Amy Tan, Anita Shreve, and Adriana Trigiani For Fall Reading


Last week we talked about nonfiction, but if that category isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Today I’ll point you towards some new fiction I think you’ll enjoy, which reaches all the way from China to England to Italy. Before I spread out the wares, however, one side comment about fiction as a holiday gift. Sometimes we hesitate to give novels for fear of gifting something the recipient won’t like. It can seem easier to present a cookbook to someone we know likes to cook. Let me encourage you to take the leap this season and take your friends and family somewhere they wouldn’t otherwise visit. Sometimes the pure escapism of an enthralling novel is just the respite from real life that people need, and the push of a gift can encourage them to take a journey they wouldn’t otherwise pursue on their own. I assure you that stretching someone’s imagination is a wonderful gift.

Now, without further ado, have a look at these new titles....Read More

Amsterdam: Honkbal, Rembrandt, and the Meaning of Liberalism

It’s easy to get excited about the Sounders and the Seahawks, but of late baseball fans around here haven’t had much to care about. Sorry, Mariners, but it’s true. I haven’t given up on the M’s forever, but the past few fallow years have made it necessary for me to adopt a second rooting interest, one that doesn’t threaten my longterm allegiance to the local nine. My substitute team obviously couldn’t come from the American League, and even the National League was too close to home, so I looked further afield. Overseas, in fact, where the sport is played at a high level in the Netherlands. You’re a sane, normal person, so you probably had no idea that they’d even heard of baseball over there, but they have. They call it “honkbal.” Seriously. And they’re good at it—they finished fourth in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, two spots ahead of a US team stocked with major leaguers. My fannish feelings for Team Orange have grown into affection for the entire nation, and though I’ve never been there, I feel like an honorary citizen. I was therefore duty-bound to sample a new book by Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. In doing so, I discovered that it has something to say to everyone, not just us honkbal fans. It’s really a fascinating story....Read More

Yes to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tom Nissley, and Ann Patchett

In the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing a few hand-picked new books in three different categories: nonfiction, fiction, and children’s. It’s gift-giving season, after all, and there are plenty of choices. Each bookseller at Island Books has their favorite new releases, and you can browse a broader selection of our current staff picks here. Before you arrive at the store, however, let me introduce you to some of my favorite new arrivals. We’ll kick off today’s post with some notable nonfiction.

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Yes, it’s 928 pages. But if you’re familiar with Goodwin’s work, you know that she’s going to give the complexity and scope of her subject its due. In this case, for the first decade of the 20th century, a short book just won’t cut it. Goodwin’s books are known for covering momentous events in American history through the eyes of great leaders. In The Bully Pulpit, Teddy Roosevelt and his chosen successor, William Taft, take center stage. The rupture of their relationship (culminating in the election of 1912, which Roosevelt won in a landslide after deciding to run against his protégé) had a tremendous ripple effect, both on the press—who stopped glossing over the news and became muckrakers during that time—and the public—who received their first glimpse into the behind-the-scenes politics, thanks to the press.

The surprise here is Taft, who Americans know little of beyond the fact that he was so fat he once got stuck in a White House bathtub. Readers will almost feel sorry for him....Read More

A Dance to the Music of Time: Books Do Furnish a Room

With the return of peace, Jenkins takes up his pen again and goes back to his university library to do research for a book on Burton and his Anatomy of Melancholy. He visits his old don Sillery; they discuss the launching of a new magazine, Fission, and the affiliated book publishing firm of Quiggin & Craggs. The funding for this joint venture is to come from Erridge, Lord Warminster, which plan is interrupted by his death. At the funeral, the publishers appear with Widmerpool, now a member of Parliament who finds it convenient to support the magazine and Erridge’s leftist politics. Jenkins continues work on Burton, but also contributes reviews to the magazine, edited by Lindsay “Books Do Furnish a Room” Bagshaw. Another contributor is the eccentric, indigent novelist X. Trapnel, who satirizes Widmerpool’s articles and runs off with Widmerpool’s wife. The two live together in squalid circumstances and call upon Jenkins for assistance when Trapnel falls ill. During Jenkins’ visit, Widmerpool confronts the adulterous pair and predicts that Pamela will abandon Trapnel. She does so, but not before throwing the only manuscript of his latest book into the river. The publishing firm founders—obscenity charges are leveled against Alaric Kydd’s novel Sweetskin, they fumble their opportunity to print Odo Stevens’ account of his military adventures in the Balkans, and Sillery’s allegedly salacious memoir proves to be a bore. Jenkins finishes his Burton study and travels to his old school to make arrangements regarding his son’s education. He sees his aging master Le Bas there, and bumps into Widmerpool, who reveals that he and Pamela have reconciled.


At last we come to the book that first drew me into this project. It must be almost twenty years ago that I read a spine in a secondhand shop and loved the self-deprecating sense of humor...Read More

Stitching a Community Together

At the outset of this series of little essays about the store I said I how I didn’t feel like the owner. Not responsible for its birth, its evolution, or even its ongoing vitality. There have been a handful of owners, a bushel basket of employees, and thousands of generous, thoughtful patrons who have gone out of there way to help.

And we have needed all that help to get this far. The quiet business of running a bookshop has been an exceptionally dynamic affair the last 30 years with the arrival of big box stores, personal computers, internet shopping, and e-readers. On top of that there are the usual vagaries of small business with leaky roofs, landlord hassles, changing terms and technology, narrowing margins. There were a half-dozen moments when I thought the end was near (it wasn’t but you do worry) or moments when I really didn’t feel I had the energy for another challenge. Each time the island folks have come to our aid. Each time they have made the store stronger and more supported.

A couple of mementos of these supportive gestures are on display in the store although the stories behind them may be less well known....Read More

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

Signs and Wonders

Occasionally we get customers who leave home, go to college, spend a couple decades working elsewhere, and return to Island Books saying, “It looks just the same as did when I was a kid.” This is a little like the high school reunion phenomenon in which you and your pals have all aged 40 years but you can’t quite see it or you’d rather squint and just see the past. The bookstore has changed, many times and in many ways. Sure, we have tried to preserve the cedar shelves, the playhouse, warm atmosphere, and strong selection, but 1974 is a long ways back and the store has always been one to change with the times.

A snapshot of the history can be seen in the store signage. The first store sign was a lovely hand-carved, painted cedar sign designed probably by Andrea Lorig who was responsible for so much of the store’s early art and ads. The dark wood and image of a book as an island suited the feeling on downtown Mercer Island at the time. It was a woodsy country place. There were some big trees downtown, many shops were small wood frame houses, and across the street there was a big vacant lot with raccoons. We sold macrame, stained glass, and candles. Hair was long and swoopy....Read More

The Wrapping Table

My first job at Island Books in 1984 was as a “Holiday Gift Wrapper.” I was the the junior member of the staff by twenty years or so and my bosses and co-workers had very particular feelings about bows and tape and felt duty bound to instruct me. It seems like all I did that fall was receive instruction … sometimes conflicting instruction depending on whether it was Lissa, Elinor, Stacey, Marge, Fam, or Sally at my elbow that day.

I like to think I became at least a fast gift wrapper that fall. The skills I learned have given me a certain job security and are in use every day here at the store. The wrapping table where I and everyone who works here practice our “art” has an interesting origin. The store was started by Lola Deane with some assistance from her husband Phil. Phil was, I think, the first pediatrician on the island and Lola was a nurse. They had (and Lola still has) a long life of service here and overseas, and Island Books was just a train stop for them. But they got an awful lot done in a short amount of time. The way I heard the story was that Lolaa smart reader and book lovercomplained one day about the lack of a bookstore on the island and five months later she had the shelves up and full and the doors open....Read More


At any one time there are usually 50 old typewriters on display at Island Books. It always amazes us when a customer who has been shopping at the store for years looks up and asks, “How long have those typewriters been up there?” The answer is a little over twenty years. The next question is, “Do you collect them?”

Surprisingly, the answer is, “No, not really.” The story of how the typewriters got here goes something like this: When I was in my teens and twenties I studied poetry and wrote on my mother’s WW2 Royal. I was trying very hard to be bohemian and over time collected about five typewriters including one red one that is still in the store. My now-wife refused to go out with me the first time I asked for a date but (honest!) when I told her she could see my typewriter collection she gave in and the rest is history....Read More

Pride and Prejudice, The Maid’s Version

October brings us an interesting effort to capitalize on the magic of both Jane Austen and Downton Abbey. Author Jo Baker turns Pride and Prejudice on its head, offering a glimpse into the servants’ lives at the Bennet household.

Before you roll your eyes, pause and hear me out. I am not a fan of Austen reinventions. I am, however, a Downton Abbey watcher (thanks to James), although in my humble opinion the show jumped the shark after the first season or so. I also have this habit of sighing when offered a novel that so clearly has been written with the intention of catering to the market. When I worked as an editor, I can’t tell you how many times I reviewed book proposals billed as “Jurassic Park meets The Da Vinci Code" or "Romeo and Juliet retold as a western” or some other premise clearly riding the coattails of an earlier success. I understand how necessary it is for authors to appeal to a mass audience nowadays, but I always worry that a gimmick is just a pig with lipstick. Give me great writing and an original story any day over a book that’s trying too hard. So when I see a new novel billed as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, I’m skeptical. The good news is, Longbourn is what it claims to be, and refreshingly so....Read More

The Smallest Room in the Shop

The store has often served as a refuge of sorts for local folks. Dozens and dozens of customers who were struggling through bad days or grave illnesses have used the store as a place to quietly spend time and find distraction from their troubles. Newcomers, unanchored in their new home, also seem to seek out the bookstore. Island Books always seems to be a good place to ask directions, make a first friend, feel a little bit at home.

One day 15 years ago, a young woman named Jamie Austad stopped into the store and said she was an artist looking for work. She was escaping her Dakota small town roots and had arrived on Mercer Island and was staying in someone’s basement. There was something appealing about this twenty-year-old stray looking for a home, something that I wanted to shelter and support. She said she painted murals and we walked around until we got to the bathroom and I impulsively suggested she paint it....Read More


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