The Shelf Life


Happy Miranda July Day!

posted on January 13, 2015 at 1:49 am by Blog Archive

I may lose some credibility with this admission, but I’ve read enough books to not be too embarrassed to say which ones I haven’t read.  That long list includes Thomas Pynchon (I’ll get to Miranda July in a sec).


Yesterday I saw Painherent viceul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, a film that, while definitely not for everyone, might be funnier, more thought-provoking and delightful than expected.  I left the theater in a state of giddy bliss, and my friends and I walked down the street recalling scene after strange scene in that can’t-get-enough way that meant we’d just seen something great.  At dinner, we talked about the value of reading “difficult books” like Gravity’s Rainbow, that marathon novel which falls into the same category (perhaps only for people who haven’t read it) as Infinite Jest.  As someone who reads primarily for ideas and a good plot, and doesn’t get much satisfaction from following the thread of a three-page sentence, I don’t lose sleep over not having read the hard books.  The downside of this perspective is that I often pass by these authors altogether.


I’m going to work backwards this time: book-to-movie adaptations rarely inspire me to read the source material, but I’m excited to jump into Pynchon.  I think I’ll start with The Crying of Lot 49.


If unhinged characters are as important to you as they are to me, you must get yourself a copy of The First Bad Man by Miranda July, a novel I reviewed here previously.  It hits our shelves today, finally!


Seeing Inherent Vice and anticipating the release of this book got me thinking: if July wasn’t already a wonderful director in her own right, I would want P. T. Anderson to adapt her novel.  Amidst all the layers of cringe-worthy oversharing, character neuroses that make Woody Allen look like Steven Spielberg, and a persistent sense of being inside the mind of a deeply unstable (if sweet) outsider, there are some interesting similarities.  July’s protagonist, Cheryl Glickman, is a frumpy, passive, middle-aged hippie with a stunning interior life.  She is a character you have never read before, not even close.  Like Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant portrayal of Doc, you won’t be able to help being repulsed and enchanted in equal measure, overwhelmed by the abundance of humanity on display.


July’s novel has a focused and intimate scope.  On screen, its setting would be limited to dim and dingy rooms and hallways.  In both Inherent Vice and The First Bad Man, bodies are rendered in grotesque, R. Crumb-esque detail. Dirty bare feet are pungent repeated symbols of…what, exactly?  Honesty and brutishness?  It doesn’t really matter.  And that’s the thing about a good story– whether it be a stream-of-consciousness, deconstructed mystery, or a late coming-of-age tale about a woman in her forties– if it hits you right, it doesn’t matter what the truth is, or what really happens.  These stories make me feel like other people get it, and they’re making great art about whatever it is.  That makes me happy, dudes!


Narrow Road to the Deep North

posted on September 24, 2014 at 3:29 pm by Elizabeth

Hours before his latest novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, Richard Flanagan read at the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library. University Book Store was there. After the reading, during the Q&A, Flanagan lamented the dearth of a distinctly Australian literary culture in the 1970s when he was growing up. Studying British and American works exclusively, he said, reinforced a colonized mindset. “You felt less than,” he explained, bringing to mind similar statements that writers in ethnic or racial minorities have made about the literary “canon” in U.S. schools. How wonderful for Flanagan–and Australia–is the Man Booker nomination!

A prescient work twelve years in the writing, The Narrow Road to the Deep North reflects an historiographical sea change that is bringing to light the full extent of Japanese war crimes, debunking the notion of the heroic soldier in World War II, and refuting the notion that Americans won the war all by ourselves. In searing, excruciating detail, Narrow Road animates the physical, emotional, and spiritual dehumanization wrought on the Thai-Burma death railway.

The book’s eponymous title is an homage to a haibun by the Japanese monk and poet Matsuo Basho* (1644 – 1694); the text, to Flanagan’s father, Archie, who fought for Australia and was captured and enslaved on the railway. For prisoner san byaku san jū go (335), the dedication says. This is not a book to read casually–or remotely close to bed time. In a devastating postwar scene that lingers in my mind, a Japanese veteran with blood on his hands reveals a leading philanthropist and physician as having directed research in “vivisection and many other things. Testing biological weapons on prisoners . . .

“. . . Today,” the veteran continues, “Mr. Naito is a well-respected figure. And why? Because neither our government nor the Americans want to dig up the past. The Americans are interested in our biological warfare work; it helps them prepare for war against the Soviets. We tested these weapons on the Chinese; they want to use them on the Koreans. I mean, you got hanged if you were unlucky or unimportant. Or Korean. But the Americans want to do business now.”


We are all connected.




* Sam Hamil, co-founder of Copper Canyon Press, made a wonderful translation of Basho’s poem.

A Tangled Backwoods, Merciless and Terrible

posted on September 20, 2014 at 7:42 pm by Blog Archive

The autumnal equinox approaches; the light fades.


This time of year, my reading habits steer toward darker waters.  Beach reads have been consumed, and meatier books pique my interest.  Sometimes the transition from light to dark can be a philosophical challenge.  Halfway through book 3 of the Southern Reach Trilogy, Acceptance, I knew exactly what (and who) would help me sort out the churning thought-chaos I was experiencing:



Sadly out of print, look for this used!

Why, it’s none other than delightful French novelist Michel Houellebecq!


But let me back up a little.


The first book of Jeff Vandermeer’s trilogy, Annihilation, will transport any Lovecraft fan onto the familiar yet unstable landscape of a genre I think of as Nature-Dread.  (If you already know what I’m talking about, and you haven’t read them, seek out Algernon Blackwood’s classic stories The Willows and The Wendigo, both included in this collection.)



Lovecraft, Blackwood, and now Vandermeer are masters of a specific kind of uncanny prose that gradually infects the reader with dread; a feeling of being observed by an unknown (and unknowable) consciousness that exists on a plane so foreign to humans that it renders humanity irrelevant.  The very act of writing such stories is a paradox, since the writer (a person) is attempting to conjure a perspective wholly outside of the human experience.  This is why such unknowable forces are often associated with flora and fauna.  Nature is the ultimate other.  Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, Blackwood’s Wendigo, and Vandermeer’s leviathans are physical creatures, but they ooze such potent dread that their physicality is secondary to their symbolism.




For some, there is nothing compelling about these narratives.  In many of Lovecraft’s stories, it seems as though he was loathe to include any human characters at all, but realized begrudgingly that an omission that radical would further reduce his already small readership.  About Lovecraft, Houellebecq writes:


“Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration.  The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles.  A figure in transition toward chaos.  That is what will finally prevail.  The human race will disappear.  The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars.  These too will disappear.  Everything will disappear.  And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles.  Good, evil, morality, sentiments?  Pure “Victorian fictions.”  All that exists is egotism.  Cold, intact, and radiant.”

Feeling depressed yet?  Don’t.  Lovecraft may be the bitter spring from which this genre flows, but from what we know of his life, his philosophy was a pretty direct result of anxiety, xenophobia, and isolation.  I enjoy his writing, but the more I’ve learned about him as a person, the more I feel that his legacy is a product of much suffering and myopia.




Jeff Vandermeer embraces a friendlier, more global view in his trilogy.  His characters, though living in a world of ever-dwindling human relevance, are motivated by desire, curiosity and ambition.  Their attempts to hang on to normalcy and daily ritual while exploring the alien landscape of Area X are sometimes overwhelmingly poignant.  And while this landscape is hostile, Vandermeer’s characters are not completely repelled by their dread.  A biologist is able to take a scientific view of strange hybrid creatures and movements at the corners of her eyes, even as her body begins to mysteriously transform.  Wonder- along with fear- is possible in the presence of the unknowable.


Just because I am attracted to nihilism in fiction, doesn’t mean I’m ready to abandon hope and humanity.  On the contrary!  If this can be considered a genre, it seems like the natural progression of the post-apocalyptic themes that have been selling books for decades.  What’s one step beyond the plague that wipes out all but .001% of us, or the meteor that sends us the way of the dinosaurs?  Maybe I don’t read enough speculative fiction or sci-fi to know if a completely post-human book has already been written, but please send it my way if it has!


Also recommended in this vein: The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq, Oryx and Crake and the rest of the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood, and the films of Werner Herzog.












All The Birds, Singing

posted on June 19, 2014 at 12:00 pm by Blog Archive

Late last night, baby and wife were asleep and I was sitting in a chair next to an old reading lamp lost in a book. It was a hypnotic state, a trance we readers know, when time, space, and body merge into the world of a story. It had been going on that way for a while until, close to midnight, I heard a knock. Two quiet raps. My nerves bucked. I looked over my shoulder for a fevered moment out the window – of a fifth floor apartment – into darkness. No movement, no people or cars on the side street below. I swallowed, blamed the fridge. Still shaking a bit I turned back to the book. Then it came again. Two quiet raps. I stood up. The room seemed to buzz. Air stuck in my throat. I walked over and opened the bedroom door a few inches. From the pitch-black I heard a voice: “Are you coming to bed?”


18142324My wife had a good reason to wonder why I wasn’t in bed and I had a good reason not to be. I was reading All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. It’s one of those books that can keep you up past midnight while others wonder where you are. It has some of the most frightening and most beautiful passages I’ve ever read in fiction. It’s the best book I’ve read this year.


Wyld has a knack for everything: small details that contain whole worlds, a poetic command of language, characters who breathe and bleed off the page and an Australian landscape so powerfully rendered it’ll give you sunburns. It is breathless reading. She does precisely what we hope would be done with marvelous gifts like hers – dream up a good story, and tell it.


Wyld-Evie-1-2013-c-Roeloff-BakkerThis book is not for the faint of heart. Like one of my favorite books from last year, The Panopticon, Wyld’s young heroine is runaway with a extraordinarily grim and troubled past (and present). In recent weeks the literary community has had an ongoing discussion about trigger warnings and the power of fiction to summon unwanted, traumatic memories. If someday books wear warnings on the cover, All the Birds, Singing might have one. But it is interesting to note that Wyld’s story is itself about the complex, often troubled relationship of trauma to memory. The intricate structure of the narrative serves to illustrate the labyrinth of locked doors and winding architecture of a traumatized mind.


As a bookseller, it’s my responsibility to recommend the right books to the right readers. My tastes tend toward the dark end of the spectrum, so when asked for recommendations apropos of nothing, the list of titles I rattle off usually have a disclaimer. At some point, though, a good book is a good book, and the best books to incorporate human darkness do so to explore, not exploit. I haven’t yet read Wyld’s first book – After the Fire, A Still Small Voice – but from what I gather, she explores trauma there as well. I imagine she does it with the same strength and care she does in her latest. That book, unsurprisingly, singled her out as an author to watch. This book should cancel all doubt. There are, I hope, many more stoires to come from Evie Wyld.

“After Dachau” by Daniel Quinn

posted on March 27, 2014 at 2:20 am by Jenny Oleinik
Daniel Quinn and his many books. (Credit to for the collage photos.)

Daniel Quinn and his many books. (Credit to for the collage photos.)

Author Daniel Quinn is known for his high-concept literature–which I like to describe as written philosophies set to narrative–and his internationally best-selling book Ishmael can be found in classrooms around the world. After Dachau, which was published in 2001, ten years after Ishmael, is a high concept novel as well, but it’s appeal for me is in its approachability. The role between narrative and philosophy is more evenly weighted, and the addition of a more action-filled plot line (moderately so) makes it a more straightforward book for everyday reading.


Don’t get me wrong; I love Ishmael. It’s one of my long-time favorites, and I often feel I should return to it more frequently than I do. But there are days and weeks when, tired out from this and that, I find I don’t have the concentration to sift through the meanings and morals without the need to re-read sections as I go. There are books that can be read quickly and there are books that require more attention. Whether or not these books are better or worse for the ease with which they can be digested, it is a fact of life that sometimes we all have the attention span of a three-year old on a sugar high. And while After Dachau does in fact require far more concentration than your average beach read, it’s the lightest fare of Quinn’s that I’ve read so far. It’s also, as his books always are, very thought provoking.


I've never liked the cover art, but the content sure makes up for it.

I’ve never liked the cover art, but the content sure makes up for it.

Now comes the hard part: it is nearly impossible to describe After Dachau without revealing at least a few spoilers. For those who are incredibly spoiler-conscious, here’s a one-sentence description from the publisher: “Compared by readers and critics alike to 1984 and Brave New World, After Dachau is a new dystopian classic with much to say about our own time, and the dynamics of human history.” Quinn has created a fascinating revisionist history filled with “what if?”s, and the characters involved are just as befuddled as the reader when it all begins. And while the definition of “classic” may be thrown around with little care these days by reviewers and marketing teams alike, I can certainly say, with no hesitation, that After Dachau is worth the read.


Now for those who don’t mind a couple of spoilers in order to better understand what they’re diving into: It is 1992 A.D., 2,002 years after Hitler and the Nazis won the war, and the world is homogenous and ignorant, the re-written histories of world-wide genocides stripped from the history books. In this world, trust-fund baby Jason Tull, Jr., is a college graduate and bored with what his ordinary world has to offer. (This may be a “dystopian” society, but only through our perspective: the citizens of it are completely unaware.) To stave off the apathy, he signs on with an underfunded foundation looking to find and prove instances of reincarnation. When a tip leads him to car-crash victim Mallory Hastings, who wakes up as a deaf woman originating from 2,000 years ago, the journey to uncover history as it was begins. The “what if” questions abound, and Quinn clearly brings up the idea that to the victor go the spoils, history included.


You can find After Dachau in our Staff Favorites department at our main store in Seattle.

The Flamethrowers

posted on March 17, 2014 at 11:48 pm by Blog Archive

Having just finished Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, I would like to invite you to share in this literary journey. Reno, the lady explorer of the novel, is our guide as we travel from the past wars of Italy to 1970s New York City. We see life in flashes and snippets. If you are looking for a cohesive plot line, this isn’t the book for you. If you are up for a grand artistic adventure, hold on. The question of what art is and how it is separated from reality melodically hovers over every page as we follow Reno from the salt flats of Nevada to the chaotic streets of Milan. This question is challenged and answered in various subtleties by each artist that we encounter. Kushner creates two worlds that are delicately intertwined and poignantly highlights the deep irony that follows us wherever we go.


Rolling Out the Red Carpet

posted on February 26, 2014 at 2:52 am by Jenny Oleinik
Oscar himself guards the staircase at our U-District store.

Oscar himself guards the staircase at our U-District store.

Now that the Winter Olympics have concluded–and can I say bravo to Sochi on that epic celebration of Russian literature in the closing ceremony?–it’s time to turn our attention to the 86th Academy Awards. The lights! The dazzle! The pageantry! And, most importantly, the books that made so many of these movies possible from the start.

This year’s nominations stem from a bunch of great reads, and we’ve listed the majority of them, along with their respective book titles, below. Read the book and see the movie (or switch the order, if you so prefer). Lights, camera, action!
12 Years a Slave (Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, Directing, etc.) 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrop. Solomon Northup was a free-born African American who lived between 1808 and around 1863. Twelve Years a Slave is Northrup’s memoir (as told to and edited by David Wilson) of his experience being kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve years in Louisiana before regaining his freedom. Northrop’s book was a bestseller when it was first published (just a year after Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) but then slumped into a a century of obscurity before it was “re-discovered” in the early 1960s. The movie 12 Years a Slave is not the first film adaptation of the book, though: in 1984, Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey (later released as Half Slave, Half Free) was aired on PBS.

WolfWallStreetThe Wolf of Wall Street (Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, Directing, etc.) The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort. Having not read this one myself, I will pass the baton to Publishers Weekly: “Belfort, who founded one of the first and largest chop shop brokerage firms in 1987, was banned from the securities business for life by 1994, and later went to jail for fraud and money-laundering, delivers a memoir that reads like fiction. It covers his decade of success with straightforward accounts of how he worked with managers of obscure companies to acquire large amounts of stock with minimal public disclosure, then pumped up the price and sold it, so he and the insiders made large profits while public investors usually lost.” And a follow-up from Kirkus Reviews: “Entertaining as pulp fiction, real as a federal indictment […] a hell of a read.”


bookthiefThe Book Thief (Music – Original Score) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The Book Thief has been a must-read since its publication in 2006. Narrated by death, it tells the story of Liesel, a foster child in 1939 Nazi Germany. She discovers an insatiable love of reading that she shares with her foster father, her neighbours, and the Jewish man hiding in her basement. Though categorized as a teen book, it has become an international bestseller with readers of all ages and has spent over 375 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It is one of those books that gets passed from reader to reader and has become a staple for book clubs nationwide. Zusak was recently awarded the 2014 Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime contribution in writing for young adults. Even if you don’t see the movie, this book is a wonderful choice.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects) — The Hobbit or There and Back Again by J. R. R. Tolkien. Well this one seems pretty obvious, don’t you think?


Captain Phillips (Best Picture, Actor in a Supporting Role, Writing – Adapted Screenplay, etc.) A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephen Talty. In A Captain’s Duty, Captain Richard Philips tells the story of the hijacking of the container ship MV Maersk Alabama and his experience as a hostage to Somali pirates before he was rescued. Tom Hanks’ acting in the role of Captain Phillips was, as is typical for Hanks, fantastic. While the film focuses mainly on Phillips’ experience, the book alternates between his ordeal and the experiences of his family in Vermont as they faced a different kind of emotional turmoil. A Captain’s Duty received starred reviews from both Booklist and Publishers Weekly.


mayor cover for webInside Llewyn Davis (Cinematography, Sound Mixing)The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir by Dave Van Ronk. The Seattle Times says this book is “[a] delightful, keenly-observed, cantankerous autobiography…which, if you love ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ you owe it to yourself to read.” In it Van Ronk, one of the founding individuals of the 1960s folk music revival, gives a firsthand account of his experiences and encounters with soon-to-be famous Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and more. According to the New York Review of Books blog, Inside Llewyn Davis “extensively mines Van Ronk’s remarkable posthumous memoirThe Mayor of MacDougal Street (seamlessly compiled from interviews by Elijah Wald; Da Capo, 2005) for scenes, anecdotes, and details of background, and its protagonist, Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) sings songs closely associated with Van Ronk.”


The Great Gatsby (Costume Design)The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Whether you loved or hated the film–and it was definitely a dividing movie–almost everyone can agree that the novel by Fitzgerald is one of the all-time best American classics. If you haven’t read it yet, now is as good a time as any.


The "Before they were Oscars..." display set-up at our Mill Creek branch.

The “Before they were Oscars…” display set-up at our Mill Creek branch.

Saving Mr. Banks (Music – Original Score) Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers. Okay, so it’s not based on Mary Poppins so much as the woman who wrote it and Walt Disney’s determination to bring it to cinematic life, but I still think it belongs on this list. Another title that might be of interest is Mary Poppins She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers by Valerie Lawson. Booklist says: “It turns out there was a lot of the difficult Travers in Poppins. […] This meticulously researched but overlong biography may help restore a diminished literary reputation, but its unsparing portrait of an exceedingly unsympathetic human being will win Travers no new posthumous friends.” Biography fans ought to appreciate this one, especially those who were annoyed with the inaccuracies portrayed in the film (as charming as it was).


room on the broomRoom on the Broom (Short Film – Animated)Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson; illustrated by Axel Scheffler. This short is based on the classic picture book created by the same duo who wrote and illustrated another bestselling kids’ favorite, The Gruffalo. Learn more here about the animated short, the original book, and a new game app that’s available.


Philomena (Best Picture, Actress in a Leading Role, Writing – Adapted Screenplay, etc.) — Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, & a Fifty-Year Search by Martin Sixsmith. Philomena tells the true story, as told by journalist Sixsmith, of a pregnant teenager in 1952 who was sent to a convent and forced to give up her son for adoption. Five decades later she decides to find him and, unbeknownst to her, he attempts to find her as well, though they are now an ocean apart. Dame Judi Dench, who is nominated for a best actress award in this film, writes, “The extraordinary story of an extraordinary woman […] Philomena’s tale is special. […] It reveals a remarkable human being with astonishing fortitude and a truly humbling willingness to forgive. […] I hope Philomena’s heroic search and her courage in allowing her story to be told will bring comfort to all who have suffered a similar fate.” (Dench has written the foreword to the newest edition of the book that is now available.)


lone survivorLone Survivor (Sound Editing, Sound Mixing)Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson. Lone Survivor is a non-fiction account of Luttrell’s experience in Afghanistan under Operation Red Wing in which he and other Navy SEALs were to observe a local village and capture or kill a Taliban leader. An encounter with local residents, however, turns their mission treacherously violent as they find themselves surrounded and greatly outnumbered by Taliban warriors. Film rights were obtained in 2007, the same year that the book was released. According to The Washington Post, “If you’re looking for a true story that showcases both American heroism and Afghani humanity, [this] may be the book for you.”


Blue Jasmine (Actress in a Leading Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, Writing – Original Screenplay) — This drama, written and directed by Woody Allen, tells the story of a fall from wealth to poverty by a Manhattan Socialite. Though not specifically based on a book (note the nomination for best original screenplay), it has been heavily compared to Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. Some critics believe Allen was directly inspired by the play, citing similar plot and characters, though not all critics agree. Regardless, the two leading ladies in Allen’s film have previously been associated with Williams’ play, and a comparison of the two would certainly bring about a lively conversation about comparative art.


OsageAugust: Osage County (Actress in a Leading Role, Actress in a Supporting Role)August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. This play, an American black-comedy drama, premiered in Chicago in 2007 and then received  Pulitzer Prize in 2008. It focuses on the strong-willed and disjointed women of the Weston family who reunite after a family crisis in their hometown of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The film adaptation features a star-studded cast (including Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, both with Oscar nods for their roles). The play itself is three hours long while the film is just around two hours. According to our own used book buyer, Brad Craft, “If you want to experience the full disfunction of this family, you owe it to yourself to read the play. A lot more drinking, drugs, and fighting–all of the fun.”


As always, happy reading! (And watching.)

The Impossible Knife of Memory

posted on January 29, 2014 at 7:37 pm by Jenny Oleinik

Bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson at our U-District store on January 8, 2014.

Fans of all ages were thrilled to meet best-selling childrens’ and young-adult author Laurie Halse Anderson in our University District branch earlier this month.  She was in store sharing her newest teen novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory. Booklist gave it a starred review, saying, “In Anderson’s skilled hands, readers will find a light shining on the shadowy reality of living with someone who has lived through war—and who is still at war with himself.”


In addition to reading from the book, she talked about her life and family, her writing style and method, responses she’s received about the tough subjects in her books, and her strong stance against censorship. To top it all off, she answered all of the audience’s questions. She was friendly as can be, and it was great fun to host her.


Laurie’s books appeal to young and old. She is known for dealing with difficult subjects in her writing with a powerful awareness, humor, and photo 5empathy toward her characters that has made her a prominent author in the teen book world. She also writes historical fiction, childrens’ novels, and picture books.


More about The Impossible Knife of Memory (from the book flap): “For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, trying to outrun the  memories that haunt them both. They moved back to Andy’s hometown to try a “normal” life, but the horrors he saw in the war threaten to destroy their lives. Hayley watches, helpless, as her father turns to drugs and alcohol to silence his demons. And then her own past creeps up, and everything falls apart.”

Laurie Halse Anderson signs her picture book "Independent Dames: Women & Girls of the American Revolution" for a fan

Laurie Halse Anderson signs her picture book “Independent Dames: Women & Girls of the American Revolution” for a fan


In brief, she’s a great author, and this is a great book. I’ve been a fan of hers for more than a decade, and I can honestly say that The Impossible Knife of Memory is a wonderful addition to her already laudable library. To learn more about the book and the author, check out the January 11 interview Laurie did with NPR. You can also head over to her blog and follow her on Twitter.


For more great author events like this one, take a look at the University Bookstore events calendar. Upcoming events include the authors Garth Stein, Robert Gates, Roddy Doyle, and more!

Harry Potter Gets a New Look

posted on October 1, 2013 at 10:28 pm by Blog Archive

I remember it was over a decade ago when I first picked up “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. I was working at University Book Store, part time in the giftwrap department back then. I was still in school, earning my degree in Comparative Literature. I remember my colleagues, the booksellers from the children’s department, mentioning it. The next book was due out any day, there was a movie being made, it was all the buzz—this was unlike anything we had experienced before in the bookstore. I wanted to see what the buzz was about.


I went to the shelf and pulled out the paperback copy of “Sorcerer’s Stone” with the original cover art by Mary GrandPré and wasn’t immediately entranced.

This didn’t really look like the kind of book I read, or would really want to read. No offense to GrandPré’s skill as an artist (and her original illustrations for the series will continue to be featured on the U.S. hardcover and digest paperback editions). I can see the appeal to kids and have to take into account the world in which this cover art was chosen, a world before Harry Potter Fandom would reach into pretty much all realms and age groups. I wasn’t ashamed to be seen reading a children’s book but I wasn’t exactly excited to be seen reading the book with that cover. I remember I covered it up with a scrap of giftwrap paper, and then read through my entire shift, on the busride home, and stayed up late to finish. The next day I bought the second book. I was hooked.

Over the course of the rise of Harry Potter fandom, someone got wise and they started printing the “Adult” covers:

Which made the books out to look about as exciting and magical as well…a locket, a cup, or a stone laying on a table.  Pre-dating and foreshadowing the current trend of fantasy covers ala: “Game of Thrones”  which have become the standard of fantasy covers looking to cross over. I understand that some readers aren’t enticed and can even be turned off by too much fantasy on their cover art—it’s all a delicate marketing game,  but I’m not ashamed to be a full blown adult who loves these books. I don’t need to disguise it. Something was lacking for me in these covers as well–the joy and depth of the world that J. K. Rowling created, the whimsy, the adventure.

The books are popular enough at this point that they could probably print plain brown paper covers and they’d still sell, but to celebrate 15 years since the original publication of “Sorcerer’s Stone”, Scholastic has issued the entire series with new cover art by New York Times bestselling author and illustrator Kazu Kibuishi, who is best known for the Amulet series of graphic novels.


The new covers are brilliant. They glow from within with the magic contained inside. Each is beautiful, layered, and full of the life and complex universe that Rowling built. While the original illustrations prominently feature Harry, the new covers feature Harry in smaller detail, and alongside his friends: Hagrid, Hedwig, Ron, Hermione, and Dumbledore. As any fan of the series know, Harry couldn’t have done it alone.

Kibuishi’s artwork is gorgeous. I recommend checking out his other work as well, but here he manages to finally capture the magical world I saw in my head while reading.


My favorite may be “Chamber of Secrets”, with the Weasley’s Burrow and flying Ford Anglia! (which was featured on the UK cover previously) One of the most iconic images from that book and perhaps the series as a whole.

Or “Prisoner of Azkaban”, featuring the mysterious  figure on the lakeshore summoning the gorgeous glowing stag patronus to ward off the enveloping Dementors.


“Half Blood Prince” with its haunting depiction of Dumbledore and Harry on that oceanside cliff.

As an added bonus, when all lined up in order, the spines of the new versions depict Hogwarts Castle. Each book is available individually or as a box set.

The new versions are available in store, by phone or web now. The perfect gift for your favorite wizard or muggle, or yourself!



Two Annas’ Thoughts on David Rakoff’s Final Work

posted on July 17, 2013 at 12:42 am by Blog Archive

rakoffIn the three years I worked Author Events for University Book Store, meeting and hosting David Rakoff in the Fall of 2010 was, hands down, the best experience of my stint. He was on tour for Half Empty; and was frail, in pain, with an arm so weakened by his cancer that he couldn’t even hold his book. David Rakoff made such an impression on me. I have to admit (don’t throw tomatoes!) that I barely knew his work at that point. I was excited about him because my boyfriend was excited about him. I had heard his ridiculously funny skit on Wire Tap with Jonathan Goldstein  where he insists that getting drunk before a job interview is the way to go. I spent an evening and a day with him and I fell in love (I’m not kidding). As you can imagine, David was sharp, witty and smart. He was also kind, sensitive, and so cool. He was my people. We sat back and talked about crafting and boys and being Jewish and New York City. He asked me about my family history and was sincere in his curiosity. He told me my boyfriend was a cutie! He brought a handmade stamp of his face that he stamped on every book he signed. He was self-deprecating and joked about his health. He used his words carefully and was extremely present. I feel so lucky that I got to share a brief moment in his life and that I was able to let him impact me.


I can’t recommend his new book enough. It’s brilliant. We’re all so lucky to have a piece of his genius come alive after his too short life has sadly ended. Did you hear that one Wire Tap  that’s a spin off of Kafka’s metamorphosis? Jonathan Goldstein plays Gregor Samsa who wakes up to find himself an insect and he writes to a Doctor named Seuss, who is written and read by Rakoff. Doctor Seuss writes back only in rhyme. The fluidity of Rakoff’s rhyme in that skit is carried over to his new novel, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, which is essentially the history of 20th century America, written in iambic pentameter.


It’s one of a kind, and a joy to read.

–Anna Micklin, General Non-Fiction Buyer


If you were to ask me if I wanted to read a novel written by a person dying of cancer exploring the meaning of life, my first answer would always be a resounding—Pass. It’s not that I don’t think those novels have a place or are worthy of readership—they’re just not for me. Mostly due to my own innate cynicism and a family medical history that leads me to assume I’ll be one of them at some point. (Avoidance is a magical protective force field.) But the final work and first novel written by David Rakoff—I definitely wanted to read. I knew Rakoff’s work mostly from This American Life. I knew his voice and the voice inside my head would get along–that I would get none of the death-bed religion I am so cynical about. Rakoff’s dark sense of humor applied even to the most terrifying of tragedies, his own death, and this novel is no different. He never glosses over the dark, never makes excuses—it simply is, and is worth noting. With LOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH, Rakoff seems almost to be willing the reader and himself to recognize the light alongside the darkness, to see the DEATH as part of LIFE.


Everything seemed bathed in a heavenly light,
Perhaps, it was just as a contrast to night”.


Within the first few stanzas of this rhyming novel the rhythm of the meter pulls you into it like the rhythm of a train on a track. Its solid, steady pace weaves and winds its way across the country and spans the 20th century. Rakoff adeptly drives the story, stitching and tying together a tapestry of interconnections: between a red-haired teenage Margaret escaping the brutality of slaughterhouse work and familial abuse in turn-of-the-century Chicago; Artistic Clifford only recently freed in the San Francisco of Gay Liberation to land harshly in the AIDS epidemic; Put-upon Nate who finally stands up for himself in a best-man speech at his ex’s wedding to his best friend, and more— all connected, sometimes barely but always significantly, rolling into each other until you reach the end, which in itself harkens forward and backwards simultaneously. Cycle of Life, though rolling ever forward, passengers disembarking and boarding all along.


Rakoff never steers into the precious and never makes the proclamation of there being a Master Plan (be it God or Fate). Rakoff’s is a world of happenstance, but one in which those fleeting moments, even if unrecognized by the participants, are imbued with so much weight and potential. The title and Seussian rhyme scheme alert us–His is a declaration that Beauty and Joy are all around us but so is Damage, so is Darkness and Death and it is all LIFE. And Life is not a solo endeavor. We are each simply a word in a much bigger rhyme.

The fact that Rakoff created this work as he himself faced and succumbed to death is extraordinary and adds extraordinary weight to it, but the novel could stand alone without its writer’s death. I wish entirely that it did. This book can be read quickly, but shouldn’t be. It should be read, slowly, savoured, and re-read.

 –Anna Updegraff, Author Events Buyer


Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A  Novel by David Rakoff was released on July 16, 2013 from Doubleday, a division of Random House.