A Dance to the Music of Time: The Military Philosophers

The Military Philosophers begins in early 1942 with Jenkins as a liaison officer smoothing relations between Britain and its ally Poland, working as Pennistone’s assistant in Finn’s office. Substituting for Pennistone at a meeting, Jenkins encounters Widmerpool and an embittered Templer, as well as Sunny Farebrother, now organizing clandestine operations. Jenkins visits the headquarters of Polish forces in the UK, which turn out to be housed in the same hotel where his late Uncle Giles had long resided. The driver who takes him there is the surly but striking Pamela Flitton, a niece of Stringham now about twenty years of age, who reports that her uncle has been imprisoned by the Japanese in Singapore. Jenkins is promoted to Major and becomes liaison officer to the Belgian military. Templer, after a disappointing affair that Jenkins later learns was with Flitton, vanishes into Farebrother’s secret service. Flitton moves through a series of relationships; her partners include Odo Stevens and Norah Tolland. V-1 flying bombs pummel London, but the war progresses well and the Allies land troops in Normandy. Some months later, Jenkins tours France and Belgium, meeting first Field Marshal Montgomery and then Bob Duport, who relates Templer’s death on a mission in the Balkans. By summer of the following year, Flitton has attached herself to Widmerpool and the two are engaged. News comes that Stringham has died in Asia, and during an argument, Flitton accuses Widmerpool of murdering Templer through bureaucratic indifference. Despite their fight and the essential truth of her assertion, the two marry. The war ends, and at a victory ceremony Jenkins meets a South American colonel. The man introduces his wife, who is the former Jean Duport, Jenkins’ onetime lover.

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Tough sledding in the early stages of this one. As if we didn’t have enough names to keep straight in our heads already, now we’re supposed to sort out the internal politics of the Polish army in exile. The significance of it all escaped me for some time, but it eventually proved fascinating....Read More

Island Books in 1986

Do I have a doozy for you this week. Look closely at the image on the left. This, my friends, is a letter Roger Page wrote to the staff at Island Books 27 years ago. Of course, he typed it on one of the typewriters that adorns our shelves in the store today.

It’s a bit prophetic, no? Roger keeps this little gem in a book of memorabilia that tells the story of the little bookstore that could. What’s so notable is how relevant his comments are, decades later. The Goliath to our David isn’t Waldenbooks nowadays, but we are still chugging along, same as we always were and following the same philosophies.

Who else besides me remembers Waldenbooks? I remember hanging out in one at the mall as a teenager, surreptitiously trying to read Sweet Valley High for free. It was a supermarket all right. Eventually Waldenbooks became part of the Borders chain, which as we all know went bankrupt in 2011.

The artifact speaks for itself, but the only way this letter to staff shows its age is through the name of Waldenbooks, the uncomfortable attitude towards computers, and the mention of James Clavell’s Whirlwind. (Whirlwind was set in a turbulent Iran after the exile of the Shah in 1979. It came out in ‘86 and is now out of print). Otherwise, Roger could have written the same words today and they would be just as true....Read More

 

James and Miriam Read Chocolates for Breakfast, Part II

Miriam: I tried to read CFB without being influenced by the context of the back story, but I agree Moore was out to do more than just shock. To me, it read a bit like a novel written out of anger and the desire to indict adults. I can’t say I sympathized with Courtney or Janet (or the voice of the narrator). While Moore did a great job depicting why the girls behaved the way they did and how lonely they were, their blatant disregard for their own well-being made it difficult for me to care for them, probably because they didn’t care much for themselves. Courtney seemed like a narcissistic, depressed, and angry young woman. Both she and Janet were calculated manipulators, as evident here: “It had worked, by God; she knew it would…she sensed she would win this man’s interest, and that was all she wanted. She would never forget that first day, when she found that it worked.”

There has been much debate about authors who create unlikable protagonists. Claire Messud spoke at length about that scenario, and the bottom line is, characters don’t have to win a popularity contest to make a stellar novel. In fact, I’d argue that authors who can write a spectacular book without sympathetic characters possess a special talent. Pamela Moore had it. Did you like the characters, James?

James: It didn’t occur to me to like any of the characters, I don’t think. They’re all flawed, most of them badly, with the possible exception of Miss Rosen, but as you point out, we don’t really get to know enough about her to determine whether she’s nice or just tries to seem that way. Charles has his charms, but he came off as unpleasantly arrogant to me. Anthony is an interesting case; I’m not even sure Moore wants us to see him as a real person. He appeared to be a refugee from another kind of book entirely, a figure out of Byron or Wilde. Given all that, I’d have to say that Courtney was my favorite. Depressed, angry, and acting out, sure, but I blame her situation more than her self.

Speaking of depression, I thought Moore was amazingly prescient in the way she handled the topic....Read More

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James and Miriam Read Chocolates for Breakfast, Part I

imageJames threw a fun curve ball at me recently. He suggested we read and blog about Chocolates for Breakfast together. Why have we never had this brilliant idea before? We’ve been running Message in a Bottle for two years now and always toss ideas back and forth. So it’s about time we lined up our reading schedules and hashed our opinions out online. We are different readers and I’m not quite sure how this little public book club experiment is going to go, but if it’s anything like our editorial meetings I’m sure it’ll be a good time.

A little background, first, but be warned there are spoilers in this paragraph. Chocolates for Breakfast is a coming-of-age novel written in 1956 by then-eighteen-year-old Pamela Moore. It was a huge bestseller but eventually went out of print in 1967. The publisher recently decided to revive Chocolates for the first time in 45 years. The plot revolves around fifteen-year-old Courtney Farrell, whose parents have put her in boarding school following their divorce. Her mother is an aspiring actress in Los Angeles and her father lives in New York. Courtney develops a crush on a female professor who rejects her, and her roommate and close friend Janet watches her sink into a depression. Eventually Courtney’s mother takes note and invites her to come and live in LA. Courtney goes and enters a world of sophisticated and jaded adults. She experiences her first romantic affair with an older homosexual actor, which ends after he returns to his male lover. Her mother fails to find work, but her father’s financial situation improves and he offers to finance a move to Manhattan. There Courtney reconnects with her school friend Janet, who lives with her abusive and alcoholic father and depressed mother. Janet brings Courtney into a world of alcoholic rich kids. Eventually Courtney takes up in a loveless and strange affair with Janet’s ex-boyfriend, a European rich kid who lives in a hotel with his parents’ money. A more practical and strait-laced suitor enters Courtney’s life at the same time that Janet moves in with her to escape her father’s abuse. When Courtney’s mother gets fed up and sends Janet home, Janet finds her mother has entered a sanitarium. After a terrible encounter with her father, Janet jumps off her balcony to her death. The novel ends with Courtney ending her affair with Janet’s ex and heading off to dinner with her practical new boyfriend, presumably to clean up her act and grow up.

Okay, friends, that sums it up. Now I’m turning the conversation towards James. Feel free to listen in and participate....Read More

Pictures Worth a Thousand Words

The other day a customer asked me to help her find a present for a two-year-old relative. “He likes trucks,” she said. We have an entire shelf devoted to transportation-themed texts for toddlers, so I walked there with her and pulled out three choice titles. “Oh, I wasn’t thinking of giving him a book,” she said. “He can’t read, after all.”

She didn’t see the aghast expression I suppressed. At least, I don’t think she did. I found her a set of LEGO Duplo trucks, rang her up and wrapped the package, and she seemed happy when I sent her on her way. It took me a while to recover, though. How could someone imagine that a book is NOT a perfect gift for a two-year-old? Or that books need to be read to be appreciated?

Counter-evidence was all around us, volumes full of real narratives told completely in images. The first example was right at hand in the form of a book fresh off the press, Journey by Aaron Becker. It wordlessly tells the tale of a bored girl who travels into excitement and danger before returning safely home. It’s great for kids, of course, but even an adult can fall in love with its beauty.

There’s a host of similarly captivating books, too....Read More

New from Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland

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You’re going to read many, many raves about The Lowland this fall, and the good news is, all the applause is well deserved. The cover is a big clue about how good the book is, because there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about it, not even a color. There’s no need to sell what’s on the pages because the writing speaks for itself.

Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth, all of which are superb. The Lowland is her new novel and already on the long list for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. That’s because The Lowland is nothing short of a triumph. Lahiri is at the height of her powers and one of the best writers in literary fiction today. I’d venture to say that if you’re going to read only one novel this fall, this should be it. I’ll stake my reputation on the recommendation.

The Lowland is the story of the Mitra brothers from Calcutta: Subhash, the dutiful scholarly one, and Udayan, passionate and opinionated. While Udayan becomes increasingly involved with the 1960s Mao-inspired Naxalite political rebellion, Subhash goes to America and adapts to life on the seashore of Rhode Island to pursue a graduate degree....Read More

Cinema Books

Anybody remember last month’s staff picks? One of mine was My Lunches with Orson, edited by Peter Biskind. Now, I’m an admitted fan, and I’ve read more books about Orson Welles than I’d care to admit, so it was obvious that I’d be reading it as soon as it came out. I didn’t pick up my copy from Island Books, though. I used the release date as an excuse to visit a secret Seattle treasure house, Cinema Books. It’s been in business since 1977, devoted exclusively to movie-related work, and I’m not sure there’s anything else like it in the country. Or anywhere, for that matter.

The owner is also a Seattle treasure. Stephanie Ogle opened her shop across the street from the Harvard Exit theater on Capitol Hill and moved it a few years later to its present location in the University District, around the corner from (and in the same building as) the Seven Gables theater. Throughout the past thirty-six years, she’s been an unobtrusive champion of movie-making and bookselling, rewarded in 2001 by the Northwest Film Forum. They bestowed upon her their George Bailey Prize, named after the character played by Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, given each year “to someone who has made an unrecognized contribution to the local film community, and like George Bailey, has continually worked for the betterment of others.”

Stephanie was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email after my visit....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.)

Is J.D. Salinger Back From the Grave?

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There are some fantastic nonfiction titles coming out this fall, but one in particular is making a big splash before it even hits the shelves: Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno. The 720-page hardcover goes on sale this Tuesday, and last week, enough people had read advance copies to start the buzz. According to Shields and Salerno, Salinger had five unpublished works that he planned to release years after his death (he only published four during his lifetime).

The Salinger biography is coming out alongside a documentary of the same name, also produced and directed by Shane Salerno. Probably the most famous reclusive author of the 20th century, Salinger is a compelling topic for the media storm coming this fall. There’s plenty of tidbits we don’t know about him. Interested parties will not be disappointed, because the book and movie drop plenty of bombshells....Read More

A Dance to the Music of Time: The Soldier's Art

Second Lieutenant Jenkins, now stationed at Divisional Headquarters, recalls his entree into the army and chafes under Major Widmerpool’s command. He witnesses contentiousness between Colonels Pedlar and Hogbourne-Johnson (and is amused by their assonant first names, Eric and Derrick), also seeing Widmerpool dressed down by the latter. Jenkins converses with General Liddament about authors and shocks him with a low opinion of Trollope, but apparently impresses through his knowledge of Balzac, and so receives a recommendation to meet with Major Finn while on his next leave regarding a transfer. Stringham, a lowly private, slips briefly onto stage as a waiter in Jenkins’ mess. On leave in London, Jenkins’ French proves inadequate for Finn’s needs, and he learns that sister-in-law Priscilla has left Chips Lovell and taken up with Odo Stevens. At dinner, Jenkins finds that Moreland has moved in with Audrey, the abrasive widow of their mutual friend Maclintick, and their party of three expands to five with the surprise appearance of Priscilla and Stevens. That budding relationship fails to bloom, as she walks out on the meal and on Stevens. Later that night, she and Lovell are killed in separate air raids. Jenkins returns to Div HQ and despite Stringham’s assistance, fails to hide Bithel’s drunkenness from Widmerpool; Bithel is sacked and Stringham’s unit is reassigned to the Far East. Widmerpool’s various machinations lead to embarrassment before his fellow officers, but he successfully arranges a transfer and likely promotion for himself. Now without a position, Jenkins is on the verge of being sent to the undesirable Infantry Training Center, but is instead called to the War Office. 

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Am I right that Jenkins’ imagination is growing wilder? Still disconnected from his writing and intellectual life, it’s as if his imagery has turned feral. His description of the brass at dinner, with the general as pharaoh and his two colonels as Horus and Osiris, is positively lurid, almost surreal. The dialogue between the two colonels is like vaudeville banter, as absurd as any in the series so far, and Stringham’s conversation verges on the unhinged. Reality hasn’t entirely loosened its hold, though—the comic first section ends with a strong reminder that death hovers over the whole Third Movement...Read More

Elmore Leonard, 1925-2013

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When Elmore Leonard passed away on August 20th at the age of 87, he left behind more than 40 novels and nearly as many films based on his work. The public bought over 8 million copies of his books. He was the granddaddy of today’s crime novelist, a unique and confident writer with an unmistakable wisecracking style. Leonard knew what he was doing, plain and simple, and Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing contains timeless and simple advice that all writers should take to heart.

Incredibly, he always wrote in longhand on unlined yellow notepads. Today’s top crime fiction writers, including Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, cite Leonard as a tremendous influence. When it came to writing crackling dialogue, he was the master. He was known to his friends and fans as “Dutch,” a nickname given to him as a sophomore in high school referring to Emil “Dutch” Leonard, a pitcher for the Washington Senators...Read More

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