EXULT, each patriot heart!—this night is shewn
A piece, which we may fairly call our own.

Fun fact for you this Independence Day: the first play written and performed in America was a comedy called “The Contrast” by Royall Tyler in 1787. The epigraph up there is from the play’s prologue; if you really want to read the whole thing, you can do it online. I learned this fun fact in college while engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, traveling off-syllabus through my Norton Anthology of American Literature. If any current students have stumbled here today, I highly recommend you give this a try. I remember more of what I read on my own back then than I do about my assigned reading. Aside from this very specific, mostly useless detail, my Norton anthology also taught me a bit about what the United States was like in its earliest days ... continued

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My daughter’s last year of co-op preschool just came to end, but we parents weren’t let off the hook without attending one final evening meeting. We do this regularly in late spring, gathering to talk school business, elect board members for the coming year, and listen to an expert give us advice about child-rearing.

This last part can be a demoralizing experience, as the speakers often cover topics like proper discipline and sex ed, the kinds of subjects that remind us how easy it is to get things wrong and scar our precious lambs for life. On this occasion, though, we had a good time. By pure coincidence, our guest expert was a very familiar face, a frequent visitor to Island Books who never fails to bring fun with her when she comes.

Nancy Stewart is a singer-songwriter who’s been performing for children for far longer than you’d believe to look at her. As such, she knows all there is to know about music and how it affects the very young in very positive ways. The benefits are myriad, but her presentation focused on how singing bolsters literacy, a topic that’s obviously near and dear to my bookseller’s heart.

Even more appealing was that the sample songs Nancy shared all came from picture books, and I was pleased to see that many of those had come from the shelves of Island Books ... continued

(continued from part one)

Matt: The cover art is indeed a mystery and possibly a travesty, since there are so many great photos of Mitchell out and about that would have served as better covers.

And yes [spoilers ahead!], I found the second half of the book to be profoundly moving, but not necessarily because of the big revelations. I already knew that my hero had fudged some of the work. The Flood stories were originally published as profiles in the magazine long before my time, but Mitchell clarified when they were gathered into a book in 1948 that there was no such person as Hugh G. Flood, that he was a “composite character” assembled from several men Mitchell had known over the years. This clarification was retained in the omnibus I first read, so that I never felt abused on this score.

What was news to me, at least up until I read a bean-spilling review a few weeks before publication, was that Hugh Flood was not the only–or the first–composite character Mitchell had “profiled,” and that he’d never come clean about the others ... continued

Joseph Mitchell was born to a family of North Carolina tobacco farmers in 1908. He was expected to take over the family business, but instead became a newspaper reporter, and an excellent one. He found work in New York City and very quickly made a name for himself as one of the best in the business, roving incessantly throughout the urban landscape and soaking up the stories of its most interesting inhabitants. In 1938 he left the daily grind and was hired by the New Yorker magazine, then-young but already becoming an institution. The switch allowed him to slow his frenetic pace of production and pursue his personal vision, creating richer, more ruminative pieces that pushed at the boundaries of the non-fiction feature. By the 1950s he was widely considered the supreme master of his craft, the forerunner and father of what was later known as New Journalism. In 1964 Mitchell published for the last time in the pages of the New Yorker; for the next three decades he worked at the typewriter in his office without revealing to anyone what he was writing. He died in 1996, secretive to the end.

Mitchell’s deceptively simple prose is entrancing, as is the mystery of his final years. Those of us who’ve been caught in his net have waited years in hope of discovering more of his work, or at least more about what he was working on. At long last Thomas Kunkel has given us a glimpse of both with the first real Mitchell biography, Man in Profile. The moment it came out I knew I couldn’t keep quiet about it, and I knew who I had to talk about it with–friend and fellow devotee, writer Matthew Fleagle. Our conversation ... continued

My son was doing homework the other day and when I asked him what he was up to he said, “Writing definitions for science vocabulary. All the words have to do with electricity.” What a coincidence, I told him. “I’ve just been reading about the man who coined the word electricity. You should ask your teacher if he knows who that is.” I never did get a report on the result, probably because my son is smarter than I am and knows enough not to show up his teacher.

So what’s the name you’re supposed to retort with when a less-polite ten-year-old asks you the same question? You can find out in a highly interesting new book by Hugh Aldersey-Williams called In Search of Sir Thomas Browne. The title kind of gives the answer away, but the book contains innumerable other rewards that will not be fully disclosed without a complete read ... continued

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His fame and success came early and hard, and his fall from those heights was long and slow. He spent decades in apparent decline, struggling to create art according to his personal vision while becoming ever more of a parody of himself in the public eye. And yet we’re still talking about him. In a year that marks the 100th anniversary of his birth and the 30th anniversary of his death, Orson Welles remains as relevant as ever.

Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind by Josh Karp

Starting in the mid-1970s and continuing until his death in 1985, Welles was cobbling together a script, a cast, a crew, and equipment for what he hoped would be a landmark film ...

Orson Welles: Power, Heart, and Soul by F.X. Feeney

Welles lived many lives in his 70 years on earth, and accomplished enough to fill dozens of biographies. Too many of them have focused on what he didn’t do, like shoot more money-making studio movies. Feeney’s isn’t one of those, fortunately. He covers Welles’s eccentric upbringing, one that featured multiple father figures but no mother, and surveys all the lesser-known aspects of his public career ...

Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News by A. Brad Schwartz

If he’d never gone to Hollywood at all, Welles would still be famous for his radio broadcast on October 30th, 1938, in which he led his Mercury Theater troupe in a version of the alien invasion from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. He updated the references, reset the action in New Jersey, and played it as a real-time experience that uncannily mimicked real-life reportage of actual disasters. A trusting national audience of tens of millions, already made nervous by the impending world war in Europe, was sent into panic, fleeing their homes, crashing their cars, and causing uncountable damage. Or did they? ... continued

When writing history, it’s important to get the facts right, but when writing historical fiction, it can be more interesting to get the facts–at least some of them–creatively wrong. If an author is too slavishly devoted to what really happened, he or she sometimes ends up with fiction that’s just an expression of nostalgia for an era that will never come again. Reading that sort of thing is a perfectly pleasurable bit of time-traveling indulgence, but the historical fiction I like best does something different. By bending the rules a little–or a lot–it tells the truth about a long-gone era and also comments on the present moment. It gives the reader the best of both worlds.

This seems to be exactly what Hermione Eyre is up to with her debut novel, Viper Wine, set in 17th-century England ...

Some books, on the other hand, play fast and loose with the facts just for fun. Clash of Eagles by Alan Smale is the first in a trilogy that starts with the supposition that the Roman Empire never fell ... continued

I’m happy to report that I’ve figured out how to make my twin toddlers do anything I want (most of the time). The million dollar secret, you ask? Promise to read them any book by Todd Parr. An almost daily conversation in my house lately sounds like this:

“Ready to get dressed? Brush your teeth? Let mommy comb your hair?”
“No. No. No.”
“Do you want to read The Family Book?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
“Then first get dressed, brush your teeth, and comb your hair. Then we will read The Family Book.”
“Okay, Mommy!”

I kid you not. It’s that easy (most of the time).

I first discovered these books on that magic shelf back in our children’s section, right in that little alcove with the board books. There you will find a few racks of must-have children’s books, made with the least expensive materials possible. That’s right, you don’t have to buy the hardcover of The Story of Ferdinand orWe’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Chances are your little ones will rip the jacket and color on the pages anyway. Since we’re going through way too many books at a time in my house lately, I love finding the flimsy paperback versions of the books my kids absolutely must read....continued

(continued from Part I)

Miriam: Yes, I’m also interested in taking a look back at T. H. White’s other work, but I’m not so sure it’s The Goshawk (the book Helen Macdonald became fixated on) that intrigues me. I was surprised to learn that White was also the author of The Sword in the Stone, a book I enjoyed as a child. There’s a hawk in that story too, who teaches the boy the meaning of courage. I was curious how I’d view that story at this point in my life, especially after learning so much more about the author’s background.

We learn a great deal about White through H is for Hawk, and I could see Macdonald found him to be a troubling character ...

On a different note, what did you make of the scene when Macdonald meets Mabel for the first time? Her writing gives their first impression such a dramatic setup. The man who breeds the goshawks meets her with two birds, one intended for another falconer. But he accidentally takes out the other falconer’s hawk first, and that’s the one Macdonald feels is hers ... continued

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My blogging partner Miriam and I are both avid readers, but we don’t normally read the same things. The last time it happened was almost two years ago, in fact, and we had to arrange it on purpose. But this month pure coincidence led us to pick up the same book at the same time, H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald.

A lot of people are picking it up, actually–it’s been a bestseller for several weeks now. That’s a slight surprise, given that it’s not an action-packed thriller or torrid romance. Instead it’s a meditative memoir about a woman’s grief and how she tries to manage it by immersing herself in, of all things, the ancient practice of falconry. The book is so deeply felt and beautifully written, though, that its unusual subject matter becomes more familiar with every passing page.

Miriam and I agreed to have a little online chat about our reactions to H Is for Hawk, and we invite you not only to read it, but join in with your own comments...continued