Recent Reading: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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I started reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North on this research trip, and I can’t put it down.  I also can’t quite manage to carry a copy of it with me (I’ve got to keep my luggage lithe and light on this trip).  So I’ve been picking up a copy of Flanagan’s novel every time I set foot in a bookstore and reading a dozen pages of it each time.

His writing is so rich and lyrical.  “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” the novel starts.  “Dorrigo Evans’ earliest memories were of sun flooding a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother.  A wooden church hall.   Blinding light and him toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into the arms of women.  Women who loved him.  Like entering the sea and returning to the beach.  Over and over.”

I’m transfixed by the lyricism and syntax of that opening, and by the sense of this writer’s authority .  The perspective is unexpected in modern fiction: a third that is both intimate and distant.  We occupy a sweep of time.

And there is a sentence like this:

“Backdropped by woodlands of writhing peppermint gums and silver wattle that waved and danced in the heat, it was hot and hard in summer, and hard, simply hard, in winter.”

Which is so perfectly evocative and so fully rendered it takes my breath away.

Set in Tasmania and then in a Japanese POW camp during the war, the novel feels like apt reading for me at this juncture in my story collection — and my research trip.

I cannot wait to see how Flanagan realizes the rest of this novel, which I have ordered from Powells (where I have been reading it the last few days) and which will be waiting for me when I get back home.

Bookshopping: Magus Books, Seattle

The other bookstore I visited in Seattle is Magus Books.  Just steps from the University of Washington campus, Magus Books has an extensive collection of used books in this old, vine-laced bookshop.

The shop is especially strong in its older hardcovers.  There are bookshelves full of well-cared for gilded spine collectibles and classic hardcovers complete with box sleeves.

They also carry a great collection of children’s novels from the early and mid-twentieth century.  (I bought one of the ones on this shelf!)*

I really like how they mark the beginning of each section with related prints and images.

The day I was there I was especially drawn to their botany and birding and antique book collections, along with their impressive art books.  I found one on Stuart Davis and another great one on Henry Moore that I wished I could fit in my luggage.  Not to mention a couple more children’s novels and pocket books I really wanted.

One of the aspects I liked best about this bookstore is its knowledgeable and thoughtful staff.  I had a great conversation with the man working there that day about various older book series they had on display, and really admired his expertise and low-key generosity.

I liked this bookstore and Elliott Bay Books for different reasons.  The two are a terrific balance.  Magus is another one of those bookstores I wish I lived close to.  It’s the kind of place where I think if I dropped by every so often, I’d light on something different each time.  And I have so much more I want to talk over with these booksellers about early 20th-century book publications.

*Yes, I did already violate my prohibition on buying books on this research trip.  I really don’t have any spare room or weight in my backpack during these nomadic next few weeks, so I’ll have to ship this one home to myself before I leave Seattle….  Not buying books (or supporting these independent bookstores) is lousy!

Bookshopping: Elliott Bay Books, Seattle

After some research meetings the other day, I stopped at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.  Their New Fiction table and staff recommendation shelves reflect an unusually broad and sensitive reading of new book releases.

Their staff has pulled together recommendations that not only include the books that are currently getting a lot of attention, but also a rich collection of new books that I hadn’t yet heard about.   I felt like the two hours I spent there were completely absorbed in taking in these tables of new titles.  Being there felt like an important part of my work as a fiction writer.

They have extensive staff recommendation shelves — the largest staff recommendation section I’ve ever seen, peppered with some especially lovely and evocative description cards.  And even beyond the usual sections of staff recommendations and new releases and bookclub suggestions, there are themed tables and endcaps upon endcaps of interesting selections.  Elliott Bay Books’ tables and shelves feel like a cross between a great reading list and a Maureen Corrigan book review.

I was particularly taken with their Resolution Reads shelf — always an interesting concept in books.  Theirs feels playful: it includes classics like Ulysses, contemporary giants such as Murakami and Tartt’s Goldfinch, mixed in with a book on personal finance, The Art of Urban Sketching and Mindy Kaling’s essay collection.  Elliott Bay’s staff seems to embrace a wide picture of what, exactly, our resolutions may include (laughter, possibly?)

The bookstore is also active in supporting local and contemporary writers: Elliott Bay hosts an extensive reading series.  (Even while I was there, a staff member was updating their chalkboard with details on the next night’s reading.)  And augmenting this effort to promote contemporary writers, they publish two newsletters — a monthly event guide to upcoming readings and a seasonal gazette full of book recommendations.

In addition to all that, Elliott Bay has impressive selections of art magazines and literary journals, and a whole table devoted to poetry collection highlights (which I’ve found is always a hallmark of a good bookstore).

The store itself is beautiful — huge and full of rich, warm wood floors and wooden beams.  There are two floors of books and a lower level just for their readings.

I wish I lived closer to this bookstore so that I could stop here more often to replenish my reading list from their selections.

And I really wish I could have picked up a handful of books here during my visit.  On this research trip, I have to keep my pack light, so I really can’t carry books.  It killed me though.  There are at least half a dozen books from Elliott Bay I’m eager to read — and it’s so important to support independent bookstores.  Fortunately, they do sell online, so an order is certainly in my future when I get back.

Bookshopping: Carroll & Carroll

On my weekend trip to the Poconos, I stopped at Carroll & Carroll Booksellers in Stroudsburg.  Walking down the main drag in Stroudsburg feels like going back in time a few decades: they have a bookshop, a music store, a camera shop, and just for good measure a homemade ice cream shop (called, delightfully, Sweet Creams.  Get the cinnamon.  It’s delicious.)

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Carroll & Carroll has a terrific collection that encompasses everything from brand-new novels and hardcovers to standard-issue used books, to some pretty gorgeous antique editions.  And they’re all jumbled together in great, inviting piles.  Usually when I see bookstores mix new and used books together like this — at favorite bookstores like Boulder Books and Powells — the used books are incorporated into the new book shelves.  But Carroll & Carroll organizes the whole bookstore like a used bookstore, with bookshelves stocked two-rows deep and piles stacked on floors and in corners.  There will be two new copies of Rebecca Makkai with a tattered Malamud sandwiched between.  And in this bookstore, that absolutely works.

Perhaps because of the nearby college, or more likely because of the fabulous, sharp, witty couple that owns this shop, there’s a pretty impressive selection of whip-smart literature.  A whole row of Doris Lessing, a shelf of Proust.

And then completely random and unexpected extras.  I wound up in a great conversation with the bookstore owner about a book on pencil sharpening that turns out to be as fascinating as it is unironic.  (So many significant daily inventions are perfectly designed for the jobs they do, but are not quite world-changing, we marveled.)

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The owners keep a wall of newsclippings about writers and books, mostly obituaries of great modern writers.  And it feels like a nice reminder of our shared enterprise, our community of writers and readers and booksellers.  A point of human connection with all the people who wrote the books we’re browsing.

Plus, for balance, some comics.

That’s what it feels like in this bookstore: that you’re discovering things every time you bend down over a bookpile or move the front row from a shelf.  Each time there’s something unexpected and delightful, engaging and challenging.

I really did have such a nice afternoon in Stroudsburg.  And just when I’d finished book browsing, I walked one block away and found this:

My week has been happily stocked with books and records ever since this trip.

Maine Studio

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When I was in Maine last week, I spent my mornings re-immersing myself in my book.  I’ve been doing some work on the last two stories in the collection, slowly unearthing their threads and helping them find their shape.

It was a beautiful place to write: with spindling pine trees outside the window, and between them the bright blue spark of the cove, dotted in bouys.  Inside, a long low bookshelf cluttered with well-worn books, and my own stack of afternoon reading.  I miss waking up to that view, that stretch of time with my manuscript.

Bookshopping: Longfellow Books

Longfellow Books is one of the two best bookstores I visited during my recent trip to Maine.  Located in the arts district of Portland, about a block from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow house, Longfellow Books is an excellent example of a hardworking urban bookstore with a core focus on serving its local community.

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Run by a team of booksellers who clearly know their literature, the bookstore is organized with tables of notable fiction and non-fiction, shelves of new releases, the bookstore’s own bestsellers, and a large table of suggested books along with handwritten recommendations.  They don’t rely on outside lists or picks or national bestsellers — an approach that speaks to the store’s confidence in its own selections and in its readership.

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There are extensive shelves of new and used fiction, a section devoted to Maine titles, a cluttered community bulletin board, and a large, airy children’s room with a plush green couch.

Longfellow Books is also home to a foster cat, Prince, who is up for adoption.  When I stopped in, Prince was nestled up on the couch with a young girl, who was completely absorbed in her novel.  A group of fellow children made a point to introduce me to Prince: they knew a lot about him.  He likes the couch in the children’s room, and the children, who sit with him reading.

With equal interest and authority, they told me about what they were reading.  (They didn’t have favorite books, though, they were careful to tell me.  “It’s too hard to choose,” one said.)  One of the children slipped and referred to the bookstore as a library, then caught and corrected herself.  I could see why she made the mistake: the bookstore, and especially its children’s room, had the comfortable, worn-in feel of an excellent library.  It’s a place where children come to discover great books and then lose themselves in them, already three chapters in and completely immersed by the time they leave the store with their purchases.

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Longfellow Books knows its literature, its readers, its community — and the store reflects that easy, comfortable confidence.  They refer to themselves as “a fiercely independent bookstore.”  And in our current bookselling world, thank goodness.  Luckily for those of us who live too far afield to curl up with Prince on a regular basis, Longfellow Books also publishes an excellent newsletter with recommendations.  For the latest, check out their website.

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All I Love and Know

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Speaking of reading, my friend Judy‘s second novel came out last week.  Judy and I were in residence at MacDowell together during the weeks she finished writing it.  Our studios were a few hundred yards apart on narrow MacDowell Road, and during our occasional afternoon walks together, we’d talk about our books-in-progress.  I’ve been excited to read this novel since.

When I stopped to visit Judy in Amherst on Memorial Day, she gave me an advance reader copy.  The novel is so good that in the days after she gave it to me, I woke up early in the mornings just so I could get in an extra hour or two of reading before work.  It’s always exciting when a friend publishes a new piece of writing, but especially so when it’s breathtaking.

All I Love and Know is a novel of startling nuance and breadth.  When a Jerusalem cafe bombing kills Daniel’s twin brother, he becomes the guardian of his young niece and nephew.  He and his partner Matt navigate a precarious new parenthood, fraught with challenges from the children’s Holocaust-survivor grandparents, the intricacies of Israeli law, the socio-legal complexities of family-building in the months before gay marriage in Massachusetts, and the painful expansion and contraction of love in the wake of grief.

It is a novel that takes place at the intersections of the interpersonal and the geopolitical.   And Frank deftly interweaves an incisive parsing of Israeli and LGBT politics with a nuanced insight into the lives and relationships of her two protagonists.  It is a novel about twin-dom and parenthood and Israel and the choices that resurface over the course of a life.  Judy explores all of this with a compassion that can hold these two men, can encompass their family’s fluctuations and elasticity.

I loved it so much, I bought another, hardcover copy this week.  Please make sure you read this book.  It’s truly an exceptional piece of writing, and a staggering work.

Street Books

Walking home from the cafe the other night, I found a half dozen cardboard boxes of books set out at the street corner two blocks from my apartment.  Someone was moving out and discarded a selection of their book collection.  Whoever it was had pretty eclectic reading tastes: the boxes were full of philosophy and politics and vintage copies of paperback fiction and foreign-language art books.  (Just like looking through other people’s bookcases, it’s awfully interesting to flip through boxes of someone’s discards.)

I was already trekking home with a bottle of wine and a laptop, but I filled my arms with a dozen street books.  I’ve already been tucking into Dorothy Parker and Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.  And there’s this wonderful drawing from a 1954 art book:

Life has been pretty tough lately.  But every so often even in the midst of terrible times, there’s the alchemic gift of street books.

Spark / Zora Neale Hurston

Did you see that Zora Neale Hurston was the logo image on Google earlier this week?

I love Zora Neale Hurston.  I found Their Eyes Were Watching God in the used bookstore in a nearby college town as a teenager and continued reading Hurston’s short stories through college, feeling as I read as though my life as a writer and human being was quickening.

But how staid Zora looks in Google’s rendering.  How unlike the spark of Zora I’ve come to know in her prose and photographs.  In images, Zora is open-mouthed, laughing.  She wears furred collars, beads, embellished sweaters.  Chic, chic hats.

All of this — this energy — must have been so key to the charisma that allowed her to walk into people’s lives and collect their stories.  So key to the balance between she struck between anthropologist-folklorist and Harlemite.

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Again and again in the accounts of her contemporaries and biographers, she is described as bold, dazzling.

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But in Google’s Doodle she looks subdued and matronly, nearly dour in her serious smile.  This boundary-defying artist captured in the cages of three ornate borders.  How did Google so completely miss her spark?