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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Read This Book: Epic, All-Staff, Event Edition

I have often heard bookselling referred to as a labor of love, which as you know means we don't get paid very much. But while we may not be rich in cash money, we are basically swimming in free books.

How jealous must you ordinary people be of booksellers and our advance reader's copies? I'm guessing not as jealous as I want you to be.  I am constantly disappointed by the response I get when it pops up in conversation that I'm reading a yet-to-be published book. I find myself saying this a lot, "Excuse, me, I just want to make sure you understand, this book isn't available to you normals yet." 

I'm very popular at parties.

So. WAAAAAAAAAY back in January, I got to read the advance copy of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. That's right while you all were still talking about Channing Tatum lip syncing Let it Go, and Patti LaBelle's new line of cakes, I was immersed in the genius, hilarious, fury-inducing musings of Seattle's very own, Lindy West.

After I read it, I passed it along to many of my coworkers and we've become kind of (very) fanatical in our adoration. You can ask Lindy's mom who totally shops here and doesn't seem the least bit uncomfortable that we all know her name. 

I feel like an unbearably hip person who loved that cool band first, before everyone else loved the cool band and then I no longer love the cool band because it's too mainstream. Except, I'm not that hip, and it's not a band, it's Lindy West, and I only want her to get more, and more popular. I want her book to be on every bestseller list, and every high school curriculum, and 30 copies of it in every library in the whole entire world. Everyone I know is getting a copy for their next birthday. Yes, even my nephews who are 3 and 5...especially my nephews. 

The essays in Shrill are funny, pointed, and razor-sharp and they'll make you feel strong and sad and angry and joyous all at once. Lindy will be reading, signing, and being generally awesome at our Lake Forest Park store tomorrow, Thursday, May 26th at 7PM! We can hardly contain ourselves.  -Erin

See below for some more of our fangirling:

I love this book, and I love Lindy West. She gave me feelings I didn't know I was capable of feeling. I felt validated and brave and often incedibly enraged on her behalf. She talks about issues like sexism, abortion and fat shaming, body issues and internet trolls with such a perfect blend  of humor empathy and wisdom. It's that combination of strength and wit that makes it such an unforgettable read. 
She is my hero, and I want her to be my best friend. I want to get matching BFF bracelets and take her to brunch so I can listen to her talk about whatever goes through her beautiful brain.  -Courtney
Shrill started a kind of internal revolution--in every one of us who read it here--that told me my humanity does not rest on my thinness, my gender, or any outside commentary on my physical existence. All I can say is since having read Shrill, I heave a sigh of relief anew each and every time I realize I don't have to hate my body because it is not "the perfect body", nor do I have to shrink into nothing every time I am too loud, too proud, too big, and too shrill. Thank you, Lindy.  -Lizzie
Lindy West makes feminism accessible without watering it down, which most of our media outlets flat out refuse to do. She makes the daily struggle to insist that others recognize our (women's) humanity HILARIOUS while not downplaying how effing atrocious the whole situation actually is.  -Anje

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Why Eh? : The Adventures of an Adult Reader

This is the first in a series featuring Courtney, a normally, Non-YA-Reading reader, reading YA. Got it?


I have always had a very intense (and completely rational) fear of borrowing books from friends. Not because my dog may likely chew on them like she once did to a very expensive textbook, or because I tend to walk like a baby deer and may trip at any given moment, and the loaned book may go flying into a conveniently placed sinkhole. No, the real source of my anxiety comes from the fear of hating the book they loved so much. I would never be able to look them in the eye. I would have to completely abandon my life and start anew in a different city with a fake ID and a new name. 

After enduring an incredibly passionate rant on Tamora Pierce’s books, from fellow bookseller, Lizzie, I was ordered to begin my education with The Song of the Lioness Series. She recomended these books with such a sense of awe and adoration, I began to sweat so much I became dehydrated. I have never found myself enjoying the fantasy genre so Lizzie's casual mention of sorcery and knighthood made me queasy, automatically assuming I would hate it.

But alas, like a majority of my fears it was for nothing. Thankfully I won’t have to retreat back to Alaska because I quickly fell in love with the character Alanna and the world Pierce created. Here is a book about a young girl who wants to be a knight, and instead of accepting the fact that its simply not allowed, she disguises herself as her brother in order to train. It’s a classic Shakespearean trope but unfortunately is still a relevant topic. Pierce ,though, never portrays her gender as a weakness or something incongruous with being a fighter and that is what makes all the difference. She trains among the boys, has all sorts of wild adventures, hangs out with princes and fights evil wizards and none of this is at odds with her perception of herself as a girl. Not only are these books overwhelmingly positive, but Alanna also has several romantic and sexual relationships, and the narrative contains no indication of slut- shaming or the hint that she should regret exploring her sexuality. Nor or any activities viewed as traditionally feminine are devalued either.

 It may also be important to note that this series came out in 1984 which is practically the stone age of YA. I could rant all day about the importance of characters like Alanna to young readers, and I wish this was a series I had been introduced to in the peak of my confusion and weirdness about being a girl. Especially when the only books at my library  had only male protagonists going on adventuress or were about traditionally feminine girls and their boy troubles. And for a young queer kid such as myself who has never been comfortable with the way femininity has often been shoved my way, it would have made a world of a difference if someone would have given me these books. Preferably a magical library troll or even a cool librarian who looks like Tina Fey and later becomes the Miss Honey to my Matilda. 

For now though, I have 24 more Tamora Pierce books to read and a Meg Cabot bookclub meeting to attend. So read these books, give them to everyone forever always as gifts, and bask in the amazingness that is Alanna.


(editor's note: I've used the old covers of these books because the current incarnation totally buys into gender norms and I think Alanna would disapprove.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Eat Your Artichoke Heart Out

Back in January, our marvelous Workman Publishing sales representative asked if I'd be willing to participate in recipe testing for a forthcoming cookbook called The Vegetable Butcher: How to Select, Prep, Slice Dice, and Masterfully Cook Vegetables from Artichokes to Zucchini. When he said I'd receive some recipes and a box of artichokes, of course I agreed.

Fast forward to the end of March. I'm moving in 10 days, and my kitchen, usually replete with specialty gadgets, machines, spices, etc, is mostly packed up. Only the bare necessities – knives, cutting boards, a few pots and pans, salt and pepper – remain. And now, the long-ago promised box containing two pounds of baby artichokes appears on my desk.

I immediately went through a mental list of friends who might let me invade their kitchens for a evening,  but I was getting ahead of myself; I should at least look at the recipes before panicking.

Fortunately, the two baby artichoke recipes included in the excerpt appeared achievable in my minimized kitchen state. I chose to make the Baby Artichoke Torta, an egg-based baked dish with Parmesan, breadcrumbs, garlic, and onions. I hadn't prepared an artichoke in over 15 years (can you tell they're not my favorite?), so I followed the instructions for butchery and read the notes carefully. Too bad I wasn't so careful about reading the ingredients list before I started. I had to make a last-minute run to the grocery (thankfully across the street) for not one or two but FIVE ingredients. I think that's a personal record. Hey, I'm moving. I blame the stress.

I boiled the trimmed artichokes, then sauteed them with diced onion and minced garlic. Once the artichokes started to soften, I added a few spices and some freshly chopped parsley. Then I whisked 7 eggs and slowly added in the hot vegetable mixture. I added some breadcrumbs and Parmesan, tossed it all in an 8 x 8 baking pan (a glamorous disposable foil one that I'd found the week before in the recesses of a cabinet above the fridge), and baked it for 35 minutes.

As soon as it was in the oven, I bolted out the door to the bookstore to pick up the salvaged packing material I'd stashed earlier in the day, and I walked back in the door just as the timer sounded. Perfect! My apartment smelled of toasted breadcrumbs and parmesan with a veggie undertone.

I relaxed on the couch for ten minutes while dinner cooled, then cut squares of the torta and served it with a mixed green salad drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The crumb topping was crispy, the filling flavorful, and the texture just right. Next time someone presents me with a pile of artichokes, I know just what I'll do.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Read This Book : Author Event Edition

Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk, will discuss his new, highly anticipated follow-up All the Ways We Kill and Die at our Lake Forest Park Store on Monday, April 4th at 7PM

In an extended profile about recent war literature, famed book critic of the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote:
“War cracks people’s lives apart, unmasks the most extreme emotions, fuels the deepest existential questions. Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan morph into shapeless struggles with no clear ends in sight, they have given birth to an extraordinary outpouring of writing that tries to make sense of it all: journalism that has unraveled the back story of how and why America went to war, and also a profusion of stories, novels, memoirs and poems that testify to the day-to-day realities and to the wars’ ever-unspooling human costs.”
Over the past few years many books by ex-military writers have been released to great acclaim. It has become difficult to pick which ones to read. As someone with no close personal ties to anyone in active service, I find the subject deeply fascinating for the very reasons Kakutani mentions.
Former Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer Brian Caster is one of the writers featured in the New York Times article. Castner is the best-selling author of The Long Walk, and with his new book, All the Ways We Kill and Die, he solidifies his place as one of the best military authors writing today. 
Castner’s first book, The Long Walk, chronicles on his deeply personal account serving three tours of duty in the Middle East as commander of the EOD unit in Iraq. Rather than detailing the specifics of the various campaigns he led, the book focuses primarily on his postwar experience and the psychological struggle he faced returning from war.
His new book, All the Ways We Kill and Die, again draws the reader in by appealing to the pathos of war. In the opening pages we see Castner learn his close friend and EOD-brother has been killed in action in Afghanistan while Brian and his family sit by their Christmas tree at home in Buffalo, New York. The story launches into action from there as Castner, no stranger to such tragedies, becomes obsessed with the question, “Who is the man who killed my friend?”

In telling the story of his friend’s death, Castner profiles the struggling widow, two war amputees, female biometrics engineer, a bomb-maker, a contractor for hire, and, in one of the more fascinating and stunning sections of the book, a drone pilot. With these detailed accounts, the book pieces together the story of “The Engineer,” the man responsible for the bombs. Considerably more technical than his first book (a 7-page glossary in the book helps readers navigate Arabic, military jargon, and acronyms),  All the Ways We Kill and Die is a book that brings readers backstage, intimately unveiling modern warfare in a way that is completely fresh. Castner’s books are a must read for anyone wanting to know more about the real individual lives of the soldiers who fight the wars of today.

Join us at the Lake Forest Park store on Monday April 4 at 7pm to meet Brian Castner.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

I Think You Forgot Something : Barbara Gowdy

Erin and I recently found ourselves in a high-pitched conversation around our shared love of Canadian television and resultant frustration of its categorical dismissal in the American cultural colloquy, if it's considered at all. It was a conversation so animated it scared other booksellers into hiding, which is a shame because Canadian television is worth a little shouting and you guys missed some great recommendations.

Namely it was our shared love of Don McKellar that brought us to a tremulous fervor, most specifically my bark bark barking about his most recent series, Sensitive Skin. McKellar plays Al Jackson, a newspaper columnist who writes light, humorous cultural criticism and is invited to sit on a literary award's panel. In his typical fashion, Al overanalyzes his responsibilities and presents full-blown dissertations on each nominated book, only to be mortified upon realizing the other, more esteemed panel members dismiss each submission with a single repudiation of "garbage," "terrible," etc.

Adding to my already immeasurable delight that a sitcom would incorporate a literary award was the brief cameo of author Barbara Gowdy as a panel member. It was a two second appearance that sent me reeling into a two month rediscovery of a staggeringly talented and original writer.

Gowdy in Sensitive Skin


Enormously esteemed in Canada (and Germany, apparently?), Gowdy is widely read and critically hailed for her luxuriant prose that nestles against tales revolving around the darker human impulses. Our neighbors to the North celebrate her work as most American literary institutions praise Eggers, Egan, etc. So why, in almost twenty years as a bookseller, have I only encountered a total of four other readers who know who the hell she is? That boils down to one every five years and, especially after rereading the majority of her work for the blog, the obtuseness of her work and reputation became increasingly lamentable with each passing sentence.

Barbara Gowdy became known to American readers with her fifth book, The White Bone, which has remained a fairly popular book club selection since its release almost twenty years ago but it is her story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, that is the most fitting entry point to what she does best. A collection full of tales that seamlessly shift between the lyrical and the macabre, it is also her most exaggerated; each narrative carrying the haunting, ominous air of an Ennio Morricone score. An uncompromising otherness inhabits each story, a situation or description that feels abrasive and utterly foreign, almost pornographically close, yet undeniably attractive.

There is something shocking in the sheer beauty with which Gowdy translates her supremely discomfiting material: the awkward, almost grotesquely detailed physicality of a truly unlikable behaviorally disabled foster child; a necrophile's desires stripped of their brutal implications by the author's intoxicating ability to seduce the reader; the humiliating rebellion of every young person's body is taken to a narrative nightmare alley of extremes by the presence of a pair of small, extremely delicate extra legs growing out of the young protagonist's torso in "Sylvie". What makes these stories, and all of Gowdy's work, so remarkable is her very singular ability to make us question and examine just how far it is a person has to travel before repugnance gives way to attraction. And, occasionally, how terrifyingly short that trip is.


In all of her work, the beautifully undulating atmosphere and refined tone is Gowdy's greatest strength and she is working at the height of her powers when she relaxes and focuses not on our physical oddities but our emotional deformities, The Romantic being the best example. Nominated for the Man Booker, it is a coming-of-age novel whose foundation is built on an ominous, broiling darkness brightened only by the protagonist's persistent grasp on pragmatism and emotional compartmentalization, the book finding its heartbeat in that juxtaposition.

Shortly after her mother abandons Louise and her father, Louise becomes infatuated with her new neighbors, the Richters. Her initial fascination belongs to Mrs. Richter; Louise's desire to fill the empty spaces left by her mother's disappearance convincing Louise that Mrs. Richter is her first true love. But it is Abel, the adopted and only child of the family, who will take hold of Louise's affections for more than a decade. As children, he inadvertently provides Louise with a much-needed lesson in developing her inner strength and certitude while much later acquainting Louise with the rapturous nature of passion and its much less friendly cousin obsession. The tone of their relationship and it's duality between light and dark is foretold exquisitely in an early chapter where, in the wooded outskirts of their suburb, Abel exposes one of nature's small fascinations in the eyes of a frog:
I am rudely startled. That something so glamorous could be contained in something so loathsome offends both my sense of fair play and my nervous grasp of cause and effect.
As in her more unconventional work, there is also a wonderfully unexpected sense of play at work in the novel's underpinnings. The character of Aunt Verna, the sister of Louise's father, who arrives to relieve some of the familial tension brought on by the mother's fleeing infuses the novel with a little humor, broadening its emotional scope. A loud, brash, intensely demonstrative woman, Verna is a former private investigator whose crowning achievement was solving a case for the actress Sophie Tucker, "whose kidnapped Siamese cat [she] single-handedly located, bound and gagged but alive, in a hotel laundry hamper."

While willing to shine some light here and there, for Gowdy it is the devil in the details that is most enticing. She seems to have an endless wealth of eloquent but gruesome vividity at her disposal. Most often, Gowdy's touch is a finer, sneakier thing. Hints of darker things to come, a nascent sense of dread, is illustrated in the every day: after Louise's mother intentionally fails to provide enough chairs for dinner guests and enjoys the ensuing awkwardness, it feels symbolic of the growing discord in the family, a warning shot. Other times the imagery is overt, like Louise's deflowering, a sensation "like a hundred tiny bones snapping" (those same broken bones are conjured again soon after in the depiction of the resultant fetus and its "bones brewing" inside her).

Abel continually exposes tiny freedoms and unexpected beauty to Louise, making it difficult for her and the reader to decide if it is Abel himself that is so addicting to her childhood self and shackles her to a lifetime of unflagging devotion, or if she is simply looking to sustain that adolescent sense of wonder.

But conscious or not, Louise's driving force is undeniably her faith in Abel, though he seems to desire nothing but absolute self-obliteration. They both romanticize the void, the vacuum created by the oneness of their impulses and insatiable appetites for their respective objects of desire. I found myself wholly immersed and devoted to both characters, oscillating wildly in my opinion of whose addiction is costlier and, as a result, struggled to recalibrate to my physical surrounding when setting the tale aside.

And therein lies Gowdy's magnificence - her characters, no matter how familiar or difficult to translate they may seem, are woven into the reader's everyday tapestry with the most exquisite subtlety. Such effortless grace and depth are a gift to any reader and to plate darker, subversive tales and sticky morality plays on fine bone china would expose most writers as barbarians. Gowdy, though? Her murkiness is dressed in a deceptive prettiness, a loveliness that draws the reader in only to leave them abandoned on the side of a dark, unfamiliar road with no idea how such a lovely Sunday drive could end so unpleasantly.

That ability to manipulate her audience, to infiltrate their subconscious and rewire their perceptions and expectations of how a plot should unfold or what a story's hero should be makes it easy to draw comparisons to Canada's most famous literary export, Margaret Atwood. But Gowdy is Atwood's cooler but possibly emotionally unstable step-sister: full of sharp edges, intimidatingly unpredictable, occasionally cagey in morality  but ultimately an elegant, beguiling mystery.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

What Are You Reading Now? Featuring Helen Simonson

The release of Helen Simonson’s first novel since Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is perfectly timed. Just as America’s dramatic obsession with Britain’s World War I-era idiosyncrasies is left behind by the finale of Downton Abby, we get The Summer Before the War to put us right back in the English countryside. 

The Summer Before the War takes place, literally, the summer before World War I breaks out in 1914. But in Sussex, where the small towns and hamlets seem so removed from the violence of the Ottoman Empire, the most controversial thing to happen is the arrival of a young, attractive, female Latin teacher. 

Coming off the heels of Simonson’s first triumph with Major Pettigrew, as well as its reminiscence of Downton’s characters and imagery, Simonson’s new novel is already receiving high praise

In preparation for her appearance at our Lake Forest Park store on March 30th, we asked her what she’s been reading now that her novel’s hitting shelves. It’s a new series we’re going to feature on the blog and in our newsletter, but we thought Simonson would be the right author to start things off.       
Maybe it's possible to find new pockets of time for reading?  I've just discovered that on a plane I can read a real book all through take off, landing and that endless waiting on runways for the ground crew to get back from lunch and open the gate. And what am I missing - mindless TV or the humiliation of snoring in the middle seat?  Among the high-flying books I've read?  Try The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin, a fascinating portrait of betrayal for Truman Capote fans. I've read and re-read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (just nominated for the Bailey's Prize) because it's a master class in creating a unique voice.  And I've been lucky enough to read advance copies of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave (coming May) and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (coming June).  The former is a gripping World War II story of love and duty set in London and the siege of Malta and the latter is a stunning debut exploring the history of slavery in Ghana and tracing many generations; including those who remained and those who were shipped as slaves to America.  With books as good as these, my new reading habit just might stick!

Please join us on Wednesday, March 30th at 7:00PM, for Helen Simonson in conversation with local fave, Jennie Shortridge.