Thoreau and the Neighborhood Bookstore: Interviewing Laura Dassow Walls

For many reasons, I’ve always considered Island Books to be a quintessentially Thoreauvian spot. In part it’s the old cedar shelves that make me think so and in part it’s because this is a place where you can use an adjective like Thoreauvian without getting funny looks. You can march through our doors to the beat of a different drummer and find something to read that will encourage you to live deliberately and front only the essential facts of life. You can enjoy hours of solitary contemplation here as Henry David Thoreau did in the woods, and you can also socialize as he did in his hometown:

Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.

Maybe that should be our new slogan—”Island Books: As Refreshing as the Rustle of Leaves and the Peeping of Frogs.” Or maybe not.

Updated catchphrase or no, when I saw last summer that a definitive new biography of Henry David Thoreau had been published by the University of Chicago Press, I knew we needed to stock it. After it arrived and I opened it up, I knew instantly I wanted to read it. “Everyone who comes to Thoreau has a story,” the preface begins. “Mine begins in a neighborhood bookstore where I pulled a book off the shelf simply because it was small and green …” The reviewers loved it, too. It was a New York Times Notable Book for 2017 and the Wall Street Journal named it one of the ten best books of the year.

Months later, we were visited by an Alaskan couple who’d made a special trip to Mercer Island during their annual vacation in the Seattle area. They asked if we had the book. Of course we did. They asked if we knew the book. Of course we did. They asked if we’d read the acknowledgments in the back. Of course we … say again? And there on the final pages we read about the “very long journey” that led Laura Dassow Walls to write her biography, one that began on the day she “walked into Island Books, on Mercer Island, Washington, and found Walden on its shelves.” It was a great honor to discover that our Thoreau connection is solid and we really can call ourselves Walden Pond West ... continued

James Crossley Expands His Horizons

The Island Books blog started back in the fall of 2011. James Crossley and I were the original contributors, and over the last 7 years we’ve written enough of these entries to fill a book. We’ve bounced ideas off each other, edited each others’ work, discussed countless books, competed over our reading lists, covered for each other during vacations (his) and pregnancies (mine–his kids are older so he has more fun), moderated author events (here we are hanging with Nancy Pearl), and drank a fair amount of coffee, soda, and liquor to keep this thing going. Along the way I’ve learned a good deal from James, including many ways to be a better writer and how the proper use of “good grief” in an email is enough to make me laugh loud enough to make the children come running. I’ve enjoyed reading and editing his work more than I can say. His First Line Friday columns, our conversations about the books we could actually manage to read simultaneously, like Chocolate for BreakfastH is for Hawk, or When Breath Becomes Airand yakking about our annual reading resolutions were some of my favorites.

But enough about me. As Laurie mentioned in the last newsletter, James will be leaving the Island Books team this month ... continued

September 2018 eNewsletter

"Sleep is good," he said. 'And books are better."
—George R.R. Martin

September came quickly this year. My house is practically empty with two kids gone and two trying to squeeze in every last bit of summer. As the days end, I still love sitting on the deck to read, trying to get my last moments in too.

At Island Books we try to keep it fun, even as fall sets in and life demands more serious endeavors. During September we are proud to be major sponsors of two local events. This Thursday we will be attending Novels and Notables at McCaw Hall, featuring Nancy Pearl, Tom Douglas, Angela Garbes and Dave Sims. On Friday the 9th, the annual Mercer Island Art Uncorked event will take place featuring fun, food, music art and wine.

September also means back to school. Victor and I have two of our kids back at college and both of our younger two are full-on high schoolers. Even Miriam's bookstore twins are going to kindergarten! Its been fun to watch our younger Island Books friends come in and share with us how excited they are to start school. We've been selling many August-to-August planners to keep kids and parents organized and a variety of journals, pencils, and pencil pouches for everyone else. 

Also on the agenda: Island Books will turn 45 this fall! In the spirit of keeping it fun, we have plans to celebrate in a big way. On September 17th, we'll begin our 45 Days Until 45 Years, which means every day for 45 days leading up to our birthday on November 1st we'll have a special deal or happening at Island Books. Look for details on our Facebook page, website, and in the store.

On both a sad (for us) and exciting front, James Crossley, one of our shared voices of the blog, bookseller extraordinaire, and lover of all books and people who enjoy them, will be leaving the Island Books team this month. He has an amazing opportunity too good to pass up as the general manager of the new Madison Park Books opening up this fall. While we are feeling sorry for ourselves, because let’s be honest we have taken our share of losses this year, we are thrilled for him and the community of Madison Park. James, we're wishing you the best and please know you'll be greatly missed. 

Is that a school bell I hear ringing in the distance? As it calls you towards responsibilities and busier schedules, remember we're always here to remind you: keep it fun.

Laurie Raisys


The Lost Painting of Betty Smith

To make a case for the tangible and ineffable value of art, I was going to bring up Gustav Klimt and his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Painted in 1907, stolen by the Nazis in 1941, and eventually returned to the family of the original owners, it has a tantalizing provenance to match its glittering surface. It’s inspired novels (Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese), histories (The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor), and even children’s books (Adorable Adele by Peter Stephan Jungk). More tangibly, it set a record in 2006 when it sold at auction for an astonishing 135 million dollars (almost $47K/square inch). But then I remembered that another painting, da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, sold last year for 450 million dollars. So however valuable I was going to claim art is, triple it and round up.

The point is that if you’re writing a book and aiming to make it interesting, include a painting or two ... continued

Fall Book Preview 2018

It was a tough year for journalists with the rise of fake news, presidential name-calling, layoffs, and increasing threats worldwide. Authors, on the other hand, wrote from a safer position. They had the luxury of hiding longer in their offices. Writers and editors had a better chance of stepping back from the brutal news cycle and taking the longer view. 

That time to breathe was a good thing. The book publishing industry’s deeper immersion in its work will be on full display this fall, which promises to be a good one for book junkies. From political exposés to psychological suspense to locally-inspired cookbooks to iconic memoirs, I’m not exaggerating when I tell you our fall tables will be a reader’s feast. Here’s a small sliver of what’s coming, and a few special preorder perks you’ll want to know about ... continued

Washington State Book Awards

It’s always a pleasure to see the list of finalists for the annual Washington State Book Awards, not least because the judges are some of our favorite people, local booksellers and librarians. We especially wanted to take note of this slate of books, though, since so many of their authors have spent time at Island Books during the past year.

Laurie Frankel visited us to share This Is How it Always Is, a book we chose for our Best of the Year list and also added to our Open Book Club rotation ...

Another finalist in the fiction category is Elise Hooper, who spoke to the Mercer Island Woman’s Club Luncheon about her historical novel The Other Alcott ...

Legendary librarian and advocate for literacy Nancy Pearl was yet another island visitor. Long a favorite of ours for her astute book recommendations, this year she became a first-time novelist via George & Lizzie ...

The Washington Center for the Book didn’t forget about our favorite writers for children when the finalists were named. In the middle-grade category we find J. Anderson Coats and The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming ...

More local connections are made in Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball, another historical tale based on truth ... continued

Open Book Club Preview

Whether you’re already a participant in our Open Book Club or toying with the idea of giving it a try, take a look at what we’ll be reading in the next few months. (We won’t be offended if you borrow these choices for your private book clubs either–they’re good picks!) We come together on the last Thursday of every month at 7:30pm and the staff chooses both fiction and nonfiction titles. Anyone is welcome to attend, and if you purchase your book here in the store you’ll always get a 10% discount. You can also join our Facebook group and chat about what we’re reading in between meetings. 

Us&Them by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani (August 30th): James had strong opinions about this book and it’s his pick, so he will be taking over as moderator at this discussion. Lili and Goli have argued endlessly about where their mother, Bibijan, should live since the Iranian Revolution. They disagree about her finances too, which remain blocked as long as she insists on waiting for her son–still missing but not presumed dead yet–to return from the Iran-Iraq war. But once they begin to “share” the old woman, sending her back and forth between Paris and Los Angeles, they start asking themselves where the money might be coming from. Only their Persian half-sister in Iran and the Westernized granddaughter of the family have the courage to face up to the answers, and only when Bibijan finally relinquishes the past can she remember the truth ... continued

August 2018 eNewsletter

"Reading makes immigrants of us all.
It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere." 

—Jean Rhys

We've been busy making memories this summer and despite the heat, marching in the Summer Celebration parade was a good one. It was the first time Island Books walked as a team. I could feel our community connection stronger than ever as we handed out books to happy faces along the way. We're always looking for new ways to strengthen our bond with you and what better way than to put books in those many outstretched hands.

Another high point (and temperature!) in July was our cookout with the Seattle7Writers. We raised $600 to donate to Team Read, a nonprofit organization that pairs struggling young readers with trained teen reading coaches for one-on-one tutoring after school and during the summer. Thank you to the Seattle7Writers, Team Read, and our community for making it happen. We mingled with some of our favorite local authors including Jim Lynch, Bridget Foley, Dori Butler, Robert Dugoni, J. Anderson Coates, and Clare Meeker and ate hot dogs grilled by Garth Stein himself. Garth also contributed an entertaining Q&A to our blog beforehand.

August is sleepy as people leave the island for vacations and to head back to school (mine left this week). Now is when we head to the gift show to buy for book fairs and the holidays. We plot our events and activities for the fall and it makes the year seem over all too quickly.

Ben Malcolmson is our first event of August (6:30pm tonight!) and what a way to kick it off. Come hear his inspirational story about hope, strength, and not always following the path you thought was yours.

Laurie Raisys

... continued

A Q&A With Garth Stein, Bestselling Author and Upcoming Island Books Grill Master

On Sunday, July 29th from 4-6pm, the remarkable Seattle7Writers are coming to Island Books! They’re a nonprofit collective of Pacific Northwest authors whose mission is to support literacy and the literary arts in the community. They’ve also done a tremendous job making connections between writers, readers, independent booksellers, and libraries.  Bestselling author Garth Stein will be on hand as our grill master with other S7W members serving up drinks and other sides. The first 50 customers to shop in the store that day will receive a Seattle7Writers tote, and you can also enter our raffle for a bag of signed books by the Seattle7. You’ll definitely want to stop by for a hot dog, meet authors, and pick up summer reads.

Along with Garth Stein, there will be a crowd of great authors including Jim Lynch, Bridget Foley, Dori Butler, Robert Dugoni, J. Anderson Coates, and Clare Meeker. During the event, 20% of all book sales will benefit Team Read, a nonprofit organization that pairs struggling young readers with trained teen reading coaches for one-on-one tutoring after school and during the summer.

To get everyone fired up for the party, we asked Garth a few questions. Read on for his book recommendations, grilling tips, and a funny story about Tim Egan’s missing car keys ... continued

Q&A with Michiko Kakutani

For decades the publishers of every book released in the US asked themselves the same question: “What will Michiko Kakutani think?” She started as a critic for the New York Times in 1983 and quickly became the leading arbiter of literary quality in print. She made no attempt to cultivate a public persona outside of her columns, but the opinions she expressed therein were so confident and clear that her authority was unquestioned. At least one writer referred to her as “the voice of God” and she won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1998. More importantly, readers outside the industry responded in the same way, trusting her judgment about authors and turning her favorites into their own.

When the announcement came last year that Kakutani was retiring from her role at the Times, the consensus reaction was one of shock. But she had in recent years grown more and more interested in political and cultural movements that encompass a world wider than literature. She shares snippets from her highly active mind on Twitter (@michikokakutani) and Instagram (@michi_kakutani) and has signed a multi-volume contract with Tim Duggan Books, so her compelling voice will continue to be heard.

Ms. Kakutani was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions about her new book The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, out this week, and on other subjects. Even better, she shared with us an exclusive list of the greatest writing from or about the Northwest ... continued


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