Bear with me patient readers. I begin with some personal history. My first professional job, as a freshly minted teacher straight out of college, was working in an experimental  laboratory preschool in the early 70s. We had a government grant to try to “mainstream” little kids with special challenges into a “normal” preschool classroom. I worked with a veteran teacher, and we had a class of 3-year-olds that came in a variety of shapes and styles including a boy who was blind, a girl with cerebral palsy, a child with severe autism, a child with Down syndrome and the “regular” kids. It was fun and really, really interesting work.

I remember very clearly one afternoon we met with a consulting psychiatrist who began a session with the statement, “We all have our challenges.” Over the course of that year, that truth became crystal clear. Some of the “normal” kids were fearful, antisocial, had learning difficulties, or problems at home. Some of the “special” kids were funny, insightful, gutsy, and lightning quick. It was a mixed bag. Everybody (teachers included) had their challenges. But the diversity of the group made it easier to see our common humanity and, in many ways, made it easier to help one another....continued

Oscar season is over, but the annual book awards are just heating up. Some of my favorites have just been or are about to be revealed. The 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award winners were announced on March 12th. For the full list, go here. There are two winners I especially loved. For fiction the prize went to Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Her novel Gilead won the NBCC Award for fiction in 2005, and laid the groundwork for Lila’s win, the third book in the trilogy that started with Gilead. Again set in the fictional town in southern Iowa, a place that embodies the quintessential midwest during and after the Depression, in Lila the main character is a migrant drifter who grows up to become the young wife of a much older widower. She also becomes the mother of the protagonist in Gilead. As Lila rises from poverty and neglect into a loving relationship and healed psyche, Robinson elegantly explores theological and moral questions of the time without hypocrisy or pretentiousness....continued

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Most writers who develop a devoted readership over time do it with a series of books that offer comforting similarity. It’s easy for their fans to return again and again to the tried and true. It’s far more rare for someone to pull off the same trick by never repeating himself. You wouldn’t think that an author who achieved fame with his realistic portrait of a repressed butler in a grand manor house would then turn to Kafkaesque surreality in depicting the experiences of a musician in Central Europe. He certainly wouldn’t veer off into dystopic science fiction after that, leaving his followers utterly unable to imagine what he’d come up with next. Unless his name was Kazuo Ishiguro.

The anticipation is over. With his latest novel, Ishiguro again combines his insider’s knowledge with his outsider’s sensibility to write a book that no one else could. He’s reached all the way back to the origins of English literature for the particulars of his story, but the uneasy mood it creates is very much of the present day. The Buried Giant is about confused, desperate, and disconnected people who roam a fragmented country, but its characters (and its readers) still find a way to draw themselves together around a glimmering fire of hope. It’s a remarkable book that fulfills and confounds all readerly expectation at once.

But is it a great book? ... continued

Everyone’s talking about Harper Lee’s new novel, as I discussed in a recent post. As much as I like to vary my subject matter on this blog, the “things to look forward to” list keeps growing. I’m compelled to devote another column to some things you should know about, with the promise that after this, I’ll do my best to focus on the present.

If you like readings, don’t miss Booker winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s appearance at the Seattle Public Library, Monday March 30th from 7-8:30pm. His newest novel, The Buried Giant, is a departure from other beloved works like Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, but it’s a gem in its own right. Set in Arthurian England, The Buried Giant follows an elderly couple traveling village to village in the hope of reconnecting with their long-lost son. Ishiguro never writes the same book twice, but his precise language and philosophical conundrums always remain churning in readers’ minds long after they finish his work. It’ll be a treat to see the author himself and will enhance our already huge enjoyment of his work....continued

Everybody knows that Shakespeare sits at the pinnacle of the authorial pyramid, his work deservedly considered as the finest example of the wonders of the written word. Other writers have avid fans–Dickensians and Janeites, for example–but he’s the only one who inspires fervor that approaches worship. “Bardolatry,” in other words....

I’m not knocking the guy—if any literary figure is deserving of this level of adulation, it’s him. There are problems with building him so high a pedestal, though. For one, it encourages readers and playgoers to see him as superhuman, and to distrust his established biography. Hence the rising tide of anti-Stratfordian nonsense that culminated in 2012’s absurd cinematic flop Anonymous, which claimed not only that the Earl of Oxford was the actual author of Shakespeare’s works, but that he was both lover and son of Elizabeth I.

A more serious problem with obsessive bardolatry is that it leaves you nowhere to go. Since nothing else measures up, you might as well skip it all and stick with the creme de la creme. But even the most devoted fan will eventually tire of re-reading Troilus and Cressida. What do you do when you’ve had your fill of Shakespeare? What you should do is branch out by reading some of his contemporaries .... continued

To my great delight, last week I learned that my mother-in-law, her best friend, and I were all reading the same book at the same time. “I’m so into this thriller,” my MIL confessed, “that when someone on my flight said, ‘Hey Chuck!’ I looked up and said ‘Yes?’”

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins drove all of us to distraction. Rachel is a divorced woman who has developed a voyeuristic fascination with a “perfect” couple she sees regularly on her daily commute. As her train passes their courtyard each day, she develops her own fiction for their livesa life she wishes were her own. The fact that they live a few doors down from her own previous residence, now inhabited by her ex-husband, his current wife, and their new baby, is no coincidence.

Rachel’s fixation isn’t the story, except that she witnesses something about the couple one day that she shouldn’t have seen. Add in Rachel’s severe drinking problem, a night of poor decisions when she gets off at the “perfect” couple’s stop, and a blackout that leaves her with no memory of that night, and suddenly Rachel is a central figure in a woman’s disappearance....continued

How long has it been since we paid a call on you and had ourselves a good old-fashioned First Line Friday? Too long, we say. So pull up a chair, set down for a spell, and enjoy some great literary samples. And don’t worry about us dominating the conversation. We’ve let some top writers chip in their two cents this time. All the choices below are theirs, and in our humble opinion, they have excellent taste ... continued

"Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy."

Last week brought the remarkable news that Harper Lee has been sitting on a manuscript. And come July, this piece of gold (whether it’s good or not, there’s no question the book will rake in a fortune) will be hitting our shelves. According to a multitude of reports, Go Set a Watchman was apparently written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but Lee abandoned it when her editor told her to write a prequel instead. For decades the author presumed the manuscript had been lost. Her lawyer recently discovered it, and now, we’ll finally get a glimpse of what Scout is like as a grown up.

Just like the rest of you, I’m excited. It’s a fairy tale. We’ve been clamoring for another Harper Lee book since 1960, and she’s notoriously clammed up when asked if she was working on anything. Beyond a few short essays, as far as we know Lee never wrote again after Mockingbird. I have no doubt the new book will be as warm, funny yet ironic, and complex as the classic we already know and love. It won’t be a Blidungsroman though, and that’s going to be a huge shift in the way we relate to Scout. Her crumbling innocence in the original played a huge role in making the story so poignant. This new older Scout will be returning to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit Atticus about twenty years later....continued

If you happen to be in New York before February 7th, you might want to stop by the Julie Saul Gallery’s solo exhibition with Dutch photographer Reinier Gerritsen. For physical book lovers, Gerritsen is an artist to champion. One of his biggest projects over the last few years has been photographing people reading in the New York City subways. What started as a small experiment fueled by the photographer’s fear that printed books were doomed turned into vivid proof that they’re in fact alive and well. People are reading books. Not just reading devices. Books. He catalogues his vivid documentary portraits by author and the books range from bestsellers to classics to thrillers and more.

For those that want the pleasure of exploring this project in Gerritsen’s preferred form, you can have all the photographs in one place with his recently released body of work, aptly titled The Last Book....continued

(Our store journal keeps you posted on books we're excited about, our literary musings, and other reading-related rambles. If you like, you can sign up to receive our posts by email.)

When the Seahawks made it to the Super Bowl last year, we played it a little cute, talking on the blog about what a stretch it was for a highfalutin’, highbrow outfit like ours to be interested in sportsball. You saw right through that pretense, of course ....

In their honor, but even more in honor of you, the all-important 12th-Man fans, we’re doing this year what we did last time around. This Sunday, February 1st, we’ll be keeping special holiday hours by opening from 10am to 3pm. Even better, everything in the store will be discounted 12%. That includes football-related books to read during halftime, but also all of our non-sports items ... continued