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

The Front Door

The editors (Miriam and James) suggested that I use objects or fixtures in the store as a jumping off point for some stories. Sort of a History of Island Books in Twenty Objects. Seems ambitious and beyond my capabilities, so I welcome guest appearances. But in the meantime, I will begin with a short chapter on the front door.

You may notice that Island Books has a unique, heavy, glass front door with a large cast iron (cold!) antique door handle. I don’t know exactly how that came to be, but it is original to the store. I know this because it is written into all the leases that the store has ever had that the landlord is responsible for everything on the outside of the building except for the front door. For thirty years or so, our landlord was Gladys Alsin, who had her home and orchard where Island Books now sits and built the center back in the sixties. Gladys lived to be over a hundred and she was a sharp, tough, and sweet operator. I remember her in her nineties, scraping paint drips off the windows and directing a forlorn landscaper on how to spread bark. No one pulled the wool over her eyes. She thought that if the bookstore wants to put in a ridiculous and heavy custom door, then they are going have to live with it and take care of it....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.)

Counter Intelligence: Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal

As I’m sure you already know, we at Island Books send a monthly newsletter to subscribers via email—the latest issue went out last week. What you may not know is that month after month, the most-read section is the one we call Counter Intelligence. That’s where we share the current titles that our staff is reading and recommending. Since Counter Intelligence is so popular, it seemed like a good idea to devote a little more space to it in this forum. I promise in future to get my very knowledgeable colleagues to share their own favorites, but right now I’m the one with mike in hand, so you’ll have to listen to me talk about Lore Segal’s Half the Kingdom first.

Segal has had a long, eventful life that she’s drawn on for her fiction in the past (her 1964 novel Other People’s Houses, for example, recasts her experiences as one of the final Kindertransport children rescued from Austria before World War II) and she does so again in this, her most recent work. Half the Kingdom features various characters who collect together in a byzantinely bureaucratic hospital emergency room that appears to be ground zero for an Alzheimer’s epidemic. It is, as its publisher says, a “poignant, and profoundly moving portrait of life today—where terrorist paranoia and end-of-the-world hysteria mask deeper fears of mortality; where parents and their grown children vacillate between frustration and tenderness.” Segal turned eighty-five this year....Read More

Cindy Scares Me...

The days have been growing shorter, and now it’s dark by the time the kids go to bed. There’s a brisk chill in the air too. Fall is announcing itself.

Late the other night, I sat up working on our monthly newsletter. I was grasping for time in between my one-year-old daughter’s separation anxiety screaming fits. Her twin brother hasn’t exhibited her recent behavior, thank goodness, but she virtually howls.

Roger had asked Cindy to help me compile the Halloween booklist for adults. I love a good thriller and and have read far too many of them, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read a full-fledged horror novel. I was sifting through new titles to include when I opened Cindy’s email.

Cindy, as you know, has rung up hordes of titles at the front counter and always has her finger on the pulse of what customers like. She took Roger’s charge seriously, and her suggestions went above and beyond the scope of the list I was trying to cultivate. So I felt it was only appropriate to share her deeper thoughts on the blog as to what you should be reading for Halloween. Her list was so good that I nearly woke my peacefully sleeping husband just so I didn’t feel so alone in the house. With my daughter finally silent, I felt like shrieking myself. The very names of some of Cindy’s books sent chills up my spine, as I began to picture ghosts, murderers, and vampires roaming in my backyard....Read More

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.


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

(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.)

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


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


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