The Shelf Life


Nick’s Pick for February: Frog

posted on January 28, 2015 at 5:56 pm by Brad Craft

frogIt’s the kind of powerful blockbuster we expect from him – a glimpse into an unknown China, as alien and provocative as good science fiction. It opens in 1960 in a village where all newborn children are named after body parts. We watch a classroom of 35 starving students discover that they can actually eat coal. But the novel becomes almost surrealistic  when it gets to China’s all-too-real, viciously enforced one-child policy. And as usual, Mo Yan shows all sides.


by Mo Yan

Regular price $27.95

20% off at University Book Store

Our price: $22.36



Indomitable Aunt Gugu, employing new Western medicine, is the township’s first professional midwife. As director of the health center’s obstetrics department, she delivers over 10,000 babies. But she’s also the enforcer of the Party’s one-child policy, and responsible for over 2,000 involuntary abortions. When her nephew’s lovely wife refuses to abort her second pregnancy, Aunt Gugu swears to uphold the Party policy.

 The plot of FROG is a slow-motion narrative explosion, moving an entire district of characters through decades of change and reversal.  It’s gleefully crammed full of family betrayals and escape tunnels, frog attacks and stolen sperm, intercepted love letters and speedboat pursuits by abortion doctors. It all comes together in a bullfrog farm where surrogate mothers provide a way to beat the one-child rule.

It’s a big, challenging portrait of a brilliant woman obstetrician who makes some horrible State-driven choices while dedicating her life to her community.

Come discuss the book with us!

Nick’s Book Club


4326 University Way NE

The Bookstore Café

Monday, February 23, 6 pm

Here’s hoping to see some of you this coming Monday evening to discuss Camilleri’s operatic historical disaster novel, THE BREWER OF PRESTON. Wishing you all health in this flu season, time with your loved ones, and always, ALWAYS a good book close at hand! — Nick

Your Face In Mine

posted on July 10, 2014 at 12:44 am by Blog Archive

YourFaceIt’s been a while since I read book with such a big premise that asked for so much trouble: a white, Jewish man undergoes surgery to become African-American. You don’t need a background in critical theory to find this wildly provocative, and were it written almost any other way it’d likely be unpublishable. But Jess Row is a frighteningly smart author, and his aim is to start a conversation, not a fight. That’s what the best books do. But at risk of hyperbole, I’ll go a step further – Your Face In Mine is, as Martha Southgate writes on the dust jacket, “a necessary book.”


Kelly Thorndike is a lapsed academic. He manages a struggling public radio station in Baltimore while his Ph.D thesis about two obscure Chinese poets gathers dust in a university library. Sometimes he has conversations with his wife who, along with their young daughter, died over a year ago in a car accident. He is in a haze. One morning, a man calls out to him across a grocery store parking lot – “It’s Martin,” the man says. In a flash, Kelly remembers. Martin was Kelly’s friend from high school, the bassist for their punk-rock trio. He hasn’t seen Martin in ten years. Martin, who was then white and Jewish, is now unmistakably African-American. Martin wants to hire Kelly to write a book that chronicles his transformation and arrival in a new life. He wants Kelly to reveal his story to the world.


This may sound like speculative fiction – it’s not. The details of the procedure are discussed eventually, but the focus (rightly) is Martin’s motivation. Under the vague guise of a “biographer”, Kelly shadows Martin in his new life. No one in Martin’s circle knows the secret of his past; they assume Kelly was hired to write a piece on successful black businessmen. Kelly himself isn’t sure why Martin tapped him, someone with potentially ruinous access to Martin’s old life, to tell his story. But the reasons Martin hired Kelly are complex, fascinating and unexpected – as Row walks us down the corridors of Martin’s past we find that Kelly, too, has much hidden away.


Your Face In Mine might be poised to cause a stir when it comes out in August. But not, I hope, for mere controversy. Of equal importance, I’d reckon, is the arrival of Jess Row as a novelist. His book is written in lush, confident prose, has the pulse of a thriller, the heart of an American epic, and the burning mind of speculative fiction. Your Face In Mine deftly explores some hefty philosophical subjects – identity, self and transformation, to name a few – without sacrificing the pace or prose of the storytelling. And it leaves you, as they say, with a lot to chew on. Strongly recommended.

Nick’s Pick for July

posted on June 25, 2014 at 7:08 pm by Brad Craft

emI can’t help but compare two excellent recent books because they have so much in common. Both (1) are almost exactly the same length, just slightly over 200 pages, (2) are about immigrant families from India, (3) families that are bravely facing the disability of one member in an alien new culture (4) with blackly comic results. One of them comes out in July from Penguin Originals – EM AND THE BIG HOOM by Jerry Pinto. I recommend it, but I’m going with the other one from Norton – FAMILY LIFE by Akhil Sharma. However, let me say that in a world where you read every book you wanted to read, the two pair perfectly with telling differences and heaps of lovely language in both, as each author confronts those difficulties and hurdles that families have to encounter together when they draw protectively around an injured member in that solidarity of blood that people feel for their parents and siblings.



by Akhil Sharma

Regular price $23.95

20% off at University Book Store

Our price $19.16




Little Ajay Mishra would like to have a conversation with God. He and his family have fled from India, where mother cooked extra at every meal for the cows that wandered the neighborhood. They’ve escaped to the wonders of America, where everybody has their own speedboat, stewardesses have to give you whatever you ask for, and hot dogs are made with dog meat. But in three terrible minutes their lives are turned into a nightmare.

Family Life is a sometimes tragic tale that is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Author Akhil Sharma is a master of micro-observations: seeing snow for the first time, discovering cartoons on television, getting hot water from faucets and walking on carpeted floors.

Stranded in an alien culture, this feisty, opinionated family bravely embraces their disabled member in the face of soul-draining hardships. As Ajay makes his way through tormenting classmates and Indian miracle healers, the bumbling embarrassments of first love, a controlling mother and an alcoholic father, his story becomes the chronicle of the birth of a writer, transforming his family’s pain into literature.


Come discuss the book with us!


University Book Store

4326 University Way NE

The Bookstore Café, by the fireside

Monday, July 28, 6 pm


Hope you’ve all got a summer reading pile going – and you’d better work on it, because there are some big, delicious books lining up for the fall. Wishing you all health, time with your loved ones, and a good book nearby. – Nick

Scarecrow Video and Small Business Saturday

posted on November 30, 2013 at 1:50 am by Dan Doody

Ever since I was a second-grader, I’ve had a life-long love affair with classic horror movies, monster flicks, creature features, etc., particularly those from the 30s and 40s.  It is an affair that began with a school book fair purchase of a book on the classic Universal Horror monsters and continues to this day. My work place mug features Boris Karloff in the iconic Frankenstein Monster’s make-up, and my apartment is decorated with framed replica lobby cards of my favorite films from the era. Well, all except one, The Cat Creeps.


cat creeps


If you’ve even heard of The Cat Creeps, you are in the minority. The film is a 1946 supernatural-tinged crime melodrama from Universal; clocking in at just under an hour, it was the sort of B-movie Hollywood studios made to round out double-features in an era before television. I purchased the lobby card mainly because I like the look of it and because I knew of the film, having read about it in various books on classic horror cinema. It’s a silly, dated picture with lots of 40s fast-paced, tough guy talk, and pretty much the only reason it is remembered today is because it was packaged with the rest of Universal’s Horror/Suspense films when they first aired on television in the late 50s. However, if you would like to judge the film for yourself, good luck. You won’t find it streaming online at Hulu or Netflix, nor have I ever seen it on Turner Classic Movie’s schedule. Universal has never officially released the film on DVD, although video tape copies from the mid-90s occasionally pop up on eBay but will set you back a pretty penny (and do you even still own a VCR?). I never thought I would ever see it myself … until last weekend.


The discovery of a DVD-R import copy took place at Scarecrow Video: one of the last, great video stores in the country and, arguably, the largest in terms of titles available—not only Blu-rays and DVDs but even those extinct media dinosaurs laserdiscs and video cassettes (for those of you who do still own a VCR). It is a rich, vast, and unparalleled resource that serves the Seattle community and beyond. And it’s in trouble. If you’re a Seattleite, then chances are you’ve heard the news stories about Scarecrow video’s precarious situation and that the store faces a make or break holiday season. In an open letter on the store’s website from last October, the store’s co-owners Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough stated, “Our rental numbers have declined roughly 40% over the past 6 years. This isn’t a huge surprise—obviously technology has been moving this direction for some time—but the decline has been more dramatic than we had anticipated.


“[Scarecrow Video has] responded to the changing marketplace in pretty much every way we know how to. We’ve expanded our sales sections for both new and used movies, it’s now one of the largest in-stock Blu-ray sales inventories in the area. We’ve opened VHSpresso, serving some of the best coffee (from 7 Roasters), tea (from Teahouse KuanYin), and chai (Tipu’s Chai) around, as well as sodas, snacks and beer. We’ve created a seating-area/screening room/event space where we show films throughout the day and we hold events like book signings, filmmaker talks, and Tuesday night Geeks Who Drink Trivia. We’ve got a whole calendar full of events! We’ve brought in movie posters, film-related toys, books, and soundtracks on vinyl. We’ve added rental specials and date night and family package deals. We’ve increased our on-line presence and web sales. We’ve cut our operations costs as much as we can. But even as we try to offer our customers new and interesting reasons to come in, we simply are not generating enough traffic to support managing and maintaining the world’s largest collection of films.”


scarecrowscarecrow store


Scarecrow faces more acutely what many traditional retailers, University Book Store included, face in this Internet age. The World Wide Web offers fast, convenient, and cheap distribution of everything from movies and television to books, magazines, music, etc. And while this convenience can be in many ways wonderful, it comes at a price. Record stores are a rare breed nowadays; Borders closed last year, while Blockbuster video  announced last month plans to close its remaining stores. Whenever another brick-and-mortar store closes, pundits either trumpet or bemoan how the internet has changed retail and media, offering you endless choices at maximum convenience while small and/or local retailers find themselves struggling to stay afloat. And while convenience in these busy times is an important consideration, it isn’t always the best option.


If you want to stream a movie tonight, your options are limited, although you may not even realize it. You do have thousands of choices but by no means everything; unless you’re content with major movie or television fare you will eventually discover, if you haven’t already, that at some point you hit a proverbial brick wall. You can watch The Third Man at any of several different streaming sites. But if you want to watch This Gun for Hire, another film noir based on a Graham Greene story, it’s only available on DVD. Or, if you want to hear award-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s commentary on the film, such commentary tracks are unavailable through streaming services, and the Criterion collection edition that features this commentary is now sadly out-of-print. Scarecrow and other video stores have you covered on all three options.  In fact, most of Scarecrow’s inventory isn’t available streaming.


Third Man


Book stores face a similar dilemma with the explosion of e-readers and e-books, but again a wealth of choices does not include every book that is or ever has been in print. Some of this has to do with copyright law, but a lot of it has to do with what media and publishing companies think will sell best and the costs associated with publishing and maintaining electronic media (server farms are enormously expensive to power and have to run 24/7). Meaning that if you’re interests–in either books or films–stray a little too wide of the mainstream, your choices could be seriously curtailed.


As wonderful and as extensive as the amount of information that exists online, there is still an argument to be made for physical media. In some ways, it is more durable and less likely to disappear due to caprice: for example, the infamous incident of the disappearing 1984 e-book. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has issued a memo encouraging studios and independent filmmakers to archive their films on 35mm film stock because the pace of computer technology is changing so rapidly that forms of digital storage, currently on the cutting edge of technology, could become obsolete in 5-10 years (do you even own a floppy disc?). At the Used Book Buying desk, where I work in the store, my colleague and I routinely see books published 10, 20, 30, 40, even 50 years ago. There is a solidity and permanence to what is now being called “physical media” that the online world cannot match. The thought that I could loose a favorite book, movie, or record album due to some rights dispute is a frustrating and frightening proposition. Fortunately, with a physical copy of the book in hand, it is something I need not worry.




This isn’t to say we should reject electronic media in favor of physical media, but that both should co-exist. It is a forgotten plot point of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 that in the dystopian world of Guy Montag the government did not mandate censorship, it merely took advantage of prevailing tastes:


“The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! … Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the snobbish critics said, were dishwater.  No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation … carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time….”  As long as you enjoy vanilla tapioca and dishwater.




Another wonderful thing about physical media, for many people is the joy of browsing: the ability to walk into your favorite store and discover something you weren’t even looking for or even know existed. This also happened to me last weekend at Scarecrow: looking for something to rent on a Saturday night, I perused the film noir section and discovered Rope of Sand, a 1949 crime thriller starring Burt Lancaster, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Paul Henreid (playing a character 180 degrees opposite to his Victor Laszlo in Casablanca) set in the diamond fields of South Africa. It’s a twisty, thrilling, gorgeously shot film filled with the four principals giving delightfully arch performances as they out-maneuver and double-cross each other to find a hidden cache of diamonds. It, too, was unavailable until recently when Olive Films licensed the DVD rights from Paramount.


rope of sand


The wealth of choices and hidden gems at Scarecrow Video is truly staggering, whether you want to explore WWII Occultism, Bollywood Jane Austen adaptations, Hong Kong thrillers, the films of the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman, or the best of Argentinean cinema–you’d be hard pressed to find a subject for which Scarecrow Video doesn’t have at least one film.  And even if you don’t live in the Seattle area, you can still take advantage of Scarecrow Video’s online shop.


Of course, not everyone loves to browse shops. For them, there is always the internet and online retailers, knowing exactly what you want and getting it quickly is a great thing, as is the joy of happenstance and discovery for those not so inclined. And for those of us who love to browse and shop, it is up to us to do as much as we can to see our favorite stores stay in business. To quote, once again from Scarecrow’s open letter: “We are committed to continuing through the holidays in the hopes that the changes we’ve made to our store and our operations will be enough to convince you, the customer, that Scarecrow and its unparalleled collection are worth saving. Ultimately, it comes down to whether people think it’s worth it to come back. So many people say to us, ‘I love you guys! I used to go in there all the time!’ Lately that has included, ‘What can I do to help?’ That’s simple. Come back in! Rent a couple of movies once or twice a month. Pick up a new Criterion film and have a latte. Buy something from us on-line. Come play trivia and have a beer or two, or come to our events. Let us help you find a movie you didn’t even know you’d love!” These are wise and important words (credit omar). The shop where I bought the lobby cards that decorate my apartment, Rialto Movie Art in Pioneer Square, exists no longer; I’m not sure why, whether the couple who ran the store retired or were unable financially to carry on further, but the reason is moot—I can no longer shop there. This Saturday, November 30th is Small Business Saturday, a great opportunity to show support for your favorite local business—buy some Christmas gifts or bring along a friend, share and recommend your favorite stores to everyone you possibly can—your support greatly increases the vibrancy and economic health of your community in more ways than you can possibly imagine.


—Dan Doody
Used Books Desk



Hooray for Hollywood!

posted on October 4, 2013 at 9:46 pm by Dan Doody

I love books. And movies. And books about movies, well don’t get me started—those are like the literary equivalent of Reese’s peanut butter cups. For me, one of the most fascinating periods of history is the Golden Age of Hollywood, from the 1920s till the early 1950s, the era of the Studio System and such moguls as Irving Thalberg and Samuel Goldwyn. The former served as inspiration for the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel The Last Tycoon; the latter is the subject of A. Scott Berg’s second biography, Goldwyn, an insightful and comprehensive portrait of one of the most powerful Hollywood figures to rule a studio. (And thanks to Mr. Berg’s recent stop at Town Hall for his new, and impressive biography on Woodrow Wilson, the University Book Store has signed copies of both Wilson and Goldwyn.)


The Studio System excelled at doing two things: producing films with astonishing efficiency (at its peak, Goldwyn’s studio MGM produced 52 features a year, one for every week) and promoting its stars into pop culture icons. One of the most iconic stars ever to emerge from Hollywood was Elizabeth Taylor, the subject of M. G. Lord’s The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted By Her Beauty to Notice. Lord’s award winning book recounts how Taylor—in such films as BUtterfield 8, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—was able to subtly embodied the ideas of postwar feminism through her performances and also discusses her lasting legacy as an AIDS activist. For those wanting further evidence of Lord’s thesis, University Book Store has a compilation of four Elizabeth Taylor films, which includes her Academy Award-winning turn in BUtterfield 8.


One can hardly mention Elizabeth Taylor without conjuring up the specter of Richard Burton. Their romance and marriage defined Celebrity in the 1960s and early 70s. Last year, The Richard Burton Diaries were published and is now available in paperback and offers invaluable insight into one of the screen’s master thespians.


The 60s and 70s were a turbulent time for the movies. Television had chipped away at the once powerful studios, leaving them shells of their former selves. Mick Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution recounts how the Hollywood reinvented itself for the modern era. Along similar lines, Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value examines the indelible mark horror films—from Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist to Alien—made on cinema in the 70s and 80s.


The best contemporary writer on the movies and Hollywood is David Thomson, whose The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a witty, engaging, and entertaining reference to nearly every major figure in cinema. His most recent book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, comes out in paperback next month. Thomson explores how the movies first entranced America and what it means now that the silver screen is shrinking and shrinking to the point where we can (and sometimes, do) watch a movie on an iPhone. New Yorker film critic David Denby’s book, Do The Movies Have a Future?, furthers the discussion started by Thomson and will also be released in paperback later this month.


Of course, The New Yorker‘s most famous film critic was the formidable and influential Pauline Kael, the subject of Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark. She is also the only film critic to have a selection of her reviews published in the prestigious Library of America series. In Life Itself, Roger Ebert’s wonderful memoir, the critic shares how much cinema shaped his life. Both works show, in turn, how Kael’s and Ebert’s criticism shaped the movies we know and love today.


Finally, the fall season always heralds a new slate of literary adaptations, and this year is no different. Among the films based on books that you’ll be hearing about include 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, already touted as a Best Picture favorite; The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s account of Charles Dickens and his mistress Nelly Ternan, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes; Horns by Joe Hill, which stars Daniel Radcliffe, who also portrays Beat poet Allen Ginsburg in Kill Your Darlings; and Life of Crime, an adaptation of The Switch by the late, great Elmore Leonard.

As always, we recommend reading the book before seeing the film.