While We Await Our Blog Name…Please Enjoy Booknotes

Fall 2010
BOOKNOTES, the newsletter of THE ELLIOTT BAY BOOK COMPANY, is written entirely by bookstore staff. It represents a sampling of recently published books that we have enjoyed reading. We appreciate every opportunity to assist in finding books to meet your interests.

Fiction & Nonfiction

Great House

by Nicole Krauss (Norton)

If furniture could speak, what stories would it tell? Would a heavy desk with improbable drawers tell of the writer who created a handful of novels on its glossy surface? Or perhaps it would speak of the Holocaust survivor who scoured Europe for his father’s lost belongings. It may mention the Chilean poet who was lost to Pinochet’s secret police. But it may also remain stoic, silent; it may shun the past, like the wife who escaped a warravaged Germany only to remain trapped in her own regret.

In a series of interconnecting stories, Krauss’s flawed and deeply troubled characters find their fates inextricably tied to one another through the obsession with an antique desk –Leighanne


by Antonya Nelson (Bloomsbury)

Antonya Nelson’s long-awaited first novel offers everything we’ve come to expect from her short stories: outstanding writing, some unique relationships, a hefty dose of dysfunction, and plenty of haunting images. The story focuses on the merging lives of two women: Catherine, who finds herself the assigned guardian to the daughter of her long-lost, recently deceased high school friend; and Cattie, the aforementioned daughter, who is coping with not only the sudden loss of her mother, but also the usual teen angst and coming of age. Nelson, with her excellent eye for detail, deftly connects these two women who initially seem to have very little in common. –Hilary

The Lady Matador’s Hotel

by Cristina Garcia (Scribner)

The characters in Cristina Garcia’s new novel include a Japanese-Mexican-American matador, an ex-guerrilla waitress, a Korean manufacturer, an international adoption lawyer, a colonel guilty of war atrocities, and a Cuban poet, and they all cross each other’s paths in a luxury hotel in an unnamed Central American country. The country is in the midst of political upheaval. Past and present dark deeds are revealed against a violent and sensual landscape. Garcia’s book is the perfect mix of people’s common lives with politics—as much as one may hate the political, it is always present, exerting itself in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. –Greg

On Balance

by Adam Phillips (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written an intriguing series of essays on excess and desire. How do we find “balance”—that fine art of walking the tightrope of having our desire(s) without tumbling into excess. Phillips brilliantly ranges over this theme through his use of case studies and all forms of art (literary and visual), arriving at some illuminating insights along the way. The question of what is too much could in fact qualify as one of the essential questions of our existence, I think. Pick up Phillips’s book and engage in an examination of this idea. –Greg


How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press)

In this illuminating new biography, Sarah Bakewell approaches her subject in much the same way Michel de Montaigne approached the subject of his own life in his essays— that is, at a wanderer’s pace and from every direction. The result is a rich and insightful, multifaceted portrait of the influential Renaissance eccentric, not to mention a wonderfully crafted homage to the writing style he helped create. This is profound entertainment. Open up How to
, and you’ll find yourself with a remarkably curious new friend. –Matthew

The Turquoise Ledge

by Leslie Marmon Silko (Viking)

Novelist Leslie Marmon Silko’s delightful memoir invites readers to travel with her just steps outside her home in the Tucson Mountains and deep into the arroyos and foothills of the Sonoran desert. Her companions include rattlesnakes, hummingbirds, mice, and coyotes, and where others see a barren landscape, she finds a lushness and home. Even bits of the land, the turquoise, reach out to her.

To read Silko’s writing is to enter into a space in which our assumptions about time, family, relatedness, and nature are upended. The stories she tells are beautiful, haunting, and true. –Karen

How to Read the Air

by Dinaw Mengestu (Riverhead)

After Mengestu’s amazing debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, landed him on The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40,” his latest will undoubtedly uphold the reputation he’s made for himself. Jonas is the adult child of Ethiopian immigrants, a high school teacher, a husband, and a bit of a “truthstretcher.” Driven to shed light on the trauma that prevents him from understanding his past and present, he sets out to re-create a road trip his parents took from Illinois to Tennessee only months prior to his birth. With imagination and fortitude, Mengestu sinks further into reflections of identity, immigration, recovery and reconciliation, family and love. –Shannon


by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall (Soft Skull Press)

Mason Dubisee is a drunk, a cokehead, an awful poker player, and a writer who can’t get past making a list of themes, titles, and ideas to research for his novel. At the end of his rope, he takes a job as “The Dogfather,” selling hot dogs downtown. After taking a strange writing assignment from a customer, Mason finds himself off ering his services ghostwriting suicide notes. Things quickly spiral further out of control and into a desperate race to save the one that he loves, a hemiplegic heroin addict named Willy. Bishop-Stall has written an exciting, disturbing, and at times hilarious first novel. –Dylan

The World As I Found It

by Bruce Duffy (New York Review of Books)

In his astounding debut novel, Bruce Duffy has confidently and convincingly brought to life the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore. Treated with a light hand, the philosophy that looms so large in the background is brought into even sharper focus by being embedded in the earthly longings, fears, and shortcomings of these driven philosophers. Whether Duffy is describing the bruised egos involved in passionate scholarly disputes, the everyday joy and pain of love and sex, or the terror of trench warfare in World War I, the writing is pitchperfect, an absolute pleasure to read. –Casey O.


by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)

You know a novel is great when you’d rather stay at home curled up on a couch with fictional characters than venture out into the world. Franzen’s first novel since The Corrections is a tour de force: a sweeping multi-generational saga that chronicles the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund, an idealistic young couple living an ordinary life near St. Paul, Minnesota. But what happens when the ordinary no longer satisfies?

A portrait of the emotional microcosm that is family, but extending beyond the personal into the political, Freedom reads like a multilayered orchestral piece: alive with nuance and aching in its reach. –Laurie


by Patricia Engel (Black Cat)

Each story in Vida forms a more focused picture of a girl, intelligent, honest, and somewhat aimless. Sabina’s story is told through a series of nonlinear snapshots. One is an early memory of visiting relatives in Bogotá and catching bits of adult conversation: La Situación, La Violencia, and Escobar.

In “Refuge” she narrowly escapes the World Trade Center on 9/11 when she calls in sick from a hated job. The title story finds her in Florida with Davida, a fellow Colombian whose own heartbreaking experience takes center stage. Readers will find themselves wanting more. –Pamela

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

by Danielle Evans (Riverhead)

In these eight stories, Evans proves herself a deft little heartbreaker. She captures the raw vernacular of adolescence, the vulnerability it hides, and the search for grace in its brutal and clumsy fluctuations. Her characters live flush up against the confinements of their lives and are often silenced in the greater noise of the rest of the world. Still, they demand to be explored and known on their own terms. Evans’s writing style leaves nothing wasted. Haunted vets, wicked grandmothers, brutal best friends, and sexual beginnings merge to create an exciting collection of voices. –Shannon


by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

It’s the summer of 1944, and the United States is in the throes of world war. Bucky Cantor, a mild-mannered, bespectacled teacher and playground director of twenty-three, longs to join the fray, but his poor eyesight keeps him home and safe in the familiar Roth setting of Newark, New Jersey. But when a polio outbreak threatens Cantor’s neighborhood and the children that he sees every day, his life takes a disquieting turn as he’s forced to watch his neighborhood succumb to an unbeatable foe. Roth’s thirty-first novel is an unnerving trip through the fear and confusion of illness and the good intentions of men. –Casey S.

The Einstein Enigma

by José Rodrigues dos Santos (HarperCollins)

Move over, Robert Langdon. Step aside, Indiana Jones. Make way for Thomas Noronha, unassuming Portuguese cryptologist and professor of history and, who unwittingly gets drawn into—and solves—the deepest intrigues and most shadowy mysteries. In his first adventure (Codex 632), Noronha uncovers the true identity and origin of Christopher Columbus. (You thought he was from Genoa? A former silk merchant? Absurd!) But in this latest intrigue, Noronha must seek the answer to the greatest mystery of them all—against and under the CIA and Iranian secret service. Galloping adventure—and a fascinating primer on relativity, chaos, quantum, and uncertainty theory. This is great fun. –Peter

The Pages

by Murray Bail (Other Press)

Wesley Antill, deceased sibling to Roger and Lindsay, wanted to live the life of a philosopher. They supported him by allowing him to forsake farming the family land to pursue his desire. Bail writes with heightened clarity and the introspective search for truth, one’s own truth. There is a striking contrast between city and country, and Bail’s “pages” don’t give up their treasure easily, but the steadfast reader is rewarded in the richness of landscape and human relationships. –Seth

To the End of the Land

by David Grossman (Knopf)

Ora’s celebration is shortlived. Upon release from a mandatory three-year army service, her youngest son voluntarily enlists for a new military mission. Unable to live another day immobilized by the possibility of bad news from the front, Ora sets off for a hike across the country to save her son.

David Grossman, an active supporter of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, delivers an unforgettable picture of daily life in Israel and the cost of war that burdens every household and each generation. His book, a beautifully told story of a mother’s love for her son and her love for life, shows that the spiral of violence and hatred in the Middle East can be ended only through listening, restraint, and the power of words. –Hanna

Self Portraits: Fictions

by Frederic Tuten (Norton)

Inspired by the stories Tuten read to his Sicilian grandmother as a child living in the Bronx, this beautifully written collection of interrelated short stories transports us between worlds of fantasy and reality, all believable in their lush description. This collection of stories delivers a portrait of the author in many different lights as we meet repeatedly with two main characters in settings strange and familiar. With strong themes of adventure, love, and art, we journey with the author through times modern and times long ago. –Dylan

Man in the Woods

by Scott Spencer (Ecco)

The first two chapters of Scott Spencer’s book don’t seem to have much in common—we’re introduced to Will and then Paul—but by the fourth chapter, the two men meet, and with this cataclysmic event, their lives change forever. The author draws us in to a deliciously thrilling and provocative tale of guilt, faith, passion, and redemption. Is our main character a hero or a villain? Should we condemn or support him? Amid the page-turning suspense, Spencer’s exquisite writing is at the core of this excellent novel. Hmm… I envision many book clubs in this book’s future… –Hilary

Hope Beneath Our Feet

edited by Martin Keogh (North Atlantic)

In a time of environmental crisis, how can we live right now? This book pulls together answers to this question from over forty writers and activists including Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Barry Lopez, Alice Walker, and Howard Zinn. These passionate responses form a conversation about how to fight through fear and complacency and how to find solace by participating in solutions, however small they may be. The solutions offered here range from the agricultural to the spiritual, and they highlight the need for all of us to reckon with the daunting implications of global warming, first within ourselves, and then in cooperation with one another. –Casey O.

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

by Susan Casey (Doubleday)

As with The Devil’s Teeth, Casey’s newest effort combines accessible hard science with adrenaline-infused action. The Wave shows how advances in technology have allowed us to study and ride giant oceanic waves that once featured only in the nightmares of mariners. Drop in and charge these monstrous creations alongside an eclectic cast of intrepid researchers and highly skilled, driven watermen as they attempt to understand and experience them. This is a read that will pull you from your chair back to the other seventy percent of your world. Surf’s way up! –Jamie

Half Empty

by David Rakoff (Doubleday)

With his signature charm and quick wit, David Rakoff, a regular contributor to Public Radio International’s This American Life, will have you laughing out loud. A contemporary of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, Rakoff turns his distinctive observations into hilarity as he takes on popular cultural myths.

These essays, by an entertaining writer with a gifted pen, deliver a delightfully funny read with a bit of wisdom tucked in. –Seth

Bitter in the Mouth

by Monique Truong (Random House)

Truong has reworked the “Southern novel” into a fresh and worldly reflection on identity and family and what it means to belong.

Linda grew up in a world of Southern pleasantries and absurdities, lifelong best friends and family secrets. She also has synesthesia, a condition that has her “tasting” words. These “phantom” tastes accompany Linda from her ominously named hometown of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, to New York and back again. With the occasional ambush, the mysteries of her life open up.

Truong has skillfully refined seemingly disparate subject matter into a compulsive read with astonishing emotional immediacy. –Shannon


by Kim Fay (Things Asian)

As a young woman Kim Fay moved from Seattle to Vietnam to find adventure and a place to write her novel. What she found was a profoundly richer and deeper experience, much like the nearly indescribable dish banh beo, a medallion of steamed rice batter that is topped with shrimp and pork crackling. Returning to the States, she resettled in L.A. with easy access to Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. But after more than a decade “back home,” the author found herself nearly insatiably hungry for the flavors and the foods of Vietnam. So she returned to the country and sought out chefs, cooking classes, starred restaurants, roadside food carts, friends, and family to fill her hunger. What she found upon returning were not only the rich, deep flavors she craved, but also the universal experience of sharing food with those we love. A truly splendid homage to the people, places, and of course food that is Vietnam. –Holly

Madame Bovary

by Gustave Flaubert

trans. by Lydia Davis (Viking)

Lydia Davis’s exceptionally readable new translation reawakens the story of Emma Bovary, a disillusioned and unhappily married woman who finds escape in adulterous relationships. Married to the oafish doctor Charles Bovary, whose naively optimistic intentions to make his beautiful wife happy only serve to annoy her, Emma labors under the constraints of nineteenth-century French bourgeois society. Flaubert’s is an unsparing study of a downward spiral driven by romantic obsession and the reckless pursuit of material and sexual gratification.

Years since reading Madame Bovary for the first time, I have had the story and its characters somewhere in the back of my mind; now, after having read this seamless translation, the novel’s effect is indelible. –Molly


by Jennifer Donnelly (Delacorte)

In modern-day Brooklyn, Andi attends a private high school for the wealthy “boredgeois”. Wracked with guilt over the death of her little brother, anger over her father’s abandonment, and helplessness at her mother’s emotional collapse, Andi finds her only solace in music. When she discovers a two-hundred-year-old journal belonging to the companion of Louis-Charles, the lost king of France, Andi immediately feels a perplexing connection with its author.

It is 1799 and Alex is running for her life in the catacombs deep beneath the streets of Paris. The French Revolution has made enemies of brothers and paupers of royalty and has turned a young street performer into a wanted woman. In this dangerous world, will she be able to save the only life that matters? –Leighanne

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris
This review is only available online!

The premise is exactly as it sounds: Georges Perec, on a bench in a Parisian square, methodically recording everything he sees, attempting to capture “that which happens when nothing is happening.” On paper, it appears so simple. In practice, absolutely impossible. Which is precisely the point. And what makes this slim little experiment such a captivating read.

A kind of inverted companion to Life: A User’s Manual, An Attempt finds Perec once again struggling with insurmountable issues: time, place, the limits of narration, etc. Only here, instead of freezing a moment, the moments keep coming. And coming. A desperate and hilarious meditation on time. An elegant reflection of the everyday in all its complexity.-Matthew

Children’s & Young Adult

Zombies vs. Unicorns

edited by Holly Black & Justine Larbalestier (Simon & Schuster)

It is a question that has plagued mankind for untold centuries. It has caused wars, turned brother against brother, and crippled nations. Now, in this bold new anthology, a team of today’s top young adult authors tackle this age-old question: which are better, zombies or unicorns?

Though the answer to this question is largely one of opinion (zombies are better), these compelling tales may change your mind and cause you to re-think your stance on whether or not the regal unicorn is a more worthy creature than the shambling, rotting walking dead. (But seriously, zombies are way better.) –Rich


by Sara Ball and Britta Drehsen (Abbeville)

Did you know a trisaucephalus has horns on its head, is cooled in the heat by plates on its back, and can break the bones of a predator with its tail-club? Or that a stegocerarex eats grass and leaves, has hooflike toenails on its padded feet, and is able to keep its balance when running with its long, strong tail? These and hundreds more imaginary dinosaurs can be created by turning the flaps of this hands-on book. Sturdy pages mean that even the youngest paleontologist can create and learn about dinosaurs. –Holly


by Hervé Bouchard

illus. by Janice Nadeau (Groundwood Books)

Originally published in French by Montreal publisher Les Éditions de la Pastèque, Harvey was Canada’s 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award winner of both the text and illustration categories of children’s literature awarded by the Canada Council for the Arts. It is easy to see why. Bouchard brings us into the world of the brothers Bouillon and the confusion and trauma they experience after losing their father to a heart attack. With muted colors and sparse illustration, Nadeau does a beautiful job of matching the childlike, simplistic tone set by Bouchard in this heartbreaking journey through the experience of loss. –Dylan

13 Words

by Lemony Snicket

illus. by Maira Kalman (HarperCollins)

Arranged around thirteen delicious words, this is the story of a DESPONDENT bird and a devoted dog that will do anything to cheer her up. Will CAKE do the trick? A trip to a HABERDASHERY for a hat with PANACHE? More CAKE and a song by a MEZZO SOPRANO?

Lemony Snicket brings his trademark off beat vision to the world of picture books in this charming tale about friendship, and the pairing with illustrator Maira Kalman is a match made in heaven. (Only Kalman would place a can of mushy peas and a book by Kafka on the sad bird’s table.) A whimsical delight! –Laurie

Dog Loves Books

by Louise Yates (Knopf)

Dog loves books so much that he decides it’s time to open his very own bookstore. Since business is a little slow at first, he spends his time reading all the books. As he reads, he finds himself caught up in adventure after adventure, and time passes quickly. When Dog finally does have a customer, he knows exactly which books to recommend, and he also discovers that as much as he loves books, he enjoys sharing them even more. This is one of those stories that conveys the joys of reading and sharing a good book. –Tracy

Everything but the Horse

by Holly Hobbie (Little, Brown)

The author of the popular Toot & Puddle series re-creates a time when her family moved to an old farm, complete with animals, pastures, and a barn. Lovely watercolors capture the emotions of childhood, a young girl’s gradual appreciation for her country home, and her growing fascination with the horses she sees being ridden on nearby roads.

An overwhelming yearning for a horse of her own is expressed in a newly discovered love for artwork, and by her frequently worn cowgirl shirt. After enjoying the unexpected surprise Holly receives in the end, you’ll be inspired to reread, and savor, the details of this enchanting picture book. –Erica


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