We had visitors from Portland at our house last weekend. My friend and her husband left Seattle about four months ago and she took a job at a sportswear company. I used to share an office with her, and our book-related roles led into a friendship that has long outlasted that period of employment. We were paid to discuss books (the far most interesting of our designated tasks), and that habit also long outlived the job.

The first thing my friend said to me was, “I desperately need something to read.” Although her new job offers plenty of athletic gear, her access to endless free books is a perk of the past. I happily led her to our study and began pulling titles off the shelves.

"Here," I said, "Try the new Tana French. It’s not out yet but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.” (Don’t worry, faithful readers, I’ll review it closer to the September pub date.) She started to crack it open but I was already piling more on top of it. Here’s The Weight of Blood, one of my favorite debut novels this past year. And you’ll like this old Anita Shreve. What about We Were Liars? You’ll probably like Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments. And of course there’s always my never-fail recommends, A Fine Balance and American Wife.”...Read More

In my last post I announced that I was going on vacation, but I didn’t say exactly where I was going. Now that I’m out of the shop and far from the reach of your envy, I feel safe enough to reveal that I’m writing to you now from the sunny south of France. I’m living la vie en rose, I’ll admit, but not every minute. Paris may be a model of grace and style, but getting through its airport is no promenade dans le jardin. And hey, I had to leave the beach to write this post, didn’t I? 

Well, I guess I didn’t have to, but I wouldn’t want to leave my readers hanging in my absence. The possibility that spending a little time during my trip talking about books might allow me to write the whole thing off on my taxes never entered my mind, I swear. So let’s get to it.

I already mentioned my favorite travel writing, but I made sure to pack a few fat novels in my carry-on. There’s no better opportunity than a long plane ride to indulge in a big book—as the altimeter climbs, so does the page count. For international flavor I chose something by Julio Cortazar, a well-traveled author born in Brussels, raised in Buenos Aires, and made famous in Paris, where his classic Hopscotch is set. To remind me of the Pacific Northwest I brought the epic Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin....Read More

Every summer there’s one or two thrillers that everyone’s talking about. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson dominated 2010. In 2011 it was Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson and Sister by Rosamund Lipton, in 2012 there was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and last year the big one was The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. This year, everyone’s been telling me I have to read The Fever by Megan Abbott. So I did.

We already know a version of The Fever in real life. In 2012, Le Roy, New York made the news with a strange epidemic: a strikingly large group of mostly teenage girls all developed an idiopathic tic. Was there an environmental cause? Was it stress? Had everyone gone crazy? No one seemed to know. What happened in Le Roy was eventually believed to be a psychological problemmass hysteria. But that isn’t the case in Abbott’s new novel.

In The Fever, the first teenager to suffer a seizure and fall into a coma is Lise, a voluptuous and popular girl who has been getting a large amount of male attention since puberty hit. It just so happens that the day before Lise’s seizure, her best friend Deenie lost her virginity to the same guy Lise had been hooking up with. Deenie is the central character in The Fever and her entry into the world of sexuality sets the stage for the book’s underlying condemnation of promiscuity, implying that the victims of what soon becomes an epidemic are actually being slut-shamed. The primary male characters, Deenie’s father Tom and her brother Eli are stable, solid guys. But Deenie’s mom had an affair and abandoned the family. All the other female characters are either promiscuous, sinister, or hysterical. Women, it seems, are being punished....Read More

For the first time in years I’m actually taking a substantial vacation, one that involves airplanes and oceans and everything. Which also means that for the first time in years I can read travel books without experiencing crippling jealousy. Some stay-at-homers may find them inspirational, but those readers are clearly better, less petty human beings than I. The last thing I want to read when I’m trapped in the daily grind without hope of escape is a story about someone finding thrills or (God forbid) enlightenment in an exotic land.

The only exceptions to this rule are books featuring writers raising families in foreign countries. Examples include Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr; The Moon, Come to Earth, about Philip Graham’s experiences in Lisbon; and the seminal Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. (Big miss, Doerr–should’ve called your book Quattro Stagioni Sulla Luna if you wanted to complete the trifecta.) I give these books a pass because the authors aren’t flitting about the globe for their own selfish purposes, they’re trying to immunize their offspring against a plague of Happy Meals and teach them what a globe really looks like. I can tolerate descriptions of lazy, late-night meals in piazzas and effortless visits to picturesque ruins by telling myself, “Think of the children.” Who knows, I may someday raise bouncing bilingual babies of my own by following the good example of Messrs. Doerr, Graham, and Gopnik....Read More

If you venture a look at the cart around the front counter at Island Books, you might get a glimpse of this poster about “Your Rights as a Worker.” It’s about 25 years old. Was the minimum wage really $3.85 per hour back then? That won’t even buy a soda at the movies these days.

Roger showed me the poster with a chuckle the other day, after a recent article in The New York Times got us talking about the history of bookstore employment. The story was about a distressing dispute between a bookstore owner and his employees. My dad emailed the link with the question, “What would Roger say?”

Chris Doeblin owns both Book Culture bookstores, located near Columbia University in Manhattan. His employees recently pursued unionizing in order to gain more holiday pay, promotions, and health insurance. On the management side, the economic realities of independent bookselling necessitate cutting costs. Doeblin prioritizes maintaining his business above retaining his employees. The move to unionize resulted in Doeblin’s firing of several key staffers, and an uproar in the surrounding community....Read More

Mother-in-laws get a bad rap, but father-in-laws don’t get any attention at all, it seems to me. Having done what I can to rectify the former, it’s time to do something about the latter.

My father-in-law was born into a large Italian-American family in Brooklyn, New York. How large? Large enough that his accounts of family history quickly descend into confusion for the listener who has to keep track of all the members, a problem that’s compounded by the fact that they all shared the same handful of first names. They grew Tonys in bunches like grapes, it seems.

Brooklyn in those days was a fairly tough place, and kids didn’t venture outside their own neighborhoods very often. If your last name ended in a vowel and you had to go down the Irish block, you ran. The atmosphere of the time is still present in the fiction of Gilbert Sorrentino, especially his novel Steelwork, and also in Vincent Papaleo’s Italian Stories....Read More

(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.)

Sad news, fellow book lovers. After three years and a tremendous effort by publishers, writers, booksellers, and more, World Book Night is suspending operations.

James wrote about his experience with World Book Night back in 2012. Looking back at his blog, you can already see the writing on the wall. His initial effort to hand out Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to his softball team sounded disappointing. James took home half the copies he tried to distribute. “Too busy,” was the response. When people are turning down a free bestseller because they never have time to read, that’s depressing. But it’s also reality.

The program failed due to lack of funding. World Book Night officials were unable to secure outside grants, and I can see why. How could they document the results? There’s no way to prove that giving away free books increased overall book sales or helped the book industry. We don’t know if it even increased reading, because chances are many of those free copies ended up on a dusty shelf or at a yard sale. Despite plenty of buzz on social media, what did the World Book Night actually accomplish?...Read More

imageIsland Books customers are some of the smartest and most intellectual people around. We read sweeping and complex works of fiction, hard-hitting political memoirs, and epic histories. For our children we buy books that model the kind of citizens we want them to be, from coming-of-age novels to the classics. We go to the symphony, the ballet, and the theater. Our families, our careers, and our leisure activities bubble up in banter with the staff, proving over and over that our store serves a special and highly educated community. 

And yet. Dig a little deeper, and you might find that the same customer who joyfully read Melville and Woolf in college and buys books like The Goldfinch and Hard Choices loves to read People magazine. Get to know that customer after a few more languid visits to the store, and they might even let it slip that they love to watch The Bachelor....Read More

World Cup fever has cooled a bit around here since the US team bowed out of the tournament, but the temperature is still high. How could it not be after this year’s display? It looks like the record for total goals scored will fall before all is said and done, and we’ve seen some spectacular play along the way. In particular, Germany’s shellacking of Brazil was a match that will be talked about for at least the next fifty years. The finals take place on Sunday at noon, and even if we can’t watch, you can bet we’ll be checking the score from behind the counter. Oh, the sacrifices we make for you, our beloved customers.

As we’ve mentioned before, though, the World Cup of Literature has been even more fun for us to follow, and that competition too is winding up. Thirty-two works of fiction from around the globe have been facing off against each other for weeks now, and a winner, the so-called best book in the world, will be announced on Monday....Read More

Most people who know me well would find it very funny that I’m writing about cookbooks today, given that almost all of my contact with food comes after it’s prepared and plated. I’m no good in the kitchen, so my usual contribution to dinner is saying, “Whatever you want to eat is fine with me.” I do appreciate fine culinary artistry, though, and I also appreciate the books that explain how to produce it.

For instance, I really like Keepers by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion. It contains well over a hundred recipes that take flavor, health, and practicality into equal account. Not dumbed-down, but still accessible for beginners, it’s exactly the sort of book a family chef will actually use again and again. Keepers follows in the footsteps of several other great books that prove you can work with real ingredients just about as conveniently and quickly as you can with the pre-packaged stuff that gets passed off as food—and get far better results, of course. I’m thinking of Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach, Fast Food My Way by Jacques Pepin, Homemade with Love by Jennifer Perillo, The Family Cooks by Laurie David, not to mention the various releases in the Everyday Food line from Martha Stewart and the Family Cookbooks from America’s Test Kitchen.

Excellent, sensible volumes all, and I benefit from them enormously on the rare occasions that I open one. But I’m helplessly drawn to another kind of cookbook entirely. My real fondness is for books that I’ll never smudge, spill upon, or even use at all, most likely. The latest example is The Bloomsbury Cookbook by Jans Ondaatje Rolls, which catalogs the life, art, and meals of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and the other geniuses of their circle....Read More