Fictional Houses

My husband and I have a passion for fixing up houses. We started on our old Capitol Hill home, and in fact it was one of the greatest bonding exercises at the beginning of our marriage. Since we bought our Mercer Island fixer-upper, we’ve spent every possible waking moment working on it. Three years later I can look around and think, I remember the Sunday morning we woke up early and just decided to paint that wall purple, or I can’t believe how many times we stayed up late browsing the internet and pondering that light fixture. The house is already much more than a house—it’s a physical representation of memories that remind us of the good life we’ve built together.

I’ve had houses on my mind lately, maybe because of a house for sale on West Mercer Way. It’s a 1910 historic Mercer Island home, known as the Symphony House, and I often admired the gardens when I drive past it. Someone mentioned that the house’s original kitchen used to be in the basement, à la Downton Abbey, to accommodate the servants. That alone set my mind spinning with all kinds of possible stories. So this week I’ve been pondering some books that feature a home as one of the major characters. Here are a few that have always appealed to me....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.) 

How to Judge a Book by Its Cover

Like much of conventional wisdom, the old saw about not being able to judge a book by its cover is dead wrong. You can’t always tell how good a book is from the outside, but it’s entirely possible to determine how bad it is.

imageimageThe first ground rule: If there’s a picture of the author on the front of the object, do not buy or even read it. What you’re holding is not so much a book as a wordy advertisement for someone’s ego, someone who probably needs less attention, not more. If the subject is of sufficient interest, a real writer will have written about him or her—buy that book instead. You may be raising an objection here. What about the witty, self-deprecating work of such figures as Tina Fey or Craig Ferguson? Aren’t those almost like real books? Fine. You are hereby granted permission to read them as soon as you’ve caught up with all the worthwhile writing produced by non-celebrities.

There are edge cases to be considered as well. If the book is an erotic novel that the publisher wants you to think is a thinly-disguised memoir, and it sports a sexy nude photo on the cover that’s just blurry enough to pass as a picture of the book’s attractive young author, do not read it even though the first rule has not technically been violated. This second rule is known as the Steinke Corollary....Read More

Can They Reimagine Shakespeare?

If you’ve never fully wrapped your head around Shakespeare’s work, a new opportunity is coming your way. Hogarth Press, a division of Random House, recently announced they’ve recruited some notable authors to recreate the Bard’s work. The “covers" are planned for a 2016 release date to go with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Billed by the publisher as “a ‘major’ new project re-imagining Shakespeare’s canon for a 21st-century audience," Jeanette Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) will take on The Winter’s Tale and Anne Tyler (The Accidental Tourist, The Beginner’s Goodbye) is rewriting The Taming of the Shrew.

Maybe all the good stuff has already been written, because this reinvention of the classics is a huge trend. Val McDermid, Joanna Trollope and Curtis Sittenfeld are all currently writing reworkings of Jane Austen. (I confess an excitement for Sittenfeld’s rendering, since everyone knows how much I love her.) And how many times have we seen Shakespeare 2.0, like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (Hamlet in northern Wisconsin) and Serena by Ron Rash (Macbeth set in 1930s North Carolina)? Not to mention all the movies, like 10 Things I Hate About You and of course West Side Story....Read More

A Dance to the Music of Time: The Kindly Ones

Book Six of the Dance finally presents scenes from narrator Nicholas Jenkins’ childhood, set in the remote manor where his military father is assigned in the days before World War I. Jenkins describes the petty intrigues and peccadilloes of the household, culminating in a visit from longtime family friends General and Mrs. Conyers, which is interrupted first by the nude appearance of a disturbed housemaid, then by the appearance of Trelawney and his flock of robed cultists, and finally by the arrival of the abrasive Uncle Giles, who bears the news that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Serbia. Leaping ahead to 1938, Jenkins relates a stay at the cottage of his friend Moreland; from there the two men and their wives are collected by Jenkins’ old schoolmate Templer and taken to dinner at Stourwater, the massive estate owned by industrialist Magnus Donners. Having lately taken up photography, Donners shoots the guests as they drunkenly enact tableaux of the Seven Deadly Sins. The dissolution overwhelms Templer’s wife, and Widmerpool, clad in military costume, further dampens the mood when he plods onto the stage to discuss business. Time passes, and in the summer of the following year comes the report that Giles has died at a seaside resort. Jenkins travels there to see to the arrangements and encounters Bob Duport, the ex-husband of Jenkins’ former lover Jean. Also in residence at the hotel is the now-decrepit Trelawney. The funeral coincides with the signing of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, which virtually guarantees that England will be drawn into war. As the nation mobilizes, Jenkins’s expectant spouse moves to the country, and he seeks an officer’s position, first petitioning General Conyers, then Widmerpool, to no avail. Moreland reveals that his wife has left him for Donners, and a distant relative promises to get Jenkins assigned to a regiment.

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At the beginning of this series, I was slightly troubled that the narrator spoke so little about himself and his background, but as it went on I adjusted to its rhythm so much that I was almost disappointed when Powell unexpectedly flashed back to Jenkins’ childhood. The brief pause in the progress of the narrative was worth it, though, for the carefully constructed comic tour de force that provides a climax to the opening chapter. The alleged haunting and the millenarian activities of Trelawney establish a mood that comes to perfect fruition when Jenkins’ mother assumes the Rapture has arrived in the person of her naked housemaid: “I thought it was the end of the world." Powell almost immediately dispels the fun with bad tidings, of course. Jenkins is obviously choosing this moment to reminisce about the start of the first World War because the second is so close....Read More

New from Curtis Sittenfeld

Sometimes we choose books because we like the premise. Sometimes the cover captivates our imagination. Sometimes, we are just hopelessly devoted to the author. Most of the time, we go with a recommendation from a trusted source, be it a friend, a book club, or a bookseller. If we’re particularly lucky, our reading choices fulfill all of those criteria.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s first novel came to me via a friend’s enthusiastic recommendation back in 2005. Prep had everything going for it according to my taste: the simple and original white cover cinched by a pink and green web belt, the boarding school coming-of-age description, and my friend’s tattered and free copy that she claimed to have stayed up all night reading because she couldn’t put it down. Who doesn’t love that delicious anticipation and confidence that you’re about to read something really really good? And I did. Prep blew me away. It was even better than I had hoped, and that happens so rarely in life (with books, meals, relationships, and so on), that I’ll never forget it. Which is why I continued to recommend Prep for years, although that changed when Sittenfeld’s third novel, American Wife, came out in 2008. Then I switched to pushing American Wife over Prep because it was even better....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.) 

 

Images of America

“Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunimagees together.
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.”
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And walked off to look for America.

—“America” by Paul Simon

They don’t sell Mrs. Wagner’s Pies anymore, not that they ever did here out west, and romantic as it sounds, I don’t have the time to search for the heart of our great nation on foot. Fortunately for me and other sedentary types, there’s a perfect way to explore America’s big cities and back roads without ever leaving our easy chairs. Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series catalogs our country’s character as well as anything ever has; you can peruse these volumes and understand more about America than any vagabond or rail-rider learns in a lifetime, Whitman, Steinbeck, and Kerouac included.

State by state, county by county, town by town, and even hamlet by hamlet, they visually document history as it’s really lived. Monuments and major events get appropriate coverage, but it’s the details of everyday life that make each book so memorable. Did your grandfather hail from Beaufort, North Carolina (current pop. 4094)? There, in sharp black-and-white pictures, is the town he knew. Maybe your mom grew up in the fourth-largest county by acreage in the continental US, Elko County, Nevada. There before you are the settlers and the sagebrush. With more than 8500 volumes in the series, almost every square on the American cultural quilt is represented.

We in Washington will of course be most interested in our own part in history...Read More

Iain [M.] Banks, 1954-2013: An Appreciation

I am moved to put pen to paper to celebrate the peerless work and mourn the untimely death of my favorite author, Scottish novelist Iain Banks, who died on June 9th, two months after being diagnosed with cancer, and two weeks before the publication of what will now be his last novel, The Quarry.

In an ironic twist that Banks himself would and did appreciate, The Quarry concerns events surrounding a middle-aged man dying of cancer. Banks had almost completed the book when he himself was diagnosed, and one has to assume that some of his own experience will be reflected in the completed manuscript. That, and the events which now surround its publication lend a grim poignancy to The Quarry for those of us who loved Iain Banks’ work. In a recent interview his own reaction, typically, was more sardonic: “I’ve really got to stop doing my research too late. This is really such a bad idea.”

Banks was a prolific writer, publishing an average of a book every year since his first, The Wasp Factory, arrived bathed in controversy in 1984 (the Irish Times melodramatically declared it “a work of unparalleled depravity”). I discovered him early and the arrival of each new novel has become a highlight of every year for most of my adult life....Read More

Bloomsday

By a calendrical coincidence, this year’s Father’s Day is an especially literary one. It falls on June 16th, which is celebrated annually, at least by English majors, as Bloomsday. That’s the day on which Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, peregrinates around Dublin, and it’s the day on which Joyce’s ardent fans don period garb and recreate that journey by traipsing across the city in Bloom’s footsteps. On this side of the globe we just hoist a Guinness or two and affect an Irish accent for a few hours.

Ulysses has a lot to do with fatherhood, actually. Some representative quotes: 

  • A father, said Stephen, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil.
  • Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?  
  • [A son’s] growth is his father’s decline, his youth his father’s envy, his friend his father’s enemy.

Sheesh. No wonder people drink on Bloomsday. Lighten up, Mr. Joyce....Read More

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Mercer Island is a community filled with pocket neighborhoods, and I’m fortunate to live in one. Tucked among a cloister of houses on the west side of the island, I’m surrounded by some extraordinary families who have made this place their home for nearly half a century. We moved here almost three years ago and were immediately taken by the fact that people who live here just don’t leave. Our 1937 house had only two owners before us, both who raised their families and stayed for forty years. We should be lucky enough to do the same.

As I’ve grown to know and love our neighbors, the subject of Island Books comes up at almost every gathering (and not just because I work here). At book clubs, Christmas parties, Fourth of July fireworks, baby showers, and just a glass of wine for no reason on a sunny day, the stories come pouring out. I’ve heard about families who paddled over from Seattle on a canoe before the I-90 bridge existed, bonfires and tree-climbing, a cabin built during a summer of pot smoking, teenage boys spying on the pretty neighbor girl in the shower, territorial feuds, landslides, weddings on the lawn, dead bodies, and even naked dinner parties. And through all those threads: Island Books, Island Books, Island Books....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.) 

Steadfast

Recently some members of the industry press were abuzz and atwitter about the fact that Amazon asked some booksellers, including me, whether they could sell Kindles in independent bookstores. I guess this constitutes news, but it is no big deal to me. (We politely said no.) It does make me think about my mixed feelings about Amazon. Some people might be surprised to hear the adjective “mixed” being used. But I have a number of good things to say about the company.

The Good: They are building their headquarters right in the middle of Seattle. I think this is mostly a fantastic shot in the arm for the Seattle community and very exciting to watch. They employ and give a good wage to many families on Mercer Island, many of whom shop at our store. They are an impressively strategic company, forward thinking and creative. I have relatives who work there. I have two terrific employees that used to work for them. They are brilliant designers of customer-centric web services. You can find little tiny parts to things that break easily. And weird shoe sizes.

The Bad: It seems that they are unusually predatory and all about winning market share at any cost. They seem to be after everyone and everything. They seem relatively uninterested in supporting non-profits and the local community. They have made it very hard for small-town brick-and-mortar stores of all kinds. This does real damage to our way of life and the fabric of our communities....Read More

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