When Breath Becomes Air: A Conversation, Part II

(continued from part one)

James: That moment, when Kalanithi embraces the pain that life brings, absolutely gutted me. I can’t imagine–or couldn’t until he wrote this–how anyone could choose difficulty and trouble over ease and comfort in his darkest moments. Wanting to bring more love into your life knowing that you have that much more to lose? What an impressive choice to make, though hard on the ones left behind.

Also impressive is the way in which he dramatizes this situation. As always, I’m caught as much by an author’s ability to express a feeling as by the feeling itself. Potent as this life-and-death stuff is, WBBA wouldn’t touch me if it couldn’t find a way to make the words sing. Kalanithi provides the perfect metaphor for what I’m talking about when he shares an anecdote from his student years:

Lucy, whom I met in the first year of medical school (and who would later become my wife), understood the subtext of academics. Her capacity to love was barely finite, and a lesson to me. One night on the sofa in my apartment, while studying the reams of wavy lines that make up EKGs, she puzzled over, then correctly identified, a fatal arrhythmia. All at once, it dawned on her and she began to cry: wherever this “practice EKG” had come from, the patient had not survived. The squiggly lines on that page were more than just lines … they could bring you to tears.

Any book-lover knows the truth of this. When lines are strung together correctly they can bring tears and joy and nameless emotions that have never been felt before ... continued

When Breath Becomes Air: A Conversation

There’s a book out right now that has everyone talking on both sides of our counter. Customers can’t get enough of it, and most everyone on our staff has taken a copy home too. As always when this happens, we like to share some of the conversation we’re having in real life with our readers online, so we’re devoting this week’s blog post to When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

This riveting memoir tells the story of a young man like many others, exceptional only for his intellect and talent. From the many doors open to him, he consistently chooses the ones that lead to the most challenging roads, stacking up accomplishment after accomplishment. He earns multiple degrees in both the sciences and the liberal arts from the most elite colleges in the world, ultimately becoming a top-flight neurosurgical resident. He meets and marries a fellow doctor, weighs job offers in teaching, research, and surgery, contemplates impending fatherhood … the world is his oyster. And then, just midway through his thirties, he’s stricken with the same diagnosis he’s delivered to so many patients: terminal cancer. Kalanithi faces his mortality with the same clear eyes and wide heart that brought him worldly success, and his book triumphantly demonstrates how much life can be packed into a sentence before it ends, as they all must, with a full stop.

We invite you to join the conversation about this remarkable book in whatever way you’d like–comment on our blog, email us your thoughts, or just chat us up in person in the store ... continued

February 2016 eNewsletter

The reward for making it through January is February. January is a long month, especially after a holiday retail season. The days are short but feel long. We make resolutions, lists of projects, books to read, and improvements to make. We look ahead to new books by Yann Martel, Joyce Maynard, and Diane Rehm, a compelling event with local author Brian Doyle, and more fun in the store as the days growing longer.

And then comes February. The month filled with the color red and love, flowers chocolate, glitter & cards, and did I mention chocolate?

When my dear friend Paula Hall lived on the Island she used to host the most lovely Valentines Day coffee. She would create this magical bakery world of pink and gold and red deliciousness in every room of her house. We would all stay as long as we could, not only to eat all the amazing treats but to soak in the smell and love that brought everyone there.

As the month of February begins, we hope you feel the love, eat the chocolate and smell the beauty.

Laurie Raisys

...see the full newsletter

Love the Art, Hate the Artist

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but can you judge it by its author? I mean, you can, obviously–America was still a free country last time I checked–but should you?

Dealing with this question isn’t something I do very often. For the most part I’m perfectly content not knowing much about the personal or even the public lives of the people who write the books I read. As long as the writing is good, I’m good. Now and again, though, I’ll hear some extracurricular information that gives me a moment’s pause. Like years ago when I found out that Mark Helprin, the novelist behind the sublime urban fantasia Winter’s Tale, had a sideline as a speechwriter for a presidential candidate I did not support. The knowledge didn’t put me off the book, which remains a great favorite. I mostly just wondered why someone so talented at creating imaginary worlds would get bogged down in petty, mundane politics at all.

There is at least one case I can remember in which I’ve consciously decided not to read something because of its author ... continued

Browsing Like a 3-Year-Old

One of the best things about spending time with children is seeing the world through fresh eyes. I spend plenty of time at Island Books, but it’s usually filled with conversations with coworkers, friends, and customers, browsing through inventory, scrounging for advanced copies in the back room, or poring over metrics, future blog posts, and newsletters. Besides the occasional check to make sure they’re not destroying the place, my 3-year-old twins roam free. They’ve mostly learned how to behave in our regular haunt. Sometimes they even help carry out the recycling.

Most Wednesday mornings we come in for Storybook Corner. It’s the one time I sit on the floor so they can trade off in my lap. Last week, as I was enjoying Jenny’s gentle reading of a series of bear-themed books, my eyes wandered over to a nearby bottom shelf. 

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty! I had forgotten all about both title and author. What a great book. Even more so, Moriarty’s earlier novels The Center of Everything and The Rest of Her Life deserved a reread. How had I never looked at this shelf before?

As story time ended and the twins wandered off, I resolved to follow them and see the store at their eye level. What else had I been missing? I realized they must know Island Books as a completely different place than I do ... 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.)

2016 PNBA Book Awards

It’s award season! They just handed out the Golden Globes (Ricky Gervais won for Best Performance as a Righteously Rude Host) and they’ll soon be distributing Oscars. More to the point, books are earning hardware, too.

This year’s Caldecott Medal for most distinguished picture book for children went to Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, illustrated by Sophie Blackall and written by Lindsay Mattick. The Newbery Award for outstanding contribution to children’s literature, which normally goes to a middle grade chapter book, this year went to Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, a wonderful but surprising choice that’s been written about on our blog before. This is only the second time a picture book has won the Newbery. The first such winner was a personal favorite from 1982, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard, which also nabbed a Caldecott Honor for its illustrators, Alice and Martin Provensen. Last Stop on Market Street did the same double dip this year, with Christian Robinson honored for his bold artwork.

The Caldecott and the Newbery are big deals on a national scale, but I have a special fondness for the more locally-oriented PNBA Book Awards. These are the annual prizes given out by an organization of my peers, the Pacific NW Booksellers Association, and they go to writers I think of as neighbors. These are books of the people, by the people, and for the people of this region. You people. My people.

What are these populist picks? ... 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.)

On This Day

Four years ago, James wrote a blog post resolving to chronicle every book he ever read in a classy pocket Moleskine notebook. Hey partner, how’s that project holding up? I made the same resolution that year and it’s not looking so good for me.  While our many years of posting here have chronicled some of our reading adventures, far more books never made an appearance. 

A few months before our resolution posts at the end of 2011, I wrote another piece on memories of reading. That was about a year before I became a mother and life changed forever. I suppose I was busy looking back before plunging ahead.

These old posts came to mind as the year ended and everyone’s memories started popping up in my news feed. Facebook has a feature called “On This Day,” and if you haven’t seen it, what it does is offer a way to look back at your posting history. By showing your photos or status updates from the same day one year ago, two years ago, and so on, the tool gives you the option to share your nostalgia with others. Goodreads has a more book-specific feature that offers an annual summary of your reading, presuming you’re committed enough to enter everything you read on their website ... continued

Passing the Inadvertent Faith in Humanity Test

The Christmas season is over, but we can’t let go of that cheery holiday feeling without telling one last story of peace on earth and good will toward humankind.

To set the scene properly, we have to look backward a fair bit, past Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and even Thanksgiving, almost all the way to last Halloween. In the early days of November, Cindy, our display maven, came up with a nifty way to highlight our 2016 calendars (still a few of those left for procrastinators, by the way). She strung a clothesline across the store and pinned a bunch of the prettiest ones to it. In the small spaces between the bigger items she hung some toys and other gifts, and in the last narrow spot she pinned a single dollar bill. Kind of a visual pun on “money laundering” for the keenly observant, she thought.

Almost immediately the cynics spoke up. “Why not hang a sign that says ‘Free Money’?” they said. “You’re practically inviting someone to steal it,” they told her. And so an office pool was born ... continued

The Rest of the Best

December always inspires best-of-the-year lists, and we’re willing participants. These compilations are a nice way to recommend holiday gifts and reflect back on the poignant pleasures of the year. We recently published our own 2015 favorites in fiction, nonfiction, children’s and teens, and gifts. But like any Miss America pageant, episode of The Bachelor, or Super Bowl, there are the runner-ups. While books don’t shed tears quite as dramatically as human contestants, we sometimes shed a few on their behalf, especially if their rejection from the big list was more political than critical (meaning, we can only have so many books-about-the-circus or debut-novels-no-one-has-heard-of on a list that’s supposed to appeal to the masses). So James has made it something of a tradition to follow up those lists with a December blog post devoted to the near-misses. This year, due to scheduling and general holiday madness, the task falls to me ... continued


Shades of Christmas

Over the past few years I’ve fallen into a bit of an unnatural role on the internet, that of holiday columnist. I say unnatural because I am by inclination someone who thrives on regularity and routine and does his best to follow Flaubert’s maxim: “Be settled in your life and ordinary as a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” (Far more successfully in the former case than in the latter, of course.) Left to my druthers, I’d let most special days slide by with a minimum of comment or commemoration, but Christmas is too big for even the likes of me to ignore. It’s not always an easy thing to embrace, though.

The sheer scale of fuss and bother can be hard to cope with, especially for those of us in retail ... continued


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