When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man will blow you away. I picked up the book based on the cover alone (I judged a book by its cover. For shame.)
All the men of Loyalty Island, a peninsula jutting into the Strait of Juan de Fuca that separates Canada and the United States, leave for the Bering Sea every season to catch crabs. While at sea, the men long for home; when home, they yearn to be back on the open ocean. This liminality pervades everyone’s life on Loyalty Island.
The story begins when John Gaunt, the patriarch and owner of the fleet, dies and leaves the crab industry in the hands of his college-educated, feckless son, Richard. Richard has never even been
to sea, and his misdirected rebellion against his father threatens the men of Loyalty Island. Richard plans to sell the fleet to the Japanese, and the fishermen take matters into their own hands. Teenage Cal is left picking up the pieces after his family’s way of life is shattered.The men of Loyalty Island find themselves going to immoral lengths they never thought possible to preserve their way of life, and Cal is left with a grave life-or-death secret.
When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man is salty, overcast, suspicious, brooding. The story takes place under the dark, roiling turmoil of moral dilemma and the question of how far one should go for filial duty. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Nick Dybek has writing chops, and it shows. Unlike many Workshoppers, Dybek’s writing is subtle and effective. I was drawn in and gave up every other book I was reading to devote all my eye-time to this. This story will haunt me for a long time.
Recommended for those readers who enjoyed The Shipping News, Sweetland, The Man in my Basement, and Mystic River.
I recently indulged in the new tidying-up phenomenon – the lifestyle of minimalism and possession-free living, and I embraced almost all of the tenets of disposal.
I listened to an audiobook in my car about how throwing out just about everything in your house will lead to a life of contentment, fulfillment, practically ascetic nirvana. Yes! Throwaway throwaway throwaway! What the hell do we need eight bath towels for?! Out they go! 16 drinking glasses? Are you kidding me? Buh-bye! Let’s donate everything. What the flim-flam are all these pillows doing in here? “Minimalism!” I shout, ready to paint my face Braveheart blue and rally the troops. All we really need in this four-bedroom house is a fork, a roll of toilet paper, and a sleeping bag, right?
Oh, and those 2,600 books up there on the walls. Those can stay.
“But, oh crap. What am I going to do with these?!” I stand back and survey my to-be-read pile, which is not really a pile, but shelves. And these are just my TO READ books, not my ALREADY READ books, which take up several more bookcases. Two book cases’ worth of to-read shelves. With piles on top. And I just balanced seven new books on top of those piles with Jenga-master-like precision.
My husband, Dan*, stands behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder, comforting me as though we’re standing in front of a coffin. His TBR pile/shelf/embarrassment of riches is almost as shaming as mine. “It’s going to be okay,” he says. Pat, pat, pat. “It’s fine.”
“But, I really should stop.” I place my hand over the top seven books, chagrined, as though that will hide anything.
Then, something profound happened. A Zen moment. Epiphany and wonderment. Dan asks, “Does buying books make you happy?”
I turn and look at him, transformed.
YES. YES, IT DOES.
“Then buy them,” says the oracle. And, I remember, the audiobook told me not to throw away things that make me happy. They can all stay! All 578 of them! I happily boxed up old toys, outgrown or unneeded clothes, knowing that all my precious literary darlings would be safe.
Then that Spartan minimalist harpy went rogue: “Pare down the books,” she commanded. Get rid of all of them, she practically advised, even the ones you love. You’re never really going to re-read them, are you? Those books you kinda loved? Pitch ‘em. What about your absolute favorites? Eh, they can go. You got what you needed and now they’re just rotting paper. Kick ‘em to the curb. Are you actually going to read all those purchased books “someday”? Somehow, she instructs, they’re ruining your life. I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea.
“Oh no you don’t, LADY!” I screamed at the audiobook. “YOU’RE ruining my life with your cavalier disregard!”
Dan sighs and shakes his head at me. “I think this part of the book just doesn’t apply to you.”
I call bunk on the book paring, especially the electronic books. What does it hurt? Is anyone suffering because I have 350 e-books on my Kindle Fire? No! And here’s the secret: I’m not suffering, either! Lady Bookless on my audiobook may disagree, and for some people having a tidy shelf with three or four books on it is sufficient and the first step to carefree living. To me, however, that is akin to stripping me of my identity.
And if you’re like me, I urge you to embrace your TBR pile, however grossly overfed it may be. Revel in it. Celebrate it! These are your choices for happiness! Swim in them like Scrooge McDuck!
Float away to complete bliss riding on the ship of your book piles. If you’ve Japanese-tidied, then you don’t have anywhere to sleep anyway because you gave away all your bed linens. Curl up on all your unread books and sleep with contented ownership. Dream of all the books you have yet to buy.
*Dan is not Dan’s real name. Our youngest child couldn’t say “Dad.” It came out “Dan.” Now we all call him Dan. Or, more specifically, his full moniker: Dan, Dan, the Garbage Can.
Like a double shot of espresso or a B12 injection, here is a second booster dose of Books About Books to energize your literary spirit:
The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe
The title grabbed me right away. Will Schwalbe’s memoir begins when his mother is dying of pancreatic cancer. While they spend many hours together in waiting rooms and doctors’ offices, they discover the coincidence that they’re reading the same book, and thus their informal two-person book club is born. For the remaining two years of her life, Will and his mother share books that foster discussion of life, passions, philosophy, and faith.
It seemed initially like a comforting and thought-provoking memoir, and it’s been a while since I read this, but I do remember that while I was listening to the audiobook I looked at my Kindle quite often to see how many hours were left. This book was a tad too Oprah for my taste. The sentimentality and white-washing of Will’s mom’s motives and personality, especially in her endless selfless acts of chairing multiple charities, only caused her to be presented one-dimensionally. Mary Anne Schwalbe came across as a phlegmatic, inexhaustible saint of a woman who never complained, never felt scared, angry, or betrayed by her diagnosis. I wanted more humanization of Mary Anne. By writing her to be so accepting and patient, Will actually made her less appealing to the reader.
There was an impressive list of books that were included in the “book club,” and I was introduced to many books that I may not have discovered otherwise. Unfortunately, many of the books I was excited to read after learning about them in The End of Your Life Book Club left me underwhelmed (The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Suite Francaise, The Lizard Cage . . . I could go on). Perhaps Will and I just have different taste, and that’s fine . . . but damn. I was hoping for an uplifting memoir and great literary discussion. Not so much.
I applaud the author for taking this on, and for sharing his story, but this book seemed more like a cathartic journey for Will and I’m not sure we as readers really needed to come along.
The History of Love – Nicole Krauss
Hey, TheHistory of Love, have you met The History of the Rain? These two books go together like Harold and Maude. The History of Love contains two interwoven stories.
The first is the story of Leo Gursky, who pines for his first love, Alma, and his novel, The History of Love, that he dedicated to her and was stolen and published by his friend. Leo is now in his later years and, nearing death, he sits on a bench and waits for his true love to return. The second story is of Alma, a young girl named after the main character in The History of Love, whose story becomes intertwined with Leo’s. This is a book about the magic of books and writing them, with the gut-wrenching ache of lost love.
My review here is falling far short of the lavish praise I wish to give this wondrous story. The ending is one you’ll never forget and this book has a special place on my shelf. Beautiful, beautiful.
The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker is a difficult author to wrap my brain around. He is prolific, and captures a moment unlike any author I’ve read before. One of his other books, The Mezzanine, takes place during one man’s trip up an escalator. Baker somehow manages to fit an entire book in that two-minute span and absolutely captivates his reader.
In The Anthologist, Baker writes about Paul Chowder, a mediocre poet conscripted to compile an anthology of poetry and write the introduction. Abandoned by his girlfriend, Chowder sits in a barn suffering from the alcoholic-haze headache of writer’s block, and what comes out is a dissertation on the rationalization of poetry and the manipulation of words into rhythm, rhyme, and meaning. The Anthologist is complicated and pedagogical, but lyrical all the same. Baker includes analysis of the rhyming words of poems, stressing the imperative of the rests in between the words, and the use of enjambment, which is when one line of poetry doesn’t end where it’s supposed to and jams into the next line without that necessary rest. The pauses and silences are just as important as the words.
This is a quick, fascinating bit of prose. It’s like the one course you take in college from your favorite professor that has nothing to do with your major. Sit down by Baker’s knee and hear his tales of how rhyme isn’t obsolete or unsophisticated, but is an elevated form of the use of words. I enjoyed it so much that I took notes the entire time.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan
This is a fun book, and kind of skirts the “books about books” category, but I felt it should be included because it’s so unusual and also highlights the mystery and intrigue of bookstores. The protagonist, Clay Jannon, takes the late shift at the 24-hour bookstore (why would a bookstore need to be open at 3am? Ah HA! First clue!), and finds that things really are as weird as they seem.
Then, enter secondary female character, Kat, to assist Clay in his quest to discover the root cause of the bookstore’s weirdness through her connections at Google. She reminded me of Lisbeth Salander from those grossly over-hyped Girl Who Did Whatever books,
but she was not nearly as annoying and didn’t come with too much shtick. This book reminded me of National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code, blending mystery and secret societies and clues found in old manuscripts. It’s a lot of fun, and enough cerebral twists to keep you turning the pages. What I most appreciated was the fact that Sloan blends old and new technology – the Internet and coding play just as much a part here as the old ciphers in the ancient texts.
There are some eyebrow-raising coincidences in play, and often there seems to be just the right rescue at just the right time, but if you can overlook some tropes, it’s a fun romp. Suspend your disbelief a little and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.
Also, the book jacket glows in the dark. Touché, Sloan.
Are there any books I missed? Leave me recommendations in the comments.
Woo hoo! I love books about books about books. There’s something about being accepted as a pathological bibliomaniac that warms the foxed pages of my heart.
In the interest of full disclosure, this list is neither long nor comprehensive because I feel squeamish about including books that I haven’t read. So, all those listed here are tried and true, by yours truly. Here are a few of my favorite books about books:
When Books Went to War – Molly Guptill Manning
The true story about America’s effort to bring books to soldiers during WWII. Encouraged to fight the censorship and book-burning of the Nazis, our country wanted to bring stories to our troops to help ease the strife of convalescing in hospitals, offer a distraction to those on the front lines, and ease the boredom that often overtook many soldiers’ days. There were successful book drives, and eventually the War Department took over the massive undertaking of printing paperbacks and getting them to our men and women overseas.
I learned about ASEs (Armed Services Editions) of popular best-sellers, and well as the existence of the oft-sought-after Forever Amber, which was apparently quite a scandalous read at the time. I highly recommend this book; more than just the interesting explanations of how the book printing and distribution operated, Manning also includes personal stories of soldiers’ reactions to books they might have never otherwise encountered. Most importantly, this book shows us how comforting and necessary the written word can be.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
This is the most meta of all books about books. First translated from the Italian in 1981, I am in awe that this book was in existence for almost my entire life, waiting, silently, for me.
The frame story is of a reader who goes to a bookstore to buy a book called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but the copy he buys is incomplete due to some kind of publishing mistake. When he attempts to buy a new copy, that one is also incorrect, and his third attempt is the wrong book all together, and so on, but he keeps on reading the copies. He ends up reading ten beginnings of ten different books, all of which tie up at the end. And the ending is delightful!
You, as the reader, are also included in the story with second person POV. So, along with the story of this reader buying and reading the beginning of the books, you’re also presented with ten opening book chapters, which are mostly like short stories and are fascinating unto themselves.
Calvino weaves in philosophical discussion about books, about loving the beginnings of books in particular. The beginnings of books are full of potential, and that expectant adventure is what Calvino hones in on. There were so many epiphanies in this book, so many times I wanted to shout “Eureka! He’s done it!” or, in more keeping with my personality, “Dude. Just wow.” It’s original, captivating, definitive, joyful.
To paraphrase Clifford Geertz and Bertrand Russell, it’s just novels all the way down.
History of the Rain – Niall Williams
One of my Favorite Books of All Time (and that’s a very exclusive distinction). I want to clasp Williams’s hands in mine and thank him for capturing the words that knock about in my bookish soul.
Ruth Swain lives in the attic loft of what is essentially a ramshackle castle, surrounded by 3,000 of her deceased father’s books. While she’s convalescing/dying of some unnamed cancerous illness, she decides to get to know her father better by reading his library. The language beautifully captures the human condition, especially as it relates to the love of literature. I couldn’t stop highlighting passages, such as “ . . . went down among the shelves and felt company, not only the company of the writers, but the readers, too, because they had lifted and opened and read these books.”
Highly recommended for romantic bibliophiles.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
I passed over this epistolary novel numerous times because of the title. It gave me an “old lady lit” impression that I am chagrined to admit. It sounded like ice cream socials, and gosh-darn-its, and “something so funny happened at church on Sunday when a bee flew into the sanctuary.” I could not have been more wrong.
Set in 1946, the story revolves around Juliet, a London writer who begins corresponding with a group of people who claim to be a literary society in Guernsey. This society was formed as a ruse to fool the German occupiers. There is a much deeper story than Juliet first encounters, and she becomes absorbed with this group of friends and their tales of the occupation.
Please don’t succumb to my initial prejudice. This is the kind of book that when you pass a copy in the used book store you have to reach out and run your finger on the spine and smile.
Howard’s End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home – Susan Hill
Aaaand, here I am feeling squeamish, because I haven’t read this book. I just discovered its existence and read some reviews online, and it seems like my cuppa.
The author had a realization that she owned too many books (I don’t understand this “too many” she’s talking about) and decided to devote a year of her reading life to only reading what is in her home library. I’m not sure if this might fall into the self-indulgent side of many of these types of year-long experiments, but I still hold out hope for introspection without overflowing self-absorption. Many reviewers have admonished the author for name-dropping and limiting herself to British authors, but I’m still interested. If anyone has any experience with this one, please let me know in the comments.
And, just in case you think I’m done here, no sir! More to come. There are many books about books that are worth reading, so PART TWO will be on its way soon. What are your favorite books about books? Recommendations welcome!
I don’t believe in them. I think their purpose is often grossly misguided. “How many books have you read?” is often given more importance than “What books have you read?” Really, the most important question is, “Do you like to read?”
A few years ago when my daughter Claudia was still in elementary school (I call her Claudia here, in an effort of anonymity, after the girl in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), she had to earn a certain number of Accelerated Reader (AR) points each 9 weeks. Each book on the AR list is assigned a point value based on its arbitrarily-assigned reading level, and then a multiple-choice comprehension test determines how many of the assigned points are earned.
For most of the kids I talked to, books were chosen based on point value. I heard, “Nah, I’m not going to read that one. It’s only a 7-pointer,” or, even more disheartening, “Nah, I’m not going to read that one. It’s not worth any points.” What happened to teaching kids to love reading for the sake of reading? This AR system only taught kids to read because they had to. The plot of the book wasn’t important, the desire to read the book had no relevance. Only the point value mattered. Plow through it, take the test, get your points. Did you like the book? Who cares. I understand that kids will still have to read the required reading crap, like Beowulf and The Heart of Darkness, but do we have to hijack their pleasure reading too?
I recommended a book to a friend’s daughter, but she said she wouldn’t read it because it wasn’t on the AR list, and therefore she wouldn’t earn points for it. If she can’t get points, then it’s not worth reading.
My niece, who reads so much she’s made a Youtube channel about it, didn’t get on the AR Honor Roll list (for those with the MOST POINTS) because she also recognized that this AR thing is absolute bunk. Her friends looked at her in wide-eyed disbelief when her name wasn’t called on awards day for reading AR books. Her mom asked her why she didn’t make the list at awards day at her school, and she told her that she didn’t want to be told what to read. “Too many books I want to read aren’t on the list,” she shrugged.
So, for the kids who already love to read, AR is stifling. For the kids who hate to read, it reinforces their hatred of reading. Fortunately, at my son’s school, they’ve recently ditched AR in favor of “just record how many minutes you read every night.” It’s working better. I still get the “How many more minnnnuttttes?” whine, but at least he gets to pick the book he’s interested in. And it doesn’t matter if he reads two books or 200 books. He’s reading, and that’s the point. And there’s no will-this-be-on-the-test anxiety associated with it.
Goodreads has an adultified system of annual goal-setting for number of books read per year for their patrons. “What’s your reading goal?!” they yell on their Web site. “See what your friends have listed as their goal! How many books do YOU want to read in 2016?” My answer: all of them. I want to read all of them. Every single book. I wish I could pop them in my mouth and gobble them up, Cookie Monster style.
I never set a goal. Why? Because, honestly, I don’t care how many I read every year. Sure, I fall prey to the stats on Goodreads and am interested in how many and what exactly I read over the past year. Not to sound clichéd and snobbish, but I savor quality over quantity. I’d rather read five 600-page tomes of literary nirvana than ten 300-page pieces of “meh.” If I want to read it, I read it. If I don’t, I don’t. This year I read a translated French novella, Beside the Sea, that clocked in at around 80 pages, and I also read the much over-hyped A Little Life (don’t get me stahted) that was 850 pages. Well, 150 pages of actual story and 650 of nauseous repetition. They count for the same thing on a “reading goal” list, but in my heart they carry much different weight.
And I don’t want to be like my friend’s kid who will say, “Well, I’d like to read that book, but it’s 600 pages long, and I’m trying to meet my reading goal for the year . . . and, well, that’ll just put me behind. So, never mind. I’m so sorry, Mr. Best Book Ever That I Missed Out On. You’re just too long to bother.”
Never mind, indeed. Read what you want, when you want, as much as you want. What’s MY goal? To enjoy my books.
WOW, what a story. It’s like a punch in the solar plexus.
The North Water follows Irish surgeon Patrick Sumner on board an ill-fated whaler outfitted with murderers and corruptibles in 1857. Sumner himself has a tormented past and is using The Voyager to flee from his sins. Little does he know that worse things are aboard the ship than he could have ever faced on land. When all other whalers are heading south to chase their quarry, The Voyager heads farther north, into pack ice and madness.
There are no bonny, sea-weathered blokes having a gam in this book. This story is all murderous plotting and barbarism. Based on the true accounts I’ve read from actual whalers, McGuire’s fiction isn’t far off the mark.
At less than 300 pages, The North Water is a quick read, but the pacing is, at times, too inconsistent. In some parts I was just starting to feel the desperation, the isolation, the grueling, unfathomable cold, and McGuire moved on. I wanted more story with Sumner’s bear hunt and more time with the Yaks, but I was also content that McGuire didn’t linger too long. I’m not one to advocate filler, so I appreciate that McGuire kept the story moving. The descriptions of the grime, the tortuous ship, the starvation and deprivation are impressive. The environment on The Voyager is all viscera, excreta, and blood. This may sound gruesome, but it couldn’t have been better. His word choice is enviable. I found myself highlighting single words in order to later applaud their specificity. I think my vocabulary increased seven-fold.
The North Water is gory, bloody, corporeal. If you’re at all squeamish, as in “can’t handle Tarantino films,” then this is not for you. Unlike some readers, I didn’t find the brutality and violence overbearing at all. This book requires it, or it wouldn’t work. A story set in the 19th century about a psychologically-tormented, drug-addicted surgeon aboard a cursed ship full of pedophillic murders and mutinous traitors isn’t going to be full of cupcakes and rainbows. I for, one, enjoyed it enormously. If you have the stomach for it, dive in. You won’t regret it.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Henry Holt & Co. for this advance copy.
Rising from the ashes of the final episode of the beloved “Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes, marketing genius creator of Downton, Gosford Park, and just about all much-adored historical soap operas, has a new project! I, for one, am still in mourning over the end of Downton, daydreaming about the end of all the characters on the show, such as the name of “Anner” and Mr. Bates’ baby and whether or not Molesly and Baxter finally hook up.
But fear not, fellow mourners! Belgravia has appeared, and it’s a SERIAL. Fellowes has designed a literary serial online, set in 1815 on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. From the description on the Web site, there is much betrayal, gossip, affairs won and lost — all the dramatic frenzy one should expect from Julian Fellowes. The novel will be released as eleven “episodes,” sent straight to your favorite device. The first episode, the one that most likely will hook you like crack, is free. Move over, Chuck Dickens, it’s time to party like it’s 1861.
To add to the temptation, there is an app, some online maps, and a family tree (which only fills in as you meet the characters, so no spoilers given). I’m hoping Belgravia may be the light at the Downton terminus. I imagine Fellowes whispering, “Shhh, do not weep. There is more to come.”
I’m on board. I’ve subscribed to read the first episode, but haven’t fully committed to the $14 for all eleven. I’m reservedly optimistic. Great expectations, indeed.