritz puking onstage to swallowing paper snow in the snow scene to executing a perfect triple pirouette as the lead Marzipan shepherdess to hardly being able to breathe after the Sugar Plum Fairy’s grand pas de deux. When I hear the music, I see the ballet in my head. Most dancers don’t consider The Nutcracker to be a “real” ballet, since the only true dancing happens in the second act and the kids are the highlight. Yet productions endure, especially because they’re cash cows for most ballet companies.

As far as I’m concerned, this time of year is synonymous with The Nutcracker. My favorite book about The Nutcracker when I was young was A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz, which is unfortunately out of print and difficult to find. It followed a student at the School of American Ballet who played the lead role of Marie in the New York City Ballet’s production. While that book might not be readily available, there are other good options. Whether you’re taking your child to see the show or they’re dancing in one themselves, a book can both clarify the plot and enhance their enjoyment of the holiday classic. Whether a kid has seen the ballet or just heard the unforgettable music, The Nutcracker will be on their mind already. Here are some good choices:

imageNutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman, pictures by Maurice Sendak: Here’s the book I recommend for older children and adults. It’s not a picture book per se, more like a coffee table book. First of all there are the fantastic Sendak illustrations (inside you’ll find nine full pages of illustrations alone without any text!). Then you’ll find a story that goes beyond the ballet version, including the background about how the nephew became the Nutcracker.

imageThe Nutcracker by Susan Jeffers: This is my favorite version for younger children. The illustrations have a great deal of warmth, and by simplifying the text and sticking with the ballet storyline (rather than introducing darker aspects of Hoffman’s original fairytale), Jeffers makes the story accessible for little ones. She captures the innocent excitement of a young girl on Christmas Eve and will charm readers of all ages. It’s the perfect book to read before you take a child to see the ballet for the first time.

imageThe Nutcracker Ballet by Mara Conlon: This one is as much a toy as a book. Kids can use the paper dolls to act out the scenes themselves, either as you read the story to them or on their own. Plenty of the ancillary characters are included, so you can stage the entire snow scene and such with corps de ballet dancers, setsthe whole shebang. This isn’t my favorite choice for illustrations, but it does make a great interactive gift and conveys the story well.

imageThe Pacific Northwest Ballet Presents: Nutcracker by Pacific Northwest Ballet Association: This one is perfect for our local customers who have enjoyed Pacific Northwest Ballet’s unique production for more than 20 years. Rather than admiring his illustrations, in this book you can appreciate Maurice Sendak’s skill at stunning production design. The photographs of what he created for PNB demonstrate why their production is a gem unlike any other. Angela Sterling does much of the photography for PNB, and her work here is evidence of her skill at capturing dance images. For those that grew up watching PNB’s Nutcracker, this beautifully designed book will feel like coming home.

—Miriam