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Monday, December 28, 2015

Why I read Old Books

I rarely read new books. Two or three a year might make the cut if they sound too good to miss (please keep writing, Marilynne Robinson), but the vast majority of my diet is drawn from the books of the dead. In part there is a simple reason for this, rooted in my unusually high capacity for both pickiness and laziness. Most of the worst old books have been weeded out by the passage of time, leaving a well-tended garden of excellent reading. New books, on the other hand, can be a thankless slog through mediocrity. I'll never get back the time I spent reading White Teeth. And all that Ian McEwan! It was like the literary equivalent of white noise. 

But there's another reason I love old books that extends even to the ones that aren't that good. Novelistic clichés can be found in any era, but it's the ones from the present time that bother me the most: upper-middle class academics having affairs; young people making pop-culture references, anything described as 'off-beat'... I once began a book in which the protagonist was an artist living in New York with a sister who was a writer in London. I threw it against the wall after three pages. 

But by a magical process similar to the beneficent aging of wine and cheese, the same kind of offhand, thoughtless writing in an old book is transformed into fascinating cultural detail. Here is a real, sincerely-delivered line of dialogue from John Buchan's The Three Hostages (1924): "He's a first-class sportsman and said to be the best shot in England after His Majesty." What a great line. If that book had been written today, I'd have to say the author was a satirical genius. It's like reading an adventure story written by Bertie Wooster. 

There's a short story by Jorge Borges called "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," in which the narrator reviews an entirely faithful recreation, by a contemporary French writer, of Cervantes' Don Quixote. "Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical," writes the critic, "but the second is almost infinitely richer." It's a conceit that plays on the fact that any book is enriched in complexity and subtlety merely by the passage of time. Reading old books, we all become Pierre Menards, recreating them in the light of our own times. Even the best historical fiction can only emulate the way people thought in another time and place; only actual historical books can offer the real thing.


What often stand out are outdated prejudices. Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days (1889) portrays a world in which all English people are emotionless robots and no American bats an eye at dueling on a moving train. Comparing H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) with John Buchan's 1910 African-adventure novel Prester John (which reads like a colonial Mein Kampf) is to witness the invention of the racist logic of Apartheid before your eyes.

But you can gain insights, too, that are difficult to find anywhere else. In Cause for Alarm (1937) and his other pre-war thrillers, Eric Ambler dramatized his anxiety about the spread of fascism. The Weimar-era stories of Christopher Isherwood mention very little about fascism, but they offer a window on a society that was all too short-lived. 

So go buy an old book! They're cheaper, too.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

New Author Crushin'

There are many joys that come with bookselling, naturally other booksellers being top of the list. Besides their wit, kindness, humor, and general all-around goodness, they're also readers. And as a reader, I often turn to these other, more well-read readers for ideas on what I should read next.

So when I was hoping to find some books or essays on obsession, I knew just who to go to. Wes is invariably the guy you want to talk to if what you're searching for is just a little bit unsavory, just a little outside the mainstream, just a little cringe-inducing, but hugely fascinating. What's great about Wes is his ability to offer books that target just what you need but also suggestions so weird they couldn't possibly work and then turn out to be exactly what you're looking for. So in my search for obsession, Wes offered up a book about stalking, and one about drinking, and also one about a diary.

Well, more precisely, it's about a woman keeping a diary, and then not keeping that diary. The book is Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, and the author is Sarah Manguso. Wes had figured that Manguso's obsession with recording her life, (her diary had stretched to 800,000 words-- for a frame of reference, War and Peace is just a little shy of 600,000,) was exactly the kind of obsession I was looking for. He was right.

Ongoingness is one of the best books I've read this year, perhaps my favorite. Instead of a memoir, it's more of a commentary on the keeping of her diary. What it meant to her, what she wanted it to be, how it failed. It seems no coincidence that Manguso's manifesto comes in this slim little volume; miles away from 800,000 words.

Of the diary, she says, "I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it."

Illustration by Montse Bernal/Reference:
Andy Ryan; From the New Yorker
Ongoingness feels like a study of thinking and overthinking. It's spare and  precise; brilliant. And eerie in it's universality. She explores motherhood, mortality, purpose, but mostly her compulsion to record evidence of her own existence. Manguso reads my mind and writes about my exact worries, yet she says it with an elegance and economy that is startling. So many times I stopped, and reread, and opened my journal to record her words and my own meager thoughts about those words. There is no way to read this brilliant woman and not feel like a dullard in comparison, but the kind of dullard who may just be on the right track

After Ongoingness, I inhaled more of her work. The Guardians, an elegy on the loss of her friend, his madness, and her fear of her own. And The Two Kinds of Decay a study of the rare disease Manguso battled in her twenties and the depression and havoc it lead her to. All of her books are beautiful; all of her thoughts, wise. She is the writer I wish I was, the thinker I aspire to be.

Read her.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Bookseller Spotlight!

Christina at Ravenna

It was probably always Christina's fate to wear big glasses and work with books.

How long have you worked at Third Place? Less than six months. Before that I worked in speciality coffee for several years.

What section(s) do you shelve? History, Gardening, Crafts, Fashion/Beauty, Art/Architecture/Photography, Adult Coloring Books (a burgeoning section if ever there was one!), African-American Studies, Native American Studies, Women's Studies, LGBT, Economics, Business, Nature, and Environment. (editor note: Christina also handles Ravenna's Instagram account, go see her beautiful pictures.)

Most underrated/ book in your section? I am always very happy when people take home a copy of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz!

What's your favorite section in the store? Probably history. There is always, always something to learn, and I think the more familiar one can be with history, the greater perspective and compassion one can gain. Also, history has Mark Kurlansky and that guy loves cod enough to make it interesting, which is pretty miraculous (see his 1997 book, Cod: A Biography). I think about Kurlansky's cod monomania and the paths his wonkish interest took him down almost as often as I think about how Joanna Newsom and Andy Samberg are married.

What book do you recommend most? Right now I'm recommending my November staff pick, Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria from Small Beer Press. I'll quote from my review: "Samatar is an incredible writer and [her novel's] plot of a naive young man drawn into matters over his head will speak to anyone whose travels have made them both sick with excitement and the longing to go home. "

Favorite bookstore, besides Third Place? My favorite bookstore will always be Book People in Austin, TX. I pretty much grew up there! My summers as a kid were often spent there, dropped off at my request with lunch money and quarters for the pay phone. My family were late adopters of cellphones so that line about pay phones probably makes me sound older than I am.

What are you reading now? Right now I am reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt and also a Georgette Heyer omnibus. I suspect I am not alone in wanting to leaven heavy reading with something light.

Do you have to finish a book once you've started, or do you give up on books? Uh, I give up on books all the time. I try to give every book a fair chance but sometimes the book is awful or you just aren't in the right mood. Also, the grim satisfaction to be found in discarding a book that's driving you up a wall is not to be missed. My grandmother and mother both claim that Gravity's Rainbow is the only book they've ever (independently within their own histories as readers) thrown across the room. I didn't throw it. I set it down very firmly.

A book you regret not reading sooner or a book you regret never having read? I wish I had read
Octavia Butler sooner! Everyone should read Butler as soon as possible.

Favorite author, or three, or five? Susanna Clarke, Octavia Butler, Fumiko Enchi, Nnedi Okorafor, Dorothy Sayers, Karen Armstrong, Ursula LeGuin, Natsuo Kirino, Gao Xie, Yoko Ogawa, PD James, Barbara Tuchman, Per Petterson, Tove Jansson, Miyuki Miyabe, Roxane Gay, Karen Lord, Junichiro Tanizaki, Rabih Alemeddine, Sofia Samatar, Janet Mock, the Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, NK Jemisin...

Do you have an all-time favorite book? What is it? I'll say instead that a book I wish I'd written is The Ill-Made Mute, by Cecilia Dart-Thornton.

Guilty reading pleasure? I am firmly in the camp of "there is no such thing as guilty reading". If we feel guilty about reading something--romance novels, erotica, thrillers, whatever--it is probably because there is a problematic social stigma against it that has nothing to do with the work's content or value, and everything to do with narratives about whose words are important or what subjects are "legitimate".

Do you keep books? Borrow them? Lend them? Borrow and lend! I love that a thing my coworkers do at Third Place is buy multiple copies of their favorite books expressly for the purpose of loaning them out with no expectation of getting them back. That's awfully cute.

How are your bookshelves arranged at home? My bookshelves at home are like a messed-up Tetris level. There are floor stalagmites of books which I have tried to arrange aesthetically. There are two booksellers in my household, so...

A book you loved that you wouldn't have read if someone hadn't recommend it to you, who recommended it? Eden, a graphic novel/comic by the Argentinean artist Pablo Holmberg. My partner recommended it to me!

Favorite movie version of a book, or a movie that most ruined a book? The news that a favorite book is being adapted into a movie usually causes either wild panic or a headache. Like, the Golden Compass adaptation was cringeworthy. But the BBC miniseries adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is amazing. I was so scared it would be bad, but it's not! 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

I Think You Forgot Something: Julie Hecht

More than any other area, my reading life is a hapless landscape. I'm a terribly fickle reader: a tyrannical toddler, really. I finish maybe one in five books I begin and, what's worse, enjoy one in twenty that I finish. Not a great track record for someone who relies on their love of books to pay the bills. And when you factor in that a good half of the books I truly love are out-of-print or are one bad sales week from being snubbed by the publisher for all eternity, I feel justified in calling my reading life rather jinxed.

Over fifteen years of bookselling, the overlooked and almost forgotten have become a passion of mine. Harry Potter doesn't need me. Donna Tartt, wonderful as she is, doesn't need me. The community cultivated by a book when it strikes a nerve is a beautiful thing, but witnessing it always leaves me wondering, "Where is my tribe?" Or, at the very least, why aren't creative writing students studying Gary Lutz? Why aren't Confederacy of Dunces devotees devouring LJ Davis?

Oh. Right. That's my job. Customers don't ask for recommendations to have their opinions validated, they solicit a bookseller's opinion because they want to discover something new and possibly around the way. And to turn someone on to a body of work that is unknown to them, knowing the enjoyment that lies ahead of them is a feeling to revel in. So I have bullied Erin into letting me stomp the old soapbox every so often and shine a little light on some titles and authors that are shamefully overlooked. Third Place's little shadow society modern library, if you will.


In 2013 I had been entertaining a deep funk for months when all despondency (and wind) was knocked out of me by an Eileen Fisher wearing, governess-y Nantucket wife in an issue of Harper's. I was processing the most difficult break-up I have ever known, and after spending months looking for something, anything, to make me feel better, there it was in a periodical most Americans synonymize with Ambien.

A title so primly worded but blindly intrusive, its humor subtle but tailor-made for my love of anything that implies accidental illicitness: "May I Touch Your Hair?"

And that name! Her! Julie Hecht, a writer whose polite but scathing wit and playful self disparagement soothe my nerves much the same way tingsha bells calm a Tibetan monk.

Hecht is an elusive figure in contemporary fiction, building a body of work that feels rigidly focused but somehow effortless as well. Her fiction output is succinct: two short story collections and a novel over the course of ten years, all concerning the same nameless protagonist: a somewhat listless photographer who wrings her hands over the loss of a well-mannered culture. Highly intellectual but constantly struck dumb by the boorish behavior she encounters, our hero (and she is my hero) is all too easily assumed to be an autobiographical sketch of her creator. But this assumption undermines the genius and beauty of Hecht's work. The character is the kind of woman who cleans the house before the cleaning lady comes but can also find herself seeking solace in a wry, troubling (yet somehow heartwarming) series of phone conversations with a portrait subject's drug-addicted son. A high-strung but somehow affable presence, this woman is infuriating in her exactitude and chasteness but a beguiling enigma.

http://www.thirdplacebooks.com/book/9780140271454Such measure and precision is virtually unheard of in a literary arena that seems to value volume over merit. As most of contemporary fiction's lions' careers begin to resemble those of other mediums' artist-cum-commodity (a mash-up of posthumously released Tupac albums and Bolaño translations would make an absorbing rainy day project), where do thoughtful, careful writers like Hecht fit, and how do they build an audience? Is it their desire to allow oceans of time to pass between published works? Is any of this my business? Maybe it's dangerous for me (and the store's blog) to dwell on such things.

http://www.thirdplacebooks.com/book/9781416564263Don't get the wrong idea: Hecht's material is accessible. And maintaining a readership through creative writing courses and the odd mention, such as Miranda July's in the New York Times earlier this year, Hecht's reputation is a notable one. Such clout and respect are surely worthy achievements to be placed on any author's mantle and an in-print status of one-foot-in-the grave ain't dead yet - I'll take solace in that - but I'm plagued by the question: that muggy summer afternoon, on exactly the kind of New York street corner that Hecht's anxiety-addled photographer loathes, where I discovered the Loch Ness Monster of short stories, where were her other weak-kneed readers? If the Scientologists and Unarians are still running around and recruiting, where are the Hecht acolytes (Hechtolytes?)? And most importantly, when will she return to remind us all what is acceptable decorum?

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Paris Review Interviews

Were you aware that the Paris Review, esteemed literary journal and propaganda tool of the CIA, prints extended interviews with novelists, poets, playwrights and at least one comics artist? Perhaps so. But were you also aware that you can access their entire archive of interviews via the globally connected computer network known as the Internet? And I recommend that you do. I can't get enough of them. They date all the way back to the 1950s and include everyone from T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway to Brett Easton Ellis, and the mysterious Elena Ferrante. Here's a random selection of excerpts from some of my favourites.

Joyce Carol Oates on the advantages of being a woman writer:

Advantages! Too many to enumerate, probably. Since, being a woman, I can't be taken altogether seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers 1, 2, 3 in the public press, I am free, I suppose, to do as I like. I haven't much sense of, or interest in, competition; I can't even grasp what Hemingway and the epigonic Mailer mean by battling it out with the other talent in the ring. A work of art has never, to my knowledge, displaced another work of art. The living are no more in competition with the dead than they are with the living . . . Being a woman allows me a certain invisibility. Like Ellison's Invisible Man.

Gore Vidal engaging in exactly the kind of masculine one-upmanship that Joyce Carol Oates disapproves of:

Every writer ought to have at least one thing that he does well, and I’ll take Truman’s word that a gift for publicity is the most glittering star in his diadem. I’m pretty good at promoting my views on television but a washout at charming the book-chatters. But then I don’t really try. Years ago Mailer solemnly assured me that to be a “great” writer in America you had to be fairly regularly on the cover of the Sunday New York Times book section. Nothing else mattered. Anyway, he is now what he wanted to be: the patron saint of bad journalism, and I am exactly what I set out to be: a novelist.

Italo Calvino on trying to work in the morning:

Each morning I already know I will be able to waste the whole day. There is always something to do: go to the bank, the post office, pay some bills . . . always some bureaucratic tangle I have to deal with. While I am out I also do errands such as the daily shopping: buying bread, meat, or fruit. First thing, I buy newspapers. Once one has bought them, one starts reading as soon as one is back home—or at least looking at the headlines to persuade oneself that there is nothing worth reading. Every day I tell myself that reading newspapers is a waste of time, but then . . . I cannot do without them. They are like a drug. In short, only in the afternoon do I sit at my desk, which is always submerged in letters that have been awaiting answers for I do not even know how long, and that is another obstacle to be overcome.

Pablo Neruda on symbols:

NERUDA I don’t believe in symbols. They are simply material things. The sea, fish, birds exist for me in a material way. I take them into account, as I have to take daylight into account. The fact that some themes stand out in my poetry—are always appearing—is a matter of material presence.

INTERVIEWER What do the dove and guitar signify?

NERUDA The dove signifies the dove and the guitar signifies a musical instrument called the guitar.

Check them out for yourself, and let us know what your favourites are!


Friday, October 16, 2015

Meet Marie Lu at Ravenna Third Place Books!

We are very excited to welcome Marie Lu to our Ravenna location on Monday, October 19th, at 7PM. Christina wrote up a little something to tell you why you should be excited too. 

The Rose Society, Marie Lu's sequel to the first title to Young Elites series, is an unrelentingly dark book. If you're familiar with The Young Elites, this is no surprise: the series focuses on the wonderfully complex Adelina Amouteru, who is much more villain than hero. The stakes are higher and the scope is broader in The Rose Society, as Adelina and her sister Violetta look for allies to help them in their quest for revenge on almost everyone - Estenzia, the Inquisition Axis, her former friends, and almost anyone who crosses her path. And along the way, more and more opportunities arise for Adelina to use her powers and escalate to more and more violent acts. And oh, does she take those opportunities! 

"Once upon a time, a girl had a father, a prince, a society of friends. Then they betrayed her, and she destroyed them all."

I love YA books but I know I'm very behind on current titles. When I learned that Marie Lu was coming to my store for a signing (October 19! 7pm!) I took that as encouragement to start The Young Elites series despite not knowing much about them. This series has powerful plotting, enough complex and intricate twists to keep any George R.R. Martin or Pretty Little Liars fan engaged. It has all the  characteristics found in other successful young adult series: colorful characters, troubled romance, love triangles, a vivid world with just enough similarities to historical times in our own world to be both familiar and interesting, and of course- super powers. Between them, Adelina and her associates can control the weather, call illusions, conjure fire, heal almost instantaneously, and fly using the wind.

But the heart of these books is Adelina, and she's fascinating! If you've ever felt a twinge of sympathy for characters like Darth Vader or Draco Malfoy, Adelina's plight might move you to tears. She's boxed in by a series of circumstances difficult enough to make anyone grudgingly accept her disruptive mayhem. But what makes The Rose Society, leaping into the scenarios set up by The Young Elites, such a page-turner is that Adelina, far from a passive victim, is aware of other options and typically chooses, of her own volition, the more ruthless and ambitious path. She develops a deep satisfaction in her ability to control others that Lu makes very clear:

"I have never known the mind of a wolf hunting a deer, but I imagine it must feel a little like this: the twisted excitement of seeing the weak and wounded cowering before you, the knowledge that, in this instant, you have the power to end its life or grant it mercy. In this moment, I am a god."

Of course, as soon as the reader becomes tempted to unilaterally condemn Adelina, the plot twists and it seems equally inviting to cheer the downfall of her aggressors instead. This is a tension that Lu sustains thrillingly throughout and makes it really difficult to imagine how this will be reconciled in the final book of the trilogy. (Like, seriously. Any ideas?) The Rose Society prompts you to wonder, at what point do we wash our hands of someone and declare them irredeemable? Because, of course, we want even our anti-heroes to be redeemed in the end, yet Adelina commits some truly unforgivable acts. And to what degree are others responsible for creating an environment in which Adelina's choices are so few?

Read The Rose Society and join me in speculation. I'm also here for your pro- or anti-Enzo feelings. And in signing off, may I direct your attention to The Rose Society's Goodreads page, where there are over 100 pages of fan-made reaction .gif sets to accompany you.

 - Christina

Monday, October 12, 2015


Rainbow Rowell's Carry On is finally here! It's the story of the fictional, fictional (yes, 2 fictionals), Harry Potter-esque characters from Fangirl. That's confusing, so here's some background information to bring you up to speed.

I initially picked up Fangirl because I have been, on occasion, accused of being a "fangirl" of a certain band. I thought that's what the book would be about, a just-skirting-the-edge-of-obsession, music fan. It's not. The title refers to one of the characters who writes fanfiction based on the Simon Snow books. Simon Snow resembles Harry Potter, in that he goes to a magical school, and has an arch-nemesis, and is the Chosen One. Fangirl is of course about a great many other things, young love, loyalty, college, sisters, mental health, etc., but it also happened to be my primary introduction to the world of fanfiction.

Fanfiction is fascinating. For simplicity's sake, fanfiction, or fic, is fiction about characters from an original work created by the fans of that original work rather than the original creator. There is fanfiction about everything. You name it, there's fanfiction about it. Books, television shows, movies, celebrities, video games. Everything has a fandom, and everything has fanficiton. But I'm no expert. In March, New York Magazine did a phenomenal piece on fanfiction, and for the uninitiated, I highly recommend it. Seriously, it's fascinating. 

Fangirl fan art from the Special Edition
Side note: Rainbow Rowell has been supportive and excited about all the fanfiction and fan art that her novels have spawned. The special edition of Fangirl even features fan art on the end papers. Just look at that! It's gorgeous. And that's what is so interesting about fanfiction and fan art, a lot of it is really, really good.

There is some disagreement as to the legitimacy of fanfiction. But then, all creativity seems to blur the line of appropriation and homage. Fifty Shades of Grey is without doubt, fanfiction. But so too are all those Pride and Prejudice continuations. Isn't Michael Cunnigham's The Hours just Virginia Woolf fanfiction? And what about PBS's Sherlock? Or sampling in music? And who is Harry Potter anyway but just an amalgam of all the orphaned chosen ones who came before him?

Partly, I wave the banner of fanfiction because I loathe the inherent snootiness of the literary world. I firmly believe in reading what you want to read without apology. I refuse to label anything I read as a guilty pleasure. And so I proudly read fanfiction, and romance novels, and young adult books; and none of that takes away from my love of Moby Dick, or NYRB books, or everything Andrew Holleran ever wrote. I like what I like and I read what I like and I never feel guilty about any of it. And I encourage you to do the same. Don't hide that copy of Fifty Shades of Grey! And read Fangirl, and then read Carry On.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

It's quintessential Rainbow Rowell, even if it does take place in a world that doesn't quite exist. It has friends, and school, and drama, and love, and angst, and lots and lots of kissing, all with dragons and wizards as an added bonus. And her dialogue and humor are as sharp as ever. It's been awhile since a book had me swooning and nail biting quite like this one, and the familiar Harry Potter feelings it conjures add a lovely nostalgic feeling to the whole enterprise. 

The book is great, but I almost love it more for it's concept than anything else. Fanfiction written by an author who wrote the original work in which the fictional fanfiction played a major role. It's head-spinning. Though I guess you could say it's really just Harry Potter fanfiction. Well, whatever it is, it's great.

And my old review of Fangirl, because even though Carry On can stand on its own, you really shouldn't miss out on the joy that is Fangirl.

Rainbow Rowell has done something magical. She's written a delightful book for young adults that will charm and captivate regular old adults too. A love story; an honest look at mental health; family drama; loyal friendships; and nerdy, Harry Potter-esque fanfiction all wrapped up in the exciting, heady first days of college. Rowell pulls all of it off in this one perfect novel. It's a marvel of a balancing act that many "masters" of adult fiction couldn't do. 

Smart, funny, sweet, and dizzingly romantic. The love story alone will have your stomach flip-flopping with memories of your own first love. These characters leap off the page and I desperately wish that they were real. That's how lovely they are. She writes them with a kindness and genuineness that never wavers into sentimentality. 

All of her books are wonderful, but Fangirl is my favorite. 

I know a lot of you hesitate to read young adult fiction, but when something this good comes along, it's time to challenge your biases and open yourself up to something inspiring and wonderful.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Hey, I've Read That: we review books everyone else read five years ago

Turns out I'm not the only one reading about five years behind. Kalani saw my post on Sloane Crosley and wrote up one of his own. Finally, a creative outlet for our literary procrastination. -Erin

Just Kids by Patti Smith

When Just Kids came out in 2010 I was working part-time as a security guard in a shopping mall. Of course the only store I actually liked walking by was the bookstore. I can still remember the sight of that black and white book cover sitting on top of the bestseller shelf every shift that I “patrolled.” I casually knew of Patti Smith's music and having recently finished reading Bob Dylan's Chronicles Vol.1, I told myself I would someday read the music memoir that everyone was talking about.

This past summer, after five years, a National book Award, and countless accolades and top ten lists, I finally read Patti Smith’s Just Kids. My expectations were completely wrong in thinking that Smith would be recounting the 1970s New York music scene or sharing wild and crazy tales about touring the world with other legendary rock stars. While there is some of this (Smith name drops Hendrix, Joplin, Ginsberg, Burroughs, etc.), this memoir has little to do with Smith’s early life or her music career, but is really a tender portrait of her friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

Smith further proves what a multi-talented artist she is with her carefully written memories that exude love for her lost friend. This book was absolutely worthy of the high praise it received and was worth the five year wait for me to finally read. (If you enjoyed this memoir about friendship check out Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett and Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement)

With her new memoir, M Train, Patti Smith again chooses not to write meaningfully about her days as a rock star. Yet again, Smith writes a completely enamoring book this time focusing more on her present day life after the deaths of her best friend (Robert Mapplethorpe), her husband (Fred Smith), and her younger brother (Todd).

M Train is about how she has coped with her new solitary life. A less talented writer would never be able to make a memoir like this work. Bizarre anecdotes, like the time Smith met chess champion Bobby Fischer in a dark alley at midnight in Iceland and the time she gave a keynote speech at a secret society club called the “Continental Drift Club,” fill the pages of this book. Smith writes about seemingly random fragmented memories from her life like an old man rambling about old war stories to his grandchildren. Despite this, I am completely engaged with every word she writes and cannot wait for more.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Hey, I've Read That

In which I review a book everyone else read five years ago.

I have never been known for my ability to keep abreast of all things pop culture-y. I still have my VCR. Which you might think is silly, but I get the cheapest movies at Value Village. Cheaper than Blockbuster even.

This inability to keep up (with the Kardashians) extends to my reading life. I spend a lot of time reading books published outside the current decade, so when I do read a "new book" most everyone else has already read it... five years ago.

But since I'm in charge of the blog, I can post whatever review I want, no matter how irrelevant it is. So here you go.

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

This book is guaranteed to make you feel better about yourself. Almost every other essay, I found myself saying, "well, at least I've never done that."

Crosley pulls no punches in relating the miseries and embarrassments of her early adulthood. Failed relationships, and terrible jobs feature prominently. Her piece on being the reluctant maid of honor for her not-so-close friend is particularly hilarious.

Here you find the best friend, you're not quite sure you want. She's crass and selfish, sometimes mean, and will almost certainly get you into trouble. But she does it all with such wit and humor, it's difficult not to be charmed.

Sloane Crosley's new book The Clasp, her first novel, comes out October 6th.

HA! Tricked you! This post was relevant!


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Reading as a Contact Sport, or how to read a 700 page novel told in multiple voices (many with a thick Jamaican dialect)

Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead) is a complex beast of a novel. It is angry, rough and bloody but also nimble, playful and kind. It is a little intimidating to approach, but once you are engaged with it, it is an incredibly rewarding experience.

I was a little apprehensive about attempting this novel at first. I actually managed to successfully avoid reading it for almost a full year. But it kept popping up wherever I looked : amazing reviews, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, more amazing reviews, a shortlist finalist for the Man Booker Prize and even an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers (if that guy could make time for this book, so could I).

So I dove in, but decided to give myself some help along the way. What resulted was a fully immersive experience of this novel, an adventure everyone might not have the time or inclination for, but I highly recommend (I’m looking at you Man Booker Prize jury members).
When you’ve decided you’re going to tackle a 700 page novel, you have to carve out time every day to get to it. It’s a bit of a task at first, especially after work, meetings, and helping coach your daughter’s soccer practice, but it soon becomes addictive. My first week I read about 200 pages of the book (I’m pretty sure there were already more than seven killings by then, but I wasn’t expecting anything simple or straightforward from this “brief” novel).

It was then that I remembered a friend of mine had mentioned that he had listened to the audio version of this book on a road trip earlier this year. I got the audio and started alternating between the two experiences of the book, listening to the audio on my morning walk to work and reading the book itself at night. I usually don’t listen to fiction as I don’t want an actor’s interpretation of the author’s voice to muddy my experience of that voice. But this novel, told exclusively in first person voices, seemed extremely well suited to the audio-book experience. With an immensely talented eight person cast, this novel, especially the Jamaican characters, began living in my head in a way that sort of super-sized what was already a healthy meal of a book.

I then discovered Marlon James’ Spotify playlist for the book. Soon making dinner at home was accompanied by Bob Marley’s Natty Dread (the 1976 assassination attempt on Marley is the central planet around which the voices in this novel orbit) and the sounds of Ina Kamoze and Damien Marley. But, as the novel moves its way into the eighties and into the US, we also were listening to Andy Gibb’s Shadow Dancing and Herbie Hancock’s Rockit (I don’t think I have heard Rockit since my brother and I were laying down cardboard in our garage and practicing how to do a windmill in 1983 – it was fun to hear it again, but around the third time it came on my wife began asking how much longer until I was done with the book).

When you start listening to reggae in your kitchen, you start looking around for the conch and the jerk seasoning (at least I do). I clearly wasn’t going to find conch in Seattle, but I was willing to improvise. Digging through my cookbooks I came across a number of amazing recipes by Chef NormanVan Aken that clearly were going to satisfy the cravings that this book had conjured up in my belly. The family and I spend the next week enjoying Conch Fritters (cod for conch), Conch Salad (prawns for conch) and Jerk Pork Chops with Golden Pineapple Chutney.

It was a perfect way to end my summer. I’m sure I won’t read a better novel this year and it will certainly be a long time before another novel consumes my life and inspires me to immerse myself its world the way Marlon James’ masterpiece did.

I've heard this book compared to many others. Some have compared it to being like a Tarantino film, the works of Faulkner and Robert Bolano’s Savage Detectives. I kept thinking about Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country in that it also had multiple voices around a single violent incident, as well as the works of William Gaddis who also has kinetically charged monologues that propel his narratives along (I discovered afterwards an interview with Marlon James from a number of years ago where he mentioned reading Gaddis – probably during the time he was working on this novel). In the end however, A Brief History of Seven Killings is one of those unique books that really defies comparison. It is a book that will become an intimidating measuring stick against which to judge other bold, ambitious and gloriously reckless novels in years to come.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Read This Book: Current Events Edition

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book is everywhere, with good reason. Many of us here at Third Place Books have read it. Here are two of our booksellers on why you should read it too:


You are unlikely to read a more important book about race this year. Coates' letter to his 15-year-old son is provocative, upsetting, inspiring, and, like any passionate argument, an emotional roller coaster ride. It is the beginning, not the end of a much needed conversation.


We all bring a lifetime of experiences to whatever book we read. I read Between the World and Me, keeping in mind that I am the father of a black son. My wife is also black. Being a white father, I cannot pass on the experiences of being a black man in America. As a member of white society, I can walk blithely through life unaware of the biases and profiling that affects my own family.

Between the World and Me is a memoir, written in the form of a letter to the writer’s fifteen-year-old son. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a black father, and in this book he relates his own experiences of growing up black in America. Sometimes he is quite angry – rightfully so – and his narrative is always personal and emotionally powerful. He’s not just talking about slavery and the subjugation of the African-American people, but the fact that America’s success was built on the backs of these people.

He uses direct quotes to dispute dangerous ideas, such as the Civil War not being fought over slavery. Coates covers institutional racism, and how most of us are deluded by this idea of whiteness, also known as “the American Dream”. There is a lot to digest in just over one-hundred and fifty pages, especially for those of us only familiar with the winner’s interpretation of history.

Every once in a while, a book deserves the exalted status it’s being given, and Between the World and Me is one of those books.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Operation Library Creation

About a month ago another local author, DP Denman, reached out to me about a fundraiser that she was spearheading and as a young adult author and an independent bookseller, the subject was near and dear to my heart.

She wanted help building a library and raising awareness for YouthCare, a non-profit organization that works with local homeless youth. YouthCare helps kids and teens with the basic needs we tend to take for granted (shelter, food, etc.). They also help prepare teens for the workforce, get their GEDs or get into college, and teach the skills necessary to live on their own. They are doing all they can to not only prepare these kids for adulthood, but to break the cycle of homelessness.

Specifically, DP was asking for my help with raising money for YouthCare's lending library.

Books are transformative. They provide shelter, escape and connection. Books teach us that we're not alone, that there are other ways of being--they open our minds and hearts. I told DP to sign me up!

Since the fundraiser wasn't for another month, I asked her if YouthCare would be interested in some donated books. I reached out to other bookstores via Twitter and instantly heard back from Elliott Bay Book Company and University Bookstore--they wanted to help too. And I already knew Third Place Books would help--we, like many local bookshops, donate to schools and non-profits all the time.

Once I gathered up all the donations I had five tote bags and four full boxes of books! I can't tell you how great it felt to drop them off at YouthCare. They said that they don't often get new/newer books and the teens would be so happy.

We donated a lot of books, but keep in mind that they have several locations, and several lending libraries that they're building. DP and I  are hoping we can fill their shelves with so many books that they'll need to build more!

If you are interested in making a donation to YouthCare click for more details on their current and year-round needs. If you're interested in making a monetary donation, click here

Check out DP's blogpost on the campaign here.

Thanks again to Elliot Bay Book company, University Bookstore, and Third Place Books for their generous donations!


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A New Orleans Reading Atlas

Summer travel means summer travel reading. And a trip to New Orleans means a feast of literary options. I've been reading novels, manifestos, atlases, and histories. I'm learning about levees, and funeral parades, and beignets, and bayous, and faubourgs. I have immersed myself in so much New Orleans reading, that I feel like a local... or at least a reasonably well-oriented tourist.

I try to read up on any new place I go, but New Orleans offers a richer experience than most. Its sense of place is so strong it's incapable of being confined to the page, and seems to conjure itself into being with a breath of heavy humid air, and a mournful brass note. Literary New Orleans is astounding not only in its variety but in its quality, innovation, and lyricism.

Here's my reading list.

Unfathomable City by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedecker

This book is a brilliant reinvention of the traditional atlas, one that provides a vivid, complex look at the multi-faceted nature of New Orleans, a city replete with contradictions. More than twenty essays assemble a chorus of vibrant voices, including geographers, scholars of sugar and bananas, the city's remarkable musicians, prison activists, environmentalists, Arab and Native voices, and local experts, as well as the coauthors compelling contributions. Featuring 22 full-color two-page-spread maps, Unfathomable City plumbs the depths of this major tourist destination, pivotal scene of American history and culture and, most recently, site of monumental disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

The innovative maps precision and specificity shift our notions of the Mississippi, the Caribbean, Mardi Gras, jazz, soils and trees, generational roots, and many other subjects, and expand our ideas of how any city is imagined and experienced. Together with the inspired texts, they show New Orleans as both an imperiled city by erosion, crime, corruption, and sea level rise and an ageless city that lives in music as a form of cultural resistance. Compact, lively, and completely original, Unfathomable City takes readers on a tour that will forever change the way they think about place.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

The Moviegoer is Binx Bolling, a young New Orleans stockbroker who surveys the world with the detached gaze of a Bourbon Street dandy even as he yearns for a spiritual redemption he cannot bring himself to believe in. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he occupies himself dallying with his secretaries and going to movies, which provide him with the "treasurable moments" absent from his real life. But one fateful Mardi Gras, Binx embarks on a hare-brained quest that outrages his family, endangers his fragile cousin Kate, and sends him reeling through the chaos of New Orleans' French Quarter. Wry and wrenching, rich in irony and romance, The Moviegoer is a genuine American classic.

Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivlin

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana--on August 29, 2005--journalist Gary Rivlin traces the storm's immediate damage, the city of New Orleans's efforts to rebuild itself, and the storm's lasting affects not just on the city's geography and infrastructure--but on the psychic, racial, and social fabric of one of this nation's great cities.

Much of New Orleans still sat under water the first time Gary Rivlin glimpsed the city after Hurricane Katrina. Then a staff reporter for "The New York Times," he was heading into the city to survey the damage. The Interstate was eerily empty. Soldiers in uniform and armed with assault rifles stopped him. Water reached the eaves of houses for as far as the eye could see. Four out of every five houses--eighty percent of the city's housing stock--had been flooded. Around that same proportion of schools and businesses were wrecked. The weight of all that water on the streets cracked gas and water and sewer pipes all around town and the deluge had drowned almost every power substation and rendered unusable most of the city's water and sewer system.

People living in flooded areas of the city could not be expected to pay their property taxes for the foreseeable future. Nor would all those boarded-up businesses--21,000 of the city's 22,000 businesses were still shuttered six months after the storm--be contributing their share of sales taxes and other fees to the city's coffers. Six weeks after the storm, the city laid off half its workforce--precisely when so many people were turning to its government for help. Meanwhile, cynics both in and out of the Beltway were questioning the use of taxpayer dollars to rebuild a city that sat mostly below sea level. How could the city possibly come back? 

This book traces the stories of New Orleanians of all stripes--politicians and business owners, teachers and bus drivers, poor and wealthy, black and white--as they confront the aftermath of one of the great tragedies of our age and reconstruct, change, and in some cases abandon a city that's the soul of this nation.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

First published in 1899, this beautiful, brief novel so disturbed critics and the public that it was banished for decades afterward. Now widely read and admired, The Awakening has been hailed as an early vision of woman's emancipation. This sensuous book tells of a woman's abandonment of her family, her seduction, and her awakening to desires and passions that threaten to consume her. Originally entitled "A Solitary Soul," this portrait of 28 year-old Edna Pontellier is a landmark in American fiction, rooted firmly in the romantic tradition of Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson.

Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza

In the aftermath of Katrina and the disaster that followed, promises were made, forgotten, and renewed. Now what will become of New Orleans in the years ahead? What do this proud, battered city and its people mean to America and the world?

Award-winning author and longtime New Orleans resident Tom Piazza illuminates the storied culture and uncertain future of this great and neglected American metropolis by evoking the sensuous rapture of the city that gave us jazz music and Creole cooking; examining its deep undercurrents of corruption, racism, and injustice; and explaining how its people endure and transcend those conditions. And, perhaps most important, he asks us all to consider the spirit of this place and all the things it has shared with the world: its grace and beauty, resilience and soul.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

On This Day in (Literary) History

We may be booksellers by day, but that's not all we are. Some of us are writers, some of us knit. Several of us could be considered pretty serious cycling aficionados. Lots of bakers and chefs. We've a few musicians. One pretty militant cross fitter. And of course we have artists.

Here's one now.

Introducing Stephen's new series of imagined author histories. He's hoping it becomes a weekly occurance. We hope so too. Enjoy!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book News and Other Miscellany

Volume 2, Issue 2
Various links to cool videos, websites, articles, and news about books.

The Man Booker long list, also known as the "Man Booker (Baker's) Dozen" was announced late last month.

This is the second year that the prize has been open to writers of any nationality. Nomineess must also be originally written in English, and published in the UK. The shortlist will be announced on September 15th with the award itself announced on October 13th.

The Martian comes to movie theaters this fall. The trailer looks amazing! Several of us have read and loved the book and can't wait for the movie!


People who read actual, physical books fall asleep faster and sleep better than those who read e-readers. There's a super-long, fancy, academic study that proves it. Or you can read NPR's summary.

What's your personality? Take this quiz!


I love Flavorwire's lists. They are consistently interesting topics and always full of  books you wouldn't normally consider belonging to whatever particular list it is. I found Dancer from the Dance (one of my all-time faves) by Andrew Holleran on their list of Best New York Novels. It's also in their 50 Essential Works of LGBT Fiction.

I had been sampling pretty heavily from the LGBT list and that's how I came to read, Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, currently my favorite book this year. Call Me By Your Name is also on the 50 Romantic Books list, which is how I ended up reading John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. And why I'm moving on to The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. You must check out these lists, they will inevitably throw you down a rabbit hole of binge-reading. Not a bad rabbit hole to be in.

And, a book and a cat.


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Astronauts on the Town

So we have this astronaut in the Commons. She's part of the Museum of Flight's Astronauts on the Town public art project. We've had lots of interest in our astronaut. Kids love her, grownups love her, we love her. And today, I met Kate Buike. She loves the astronauts so much that she's going around town sketching all of them. Kate is a volunteer at the Museum of Flight, and she's also part of Urban Sketchers, an international community of sketchers created by the Seattle Sketcher, Gabriel Campanario.

Kate just happened to be up at the info desk, gathering her things, and her sketchbook was sitting on the counter opened to the sketch of our astronaut. She was kind enough to let me gawk at her artwork, and snap a picture. Here she is with her really lovely work and of course, the astronaut!

Sorry, I didn't get a close up of the sketch, but you can check it out along with all the other astronauts here. And learn more about Kate on her blog, Red Harp Arts. Thanks so much for making us a part of your project, Kate. Happy sketching!