Memoir: The Subtle Fibers of Life

by Casey O’Neil


Who is entitled to write his reminiscences?
          Because no one is obliged to read them.
          In order to write one’s reminiscences it is not at all necessary to be a great man, nor a notorious criminal, nor a celebrated artist, nor a statesman—it is quite enough to be simply a human being, to have something to tell, and not merely the desire to tell it but at least have some little ability to do so.
          Every life is interesting; if not the personality, then the environment, the country are interesting. Man likes to enter into another existence, he likes to touch the subtlest fibres of another’s heart, and to listen to its beating…he compares, he checks it by his own, he seeks for himself confirmation, sympathy, justification…

—Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts

Love's WorkI found this passage quoted in Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work, one of the most original and affecting memoirs I’ve ever read. It is a philosopher’s account of the surprising moments and relationships by which she measured her life, made more urgent by the fact that she was dying of cancer. “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not,” is the book’s epigraph, and Rose so vividly embodies the latter half of that admonition that the book left me feeling lighter, touched by an unsentimental and indestructible hope. “Surgeons are not qualified,” she tells us, “for the one thing with which they deal: life. For they do not understand, as part of their profession, ‘death,’ in the non-medical sense, nor therefore ‘life’ in the meaningful sense, inclusive of death.” She knows what she’s talking about, and she has given us the beating heart of a meaningful life in a book I will be rereading as long as I’m alive.


…I got drunk at a Christmas party. Afterward, imagining that I’d been insulted by the various people I’d insulted there, I started crying angrily in the backseat of my car. A friend was driving. He asked me what was wrong, and I felt the need for a better explanation than the real one, whatever the real one was. My friend knew I’d been in Vietnam. “Did you ever kill anyone, buddy?” I said.
          “No,” he said. “Did you?”
          “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Tracy Kidder, My Detachment

My DetachmentAs a second-lieutenant in Vietnam, Tracy Kidder (author of Mountains Beyond Mountains) ran a small rear echelon unit involved in communications intelligence—a job that involved no combat and no killing. In letters home he played the part of the soldier he wished he was—battle hardened, wise, and humane—but the reality was much different. When one of his own men threatened to kill him, Kidder quietly muttered his tough reply only after the soldier was out of earshot. In Good Prose, his book about the craft of nonfiction, Kidder describes how his memoir couldn’t work until he fully inhabited its most embarrassing and least heroic moments. My Detachment is the result, a powerful and often funny memoir of a young man who, having wandered into a disturbing and complex situation, found himself unsure of who he was and wishing he was someone else—something I relate to more than I might like to admit.


I tried another scheme. I approached my nemesis, who was smoking his pipe near the convenience store, and offered to pay him to fly to the moon and stay there until my work was done. I was told by three different people that this particular angakok was quite capable of flying to the moon.
          He jammed his thumbs up into my nostrils and pushed me so hard that I stumbled backwards. This was shockingly painful. I took this to mean that my request had been denied…

Howard Norman, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place

I Hate To Leave This Beautiful PlaceI Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place obliterates the distinction between strange and normal, so by the time the Inuit shaman makes his appearance above, his thumbs-up-the-nose maneuver feels almost natural. This is a memoir of the unexpected, perfectly rendering those moments in life that feel impossible to explain. In the process of breathing life into his various experiences—working in a bookmobile, translating native folktales at the earth’s northern edge, inviting an old anti-Semite to jump out a hotel window—Howard Norman gives us a sense of who he is. Awake to life’s amazing and alarming symmetries, he doesn’t make the connections for us, preferring instead to let events speak for themselves. He knows that the best memoirs are actually mysteries—as strange and contradictory as our actual lives, too disturbing and unbelievable and beautiful for us to know exactly what they mean.


My Dirty Little Bookseller Secret

by Holly Myers

Pippi LongstockingRemember that book compiled by Frank Warren, Postsecret, in which ordinary people confessed the extraordinary? My confession? I re-read. My dirty little bookseller secret. And like all the kids who have re-read Harry Potter nineteen-thousand times, my re-reading actually started when I was in the fourth grade.

We read Pippi Longstocking that winter just before holiday break. I loved the tale of the stiff-braided wondergirl with her long name and daring sensibilities. Once we had finished reading it as a class, I promptly re-read it myself over school break. I remember reading it by the light of my cheesy string of Christmas lights.

I made it a tradition and re-read all of Pippi every year through junior high. I suppose that also explains why I think of Pippi as a Christmas title.

Re-reading is like craving comfort food. When life takes an unexpected turn there is great solace to be found in mac and cheese or re-entering a beloved land.

The Eyre AffairDandelion WineAs an adult I am completely unashamed to admit that Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series is one I have re-read several times. Whenever my reality gets too much — more bills than cash, cat vomit, online book retailers — this series which stars the intrepid literary detective Thursday Next is truly a balm for my soul.

In Fforde’s alternate universe, literary questions spark all manner of crimes that are dealt with by the likes of Thursday and her peers, LiteraTecs in Spec Ops 27. Even after several re-reads, I am still dazzled by Fforde’s astonishing wit, which is aimed straight at the heart of a booklover.

When I really need escape, when my very world is threatened by global warming, poverty, and war, I do in fact seek for me the ultimate in comfort in Ray Bradbury’s classic Dandelion Wine. For me when I need to wrap myself in an unconditional cloak of innocence I will re-read the chapter on new tennis shoes. Bradbury’s lyric stream-of-consciousness writing depicts faultlessly the purity of childhood as our hero Douglas Spaulding yearns for new tennis shoes.

I’ll keep reaching for an occasional serving of meatloaf and certain books to help me through rough patches, but neither will be the sole source to feed me.

Sundays In: Cinema-Scope

by Dave Wheeler

The People In The TreesNot-so-secretly, I’m a curmudgeon. I ignore most fads, like Angry Birds and Mad Men. I roll my eyes at things like VMAs. I don’t like going out on Saturday nights; I prefer to sit in my dark living room with a couple ounces of bourbon, wearing slippers and criticizing SNL like the cranky old queen I am, deep down inside.

Much of my (admittedly arbitrary) disdain gets directed at movies, though. I wholly identify with Freddie Mercury’s litany in the ultimate freewheeling rock song “Bicycle Race”:

Jaws was never my scene
and I don’t like Star Wars

I don’t believe in Peter Pan
Frankenstein or Superman

Faugh! The Movies — they cost so much, and they’re often so disappointing. I suppose I try to like them. I have favorite movies — Exhibit A: Mean Girls; Exhibit B: White Christmas, year-round — but, honestly, I just don’t care enough. Probably because lots of major studios themselves seem tired of The Movies.

And yet, I still consider the term “cinematic” as one of the highest praises a book can receive. Why? Because I’m contrary.

Sure, but also because it implies readers might become so absorbed in the book’s events, they might as well be watching every person, every movement, every bit of dialog playing out ten feet in front of them. In the flesh, or close to it. You know, what movies are supposed to achieve.

Lots of really good books don’t even achieve this, though. It’s a rare thing, like some undiscovered tropical bird, so when you find one, the sense of elation can be overwhelming.

This happened to me with Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel, The People In The Trees. Like Indiana Jones, Congo, and Lost, it drives you into the most peculiar corners of the jungle so that you can witness something fascinating. Mind-bending, even.

Here, people are living two, three, and four times any reasonable human lifespan.

Yanagihara’s jungle, on a tiny Micronesian island, is alive. You can feel the thick, humid air. You can see the millions of leaves on thousands of uncharted plant species, the fur tufts on hundreds of undocumented animal species. And in this jungle, the indigenous tribe that lives there worships a trinity of sky god and sea god and turtle god, with turtles from an inland body of water sacrificed and eaten in a very special rite of passage to praise this communion. But tribe members who partake in this rite eventually fall out of the tribe’s good graces.

Dr. Norton Perina monitors all this intrigue with two scientific colleagues who seem to become more adversarial the closer he works with them. Norton himself proves to be a perfectly bitchy narrator, writing his memoirs with all the wanton indignation of a Jessica Walter character after receiving the Nobel Prize for his discoveries on the island. An international treasure, Perina, however, is compromised by allegations of child abuse later in his life.

It’s a testament to Yanagihara’s tremendous narrative powers how she infuses this anti-hero with the kind of magnificent wit and magnetic charm necessary to draw readers into his ethical faults and moral nightmares, all the while achieving the kind of spellbinding, (here it comes!) cinematic story you won’t know how to quit.

In fact, the night I turned the last page of The People In The Trees I was thoroughly spooked. Tingling hairs rose on the back of my neck — kind of the way they do any time I watch The Ring, the credits roll, and the time comes to finally shut off the TV. I wasn’t about to fall asleep, even though it was well past midnight. But I’m certain what gave me the jitters was not the vast mystery of the jungle, nor its people. No, the scientist in his laboratory was infinitely more ominous.

Sundays In: Nobody Likes Clip Shows, Dave

by Dave Wheeler

photo by ST Katz
photo by ST Katz

Last year I started out on this venture. It seemed reasonable enough: Blog every two weeks about what I’ve been reading, what I’ve been thinking of while I’ve been reading. Nothing fancy, nothing particularly erudite or mind-blowing or life-changing, just a journal, from one reader to others.

Well, I’ve arrived at the year marker, and I have to say it’s a lot of fun! Most of the time I can recall only as much of what I read as what I eat, but it’s nice to be able to look back and see the kinds of things I read in the last twelve months. And what a year it’s been! Such highs, such lows: We celebrated the big four-oh. The Orphan Master’s Son won the Pulitzer (tragically, at the exact moment the world was learning of the Boston Marathon bombings). Hurricane Sandy hit our friends on the East CoastI met Chuck Palahniuk, and I fell in love with Alex Dimitrov. If you don’t keep a record of what you read, you might enjoy trying for a while; it’s amazing to look back on sometimes.

When I peer back on the beginning of this blog series, though, I’m reminded that one of my most cherished authors is at the center of that initial post: David Rakoff. He passed precisely one year ago from an ongoing and very public battle with cancer, taking whatever slot I’d reserved for Celebrity Death That Most Impacted My Life.

Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish, RakoffBut I’m happy to say that, just before entering that great, big public radio in the sky, Rakoff finished writing his final book. The improbably titled and thoroughly magnificent Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is his sole book of fiction and a slender epic in verse. The whole story is written in iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets (because, what the hell, right?), paired with illustrations by Seth, all bound into a gorgeous artifact designed by Chip Kidd.

I love this book. It’s not only a stunning work of fiction, of poetry, of art, but it’s also one of so few books that I want to read aloud. Always. Like I never want to stop reading it aloud, so I can always feel the rhythm and rhymes and be swept away in the magic of it all. It’s like a Broadway musical for readers.

But the magic doesn’t end there, and you should listen close to this: I have one (1), beautifully illustrated, limited edition, 8.5 x 11”, letterpress broadside with an excerpt from Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish to give away (courtesy of Rakoff’s publisher) to whoever writes the best rhyming couplet about David Rakoff. (Iambic pentameter not necessary. “Best” is defined solely as “Dave’s favorite.”) Email your name and couplet to before 11pm (PST) on 8/24/13, for your chance to win. The winner will be announced on or around September 1.

In the meantime, we’ve got lots of Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish in stock. Happy reading!

Win this! (courtesy of Doubleday)
Win this! (courtesy of Doubleday)

UPDATE: We have a winner! Congratulations to Susan H., who sent in this supremely poignant couplet:

I miss David Rakoff, who left us to soon
His art and his writing were never jejune

Thanks, Susan. And enjoy your broadside!

Sundays In: A Sitting

Punk Is A Moving Target

by Dave Wheeler

Sometimes I’ll read a whole book in a sitting. Granted, many of these instances have occurred on transcontinental flights, but not always. If it’s gripping enough, or if it’s slim enough, I can devour something in mere hours.

Maybe it’s impressive. Probably it’s annoying, too, for me to make a claim like that. We don’t all have that kind of time or attention span. But like Justus says, it’s a bookseller’s superpower!

But it’s never really about getting through a book for me. I’m more concerned with what I’m getting out of the book, and sometimes you have to take it all at once for it to work right. Like half-shell oysters. Or tequila shots.

That’s my running theory, anyway.

But I’m sure you know what I mean. There’s sometimes that feeling that if you set the book down for even a moment, the spell will be broken and you’ll never return to it. Sometimes the enchantment is that fragile — not weak, not because the book is “bad” — it’s delicate. A lot of beautiful things I can think of are delicate: snowflakes, lace, stained glass. And there are books I could list among those. Saul Bellow’s The Actual, for one. Or John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.

Other things are specifically designed to be read in a single sitting, too, though. Many of the zines we carry are exactly that! Guillotine Press has been issuing some of the most delightful works of cultural criticism, with stunningly laid-out little pamphlets like Troubleshooting Silence in Arizona (Bojan Louis) and most recently Punk (Mimi Thi Nguyen & Golnar Nikpour).

The press is run by Sarah McCarry, whom you may know better as The Rejectionist. Incisive and provocative, Guillotine, I’d say, is putting out some of the best zines on the market. Each packs a wallop — intricately constructed (frequently collaborative) essays on violence, women’s health, racial and other prejudices, and more! — while gracious enough to readers not to add physical heft to already heavy subjects.

I like reading a whole work at once every now and then. Segmented reading feels like living inside the author’s mind for a long period, but single-sitting reading feels more like viewing the subject from above. Appreciating the story entirely. Full-immersion, which I’ve heard is the best way to learn a new language; in fact, I’m not convinced the two are all that different.

So, I wonder, what have you enjoyed reading all at once, beginning to end?

Sundays In: Word of Mouth

by @daviewheeler

For most things, Twitter is my new word of mouth. Most pop culture I obsess over now initially came to me by way of Twitter — The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, Scandal, Janelle Monáe’s infectious, formidable collaboration with Erykah Badu, “Q.U.E.E.N.” — and sure, for the most part it also serves as my initial source of news. You know, foreign affairs, domestic affairs, polls and politics — grown-up stuff.

I do look into issues further, though. Develop my own opinion. Etc. It takes more than a #trendingtopic to throw me headlong into some kind of obsessive whirlwind. I have standards. For example, I held back from the internet’s Scandal fervor until I eavesdropped on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie dishing her favorite parts of the show to folks in the signing line at our event with her last month. (I love an acclaimed writer who can talk some serious television with her readers.)

So as much as I love a good recommendation from Twitter, I tend to value the personable touch of good old-fashioned word of mouth. Person to person. With the kind of intentionality that shows you someone thought long and hard about what they’re suggesting you watch or read or listen to. Because you’re you. Not a “follower.”

Back in the spring, my friends (and alma mater) Village Books hosted an event called Bedtime Stories For Grown-Ups, with Portland authors Chuck Palahniuk, Chelsea Cain, and Monica Drake.

Here I am embracing Mr. Palahniuk.

I wasn’t there, but I got a text from my friend Jess Tholmer, saying something like, “OMG!! I’m in the same room as Chuck Palahniuk! Anything you want me to tell him?” Probably because she knew I’d read everything he’d written from Fight Club to Pygmy.

I replied, “Tell him I loved Invisible Monsters!!” Because I did. Still do.

So a couple weeks ago, when I was at an event with Mr. Palahniuk, I got in touch with my friend Jess again. “Anything you want me to tell him?” (It’s fun being friends, being each other’s courier of love and admiration to celebrities.)

“Tell him I loved The Stud Book!” I knew the one. It’s a novel with bunnies all over the cover. It’s about babies and motherhood and desire to be a mother. (So, you can imagine, I was really pretty hesitant to go “all the way” with it.) Monica Drake wrote it; Chuck Palahniuk blurbed it. So did Chelsea Cain. A lot of Bedtime Stories For Grown-Ups was to promote Drake’s new book, and it sounded like Chuck was doing a great deal of championing for The Stud Book.

The Stud Book“It’s hilarious! You should read it, too.” Jess told me. And of course I’m liable to do exactly as she says when it comes to funny things, because Jess is a regular and very popular contributor to the pop culture and humor site HelloGiggles. Need I say more?

It didn’t hurt that when I told Chuck Palahniuk all this, he grinned and praised Monica Drake’s work, up and down and up again. The value of a novelist who makes people laugh!

I caved.

This week I read The Stud Book and laughed and laughed. Sometimes it hurt; parenting ain’t a picnic and neither is pregnancy. Babies terrify me (as anyone who knows me can attest), but from what I gathered from Drake’s superlative novel, they terrify just about every single person on the planet. Just in different ways. Funny ways. Really, really insane ways.

It was an unlikely book for me to enjoy, and maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much. Everything came as a surprise. And surprise is essential to comedy. (Aisha Tyler said as much at our event with her at Town Hall. We do a lot of events. You’d probably like them.)

But surprise is also essential for readers. We’re not going to learn a bunch of new stuff if we read only the stuff that makes us comfortable. So we keep our ear to the ground — or to The Cloud, if you will — for word of mouth, for what other people are enjoying, especially the ones who’ve proven they deserve a great deal of sway in our lives.

And I won’t rule out Twitter. Because as I recall, I was tweeting with Jess when she told me to read The Stud Book. And when I told her how much I loved it!

Sundays In: A City That Reads

by Dave Wheeler

40th Anniversary party
40th Anniversary party, photo by ST Katz

The past week has been one flabbergasting public display of affection after another! We here at Elliott Bay Book Company just celebrated our 40th anniversary, with the sort of community hullabaloo that I suppose usually goes along with these sorts of epic milestones. It’s just I’ve never had the privilege of being on this side of the adoration.

Truth be told, I haven’t been with Elliott Bay but three years now — I’ve been in books about twice as long though! — so it’s astounding to me the kind of love Seattle readers dole out to us. Reading Mary Ann Gwinn’s feature in the Seattle Times, and then Kristianne Huntsberger highlighting us on NW Book Lovers. Then of course the love coming through on Twitter and Facebook. Oh, darling! the wonderful, wonderful words.

There were the floral arrangements. The greeting cards. The cupcakes. The tremendous turnout for our special reading with Jim Lynch, Maria Semple, and Ryan Boudinot — commemorating Seattle’s past, present, and future!

In a way, this is me saying thank you for celebrating with us something I only feel I’ve begun to take part in.

It’s not a role I take lightly but one I take much joy in. Just this week, while celebrating America’s 237th anniversary, my boyfriend and I were settling in to watch fireworks from a friend’s deck in Fremont. Loads of people were there, eating, drinking, carrying on, and wrapping up in fleeces. We were making small talk with a woman who asked where I work, and when I told her, she slapped her knee and said, “I thought you looked familiar! We’re in there all the time!

The Book Was BetterThen, Friday morning, bleary-eyed and in serious need of espresso, I walked into my local Top Pot, where the guy slinging doughnuts leaned over the counter to read my t-shirt. (It’s a chic, fitted, cranberry number with Gandalf, Dorothy, and Frankenstein’s monster screen-printed above the phrase “The book was better” — courtesy of Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, AZ.) Doughnut Guy got a serious kick out of it before raving hard about his recent goal of rereading all his favorite books made into movies. We chatted a bit about Stephen King’s The Dead Zone before he apologized for babbling and took my order.

That’s when I told him where I work and suggested he could come find me any time to rave about books, because, really, I don’t get tired of it. I certainly haven’t read everything (though I have read The Dead Zone, and quite enjoyed it), but I love to listen. I love hearing what you’re reading at least as much as I love telling you what I’m reading.

Doughnut Guy, you make me love my job! Fireworks Friend, you make me love my job! So I know that I’m where I’m supposed to be, in a bookstore in a city where people love to read. And what’s even better, I learned this week, during a whirlwind of anniversary festivities, just how much you all love reading with us!