What Makes a Book Literary?

I just finished Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and highly recommend it. Groff’s new bestseller delivers the shock and surprises that critics are raving about. I expected that. What surprised me was the sheer beauty and originality of the language.

Here is one of my favorite passages:

“It would come to her decades later, when she was old, in a porcelain bathtub held aloft on lions’ claws and her own body mercifully submerged, that her life could be drawn in the shape of an X. Her feet duck-splayed and reflected in the water … From a terrifying expanse in childhood, life had focused to a single red-hot point in middle age. From there it exploded outward again.”

You don’t have to know the definition of literary fiction to recognize that this is it. Without saying what it is, Groff is using a metaphor to explain the enormity of that “red-hot point,” making that event positively epic. (I won’t give away what the event is here.) Early in my reading, Roger asked what I thought of Fates and Furies. I told him I was enjoying it but that it was more literary than anything else I’d read in the last few years. And for many of us literary can mean intimidating ... continued

A Tale of Three Islands

Every reader’s life can be traced through books. Take a given person and look at the shelves in her house. All the years will be laid out there, in children’s stories fingerprinted with jam, in double copies of favorite novels that couldn’t be discarded when she and her husband combined libraries, in parenting manuals, in cookbooks, in souvenir volumes of photographs from foreign lands, and in all the other books that she’s collected over time. It may take a while to go through them all, but when you do you’ll get almost as good a sense of who she is as you would if you read her diary.

Sometimes you catch a glimpse of a whole human story when you grab a handful of random books off a library cart. That happened to me the other day when I was restocking the shelves at the store. Almost right next to each other were three books about different islands, and each of those islands represented a different period in the life of the person standing next to me ... continued

November Reading

October featured a series of Q&A’s on our blog, so today it’s time to get back to the books. With a long Thanksgiving weekend coming up, maybe we’ll find some extra time with a glass of wine and a good read. Here are a few options that will make you want to ignore the dishes:

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill: If you loathe sentimentality in your fiction, Mary Gaitskill is a writer you can appreciate. In her new novel told in short chapters from various viewpoints, she explores the classic coming-of-age/girl-and-horse connection.

Velveteen is an eleven-year old Dominican girl from Brooklyn with behavior problems and an overbearing single mom. A social worker suggests the Fresh Air Fund program to give Velvet (a nickname that echoes that other girl-and-horse story, National Velvet) and her younger brother a chance to get out of the city for two weeks. Velvet falls in love with the pictures of open skies and smiling host families. She ends up in a house with Ginger, an artist and recovering alcoholic who longs to become a mother, and Paul, who is already a father from another woman and doesn’t want a child who isn’t his own. Ginger throws herself into the relationship with Velvet and takes her to the nearby riding stables, where Velvet falls in love with an angry and abused mare ... 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.) 

New Faces

For the past twenty years, anyone on Mercer Island who’s been looking for a children’s book recommendation has known exactly who to talk to. Parents, grandparents, teachers, and kids of all ages have marched straight up to our counter and asked, “Lori, can you help me?” Without fail, that question has been answered in the affirmative by our own Lori Mitchell. With aplomb, she’s produced the perfect book virtually every time and positively influenced a whole generation of readers. Everyone else on our team occasionally has to stand back and applaud her talent.

If this is starting to sound like a commemorative address, that’s because it is. As of now, Lori is officially retired from Island Books, ready to embark on an open-ended journey across America. On the one hand we wish it weren’t so, but on the other we can’t be anything but happy for her as she heads off on her travels. We know we can’t expect to replace someone like her, but we can seek out different, equally awesome new people to follow in her footsteps, which is exactly what we’ve done. We think you’re going to be delighted to meet them ... continued

Meet Local Musician Henry Mansfield

On Sunday, November 1st at 5:30pm, we’ll be hosting a pre-release party for the debut album from local musician Henry Mansfield. An up-and-coming talent who also happens to be a local on the island, Mansfield’s music is innovative, dramatic, and draws on a wide variety of influences. You can preview his work here and also follow him on Facebook

Henry took some time to talk with us in anticipation of the party and here’s what he had to say:

Island Books: Do you come from a musical family? Tell us a little about yourself and how your passion for music evolved.

Henry: I do! While none of my family are professional musicians, almost all of them (especially on my mother’s side) are exceptionally musical. Every other year at Christmas, we plan something called “The Christmas Program” where all of us have to get up and perform something. It can be a song, poetry, a dance, or even just a book reading, but we all have to share ... continued

Too High & Too Steep

You’re probably familiar with this famous image of the historic Northwest. It depicts the last elevated redoubts of Denny Hill, which overlooked Seattle’s downtown business core until it was flattened in the name of progress in the early 20th century. I’ve always thought there was something noble about these holdout property owners, Edith Macefields avant la lettre, who resisted the steam shovels as long as they could from atop their so-called “spite mounds.” I was quite wrong about what I was seeing in the picture, as I realize now. As always, it took a book to help me understand what really happened (and continues to happen) right under my nose.

Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography by David B. Williams is an examination of the remarkable things locals have done to transform their city–turning the Duwamish tide flats into dry land, slicing a canal from Puget Sound to Lake Washington, rerouting the Cedar River, and, as mentioned, regrading the hills. Each undertaking was impressive on its own, but collectively they altered our landscape beyond the recognition of the original residents. Even before reading the book, I’d known the general outlines of these projects, but not, you know, their actual outlines. Williams describes those to a tee, with such crystal-clear specificity that you can stand on the precise spots where things changed. In his research he did exactly that, and through his eyes you can see what the old Seattle looked like and what glimpses of it still remain.

In addition to where, he also tells exactly when, how, and why the jobs got done, and he does it in an exceptionally concise way. Too High & Too Steep is authoritative and comprehensive enough for any academic, but it’s an engaging and entertaining read for lay audiences. Anyone who’s ever given a moment’s thought to the scenery passing by while strolling a Seattle sidewalk or sailing along its shoreline will find it fascinating. Reading it is practically a civic duty.

David Williams was kind enough to ignore his interviewer’s untempered enthusiasm and answer some questions for our blog ... continued

A Conversation with Alexandra Day, Author of the Good Dog, Carl Series

On Wednesday, October 21st at 10:30am, we’re excited to welcome bestselling author Alexandra Day (real name: Sandra Darling) to the store. She’ll be at Island Books for our new and already popular Storybook Corner, along with a very special guest–her dog!

For those unfamiliar with her children’s book series about Carl, everyone’s favorite babysitting Rottweiler, these are delightful children’s picture books told mainly through lush, wordless spreads, Carl and baby Madeleine go on all kinds of adventures–to the park, through a department store, to a masquerade party and more–and always make it back before Mother knows they’re gone. The various books feature birthday and Christmas celebrations, fun in the sun, a snowy day romp, and more. Wherever Carl goes, there’s sure to be goodhearted fun.

Sandra was born in 1941 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a large and close-knit family. Painting was a popular family recreation, and almost every family excursion included one or more easels and a variety of sketch pads, chalks, paints, and pencils. For four years, the family lived on a hundred-acre farm in Kentucky. Here young Sandra grew especially fond of riding and training horses, and became a dog owner for the first time. Her own dog, a Rottweiler named Toby, was the model for the book’s main character. Since then, other family Rottweilers have posed as Carl in the seven sequels.

Sandra lives in Seattle with her husband, Harold. She took the time to chat with us in anticipation of her store visit. Read on to learn more about her and her work ... continued

Watching the Detectives

For ages, whenever I was asked what kinds of books interested me, I’d say that I read just about everything except mysteries. It’s not that I ever had anything against them, but finding out whodunit wasn’t something I ever really cared about. Almost without my noticing, though, just as you’d expect from the sneakiest genre of all, mysteries have crept into my life and onto my bookshelves.

It may have started when I read the first installment of Kate Atkinson’s investigator Jackson Brodie series, Case Histories. I picked it up because I’d loved her earlier work, and I enjoyed it for the same reasons I had before, because of her wry humor, brilliant observations, and three-dimensional characters. Those elements alone made it a more than satisfying book, and it was something of a surprise to realize that the author had actually provided a tidy resolution to the homicides that were the engine of the story. Atkinson had fulfilled an expectation I didn’t know I had.

Since then I’ve been more willing to seek readerly satisfaction in the skulduggery section, and I’ve learned to appreciate what I never had before, the fine art of planting secrets in a plot so it all makes sense in the end. I’ve sampled everything from the classic crime-solving of Oliver Quade, the Human Encyclopedia to the metafictional exploits of Ivan Vladislavic’s 101 Detectives and Robert Coover’s Noir, but the writer who’s really converted me to the mystery religion is Peter Dickinson ... continued

Chelsea Clinton Picks Up Her Pen

Back in 2005, as an ambitious assistant editor at a New York publishing house, I wrote a letter to Chelsea Clinton. My job was to pursue book deals, ones that the far more senior executive editors weren’t interested in. Often this meant approaching potential authors out of the clear blue. They had to be people with a built-in platform, not necessarily writers but simply celebrities who we already knew could sell books. I spent my scant free time perusing the media for potential authors, someone to snag who would help lead to a promotion. 

One name kept coming up on my short list: Chelsea Clinton. The daughter of the biggest power couple in the world seemed to already be haunting my life. She was a patron of the ballet school where I had been a student. Chelsea graduated from the same university I attended the year before I arrived on campus, and had been in a serious relationship with the roommate of someone I had dated. Over drinks on the Upper West Side, another friend from college revealed he had once taken Chelsea to a dance, asking her on a dare and then never calling again because the spark wasn’t there. But he said she was one of the most gracious and kind people he had come across at school. I felt like I already knew her ... 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.) 

A League Ahead

When I was eight years old, one of the most famous people in the world visited my hometown, and I was part of the crowd that gathered at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona to see him. His name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, but he was better known then and now as Pelé, the greatest soccer player ever. He’d just signed a complicated contract with an American team that made him, by some reckonings, the highest paid athlete in history, and he was going to singlehandedly inspire a revolution that would turn the world’s most popular sport into America’s new favorite pastime. Didn’t quite turn out that way. The superstar still had some flair, but he was past his prime, and after a few exciting years, the revolution fizzled and the kind of football you play with your feet went back to being an afterthought in America. The North American Soccer League was fun for a while, but it didn’t add up to anything in the end, much like the inconclusive match I watched all those years ago, when Pelé‘s New York Cosmos battled the Los Angeles Aztecs to a nil-nil tie.

That’s what I thought when I was a kid, at any rate. I’ve learned a lot about soccer since then, and a little bit about the NASL, enough that I was very intrigued to run across a brand-new book called Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by UK footie expert Ian Plenderleith ... continued


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