An Island Treasure and award-winning poet, John also runs our Poetry Section. He takes our various staff recommendations and polishes them till they shine. Ever since he was hired in 1991, he’s been championing the works of his favorite poets (Sharon Olds, Wislawa Szymborska, Ted Kooser, Theodore Roethke, Gary Snyder) and assorted authors (Cormac McCarthy, Kate Atkinson, Ian McEwan, Ruth Ozeki, etc.). He also has led a poetry workshop on the island since 1992. Otherwise, he cooks, hikes and makes sure all of us newcomers don’t unduly mess with the bookstore’s storied traditions and its culture.
Working through grief over her father’s sudden death, Macdonald plunges into the training of a goshawk, a raptor with a reputation for difficulty when it comes to handling by humans. As we get to know Mabel, her hawk, as an individual and a species member, Macdonald’s lyrical and insightful account brings us into the lore of the ancient pursuit of falconry. I found it especially thrilling to witness Macdonald’s growth and understanding amid the despairs and breakthroughs of her work with this starkly powerful bird. ~ John
In young Michael Murray, author O'Donnell has articulated one of the most beguiling and authentic voices of a child I’ve found in a book. Michael’s growing awareness of the opposite sex has become intertwined with the bewildering circumstances of an incident involving his mother. Mystified and ravenously curious on both counts, he propels the novel as he sifts through the truths and lies of his small family and town on a Scottish island. His story gripped me, building into a phenomenally powerful, suspenseful, and finally gratifying read. Bravo! ~ John
Carol Cassella has done it again! I could not put down this taut medical mystery with bittersweet love stories at the core. When a Jane Doe hit-and-run victim, found by the side of the road on the Olympic Peninsula, is flown to a Seattle hospital after suffering a stroke in surgery, ICU physician Charlotte tries to figure out what went wrong, and why no one has come forward to claim the gravely injured woman. Her efforts are twinned with the back story, having a twist, on how the woman ended up there. The resolution, both sad and hopeful, felt just right. Bravo! ~ Victoria
Vista Chronicles is escapism at its best: good old-fashioned story telling with great characters, fun food ideas, and sizzle on the side. All of this with a serious storyline about the Danish resistance in WWII that merges beautifully with the modern romance. Just don’t let honey drip on the pages of this enjoyable read! ~ Victoria
This quietly told novel, which unfolds like an excellent memoir, follows Marie Commeford’s ordinary life, beginning in post-World War I Irish-American Brooklyn. Effortlessly slipping between realms of memory, and intimately linked with family and neighborhood, her sweetly sad and genuine voice tells a gently transcendent tale, eloquent in its depiction of how we handle life’s passages. I loved this book. ~ John
This enthralling memoir of a bicultural childhood is one of the finest works of nonfiction I have read. With prose masterfully grounded in memory and the senses, Arana, born of a Peruvian father and an American mother, explores the ties and tensions between the two, and how those forces resonate intricacies in the cultural divide between Latin and North America. Her lyrical story brings to life a Peru animated by spirits and magic, as well as calamities brought on by earthquakes, rubber barons, and grinding poverty. A 2001 finalist for the National Book Award, this inspiring book sustains its importance through timeless themes: family, love, history, race, class, and the role of women in society. ~ John
Any soul would benefit from the gentle lessons of strength, endurance, friendship and respect contained in this 20th anniversary reissue of an inspiring classic survival tale from the Yukon River Valley. It would make an especially great gift for landmark birthdays in the over-50s crowd. Beautifully and vividly, it brings home abiding truths about aging on the levels of the individual and society.
This now-classic novel from 1999 belongs in the top ranks of modern American fiction. The work of a master craftsman in highly charged storytelling, it revolves around two characters locked in a struggle over a modest Bay Area house: an out-of-luck woman who inherited the house from her father, and a once-powerful colonel who has fled Iran with his family. Filled with suspense, the story hurtles through their intersecting lives, grappling with that quintessentially American and profoundly human question: Where is home? ~ John
When I finished this terrific novel, I immediately wanted to start reading it again, just so I could stay with the characters, among them a Bronx prostitute and her daughter, a young man from Ireland, and a wealthy woman living on the Upper East Side. Their diversity of experience, within the setting of New York City in 1974, represents a compelling human panorama. Serving as an axis for these artfully linked lives, and touching them in ways great and small, a man walks on a wire between the Twin Towers. This is a brilliant, exhilarating tale. ~ John
Why did I wait so long to read this immensely satisfying National Book Award finalist from 1999? Amid the drama of a rural Colorado community, with all its cruelties and kindnesses, Haruf unfolds the intricate connections between main characters: a pregnant teenaged girl, a high school teacher and his young sons, and two aging bachelors who ranch outside town. For its old-fashioned storytelling that possesses elegance and authority, I would recommend this heartwarming, quietly compelling book to anyone. ~ John
I relished this classic page-turning novel from 1950, which takes place in the jungles of Malaya during World War II, and in London and the outback of Queensland Australia thereafter. A tale of endurance and triumph over adversity, wrapped around a story of love, it features plucky protagonist Jean Paget, strong and resourceful and possessing true grit, who survives a forced march at the hands of Japanese forces that evolves into an odyssey lasting well into the post-War years. Shute has an engaging storytelling style that vividly brings to life the various landscapes and subtly conveys the motivations of the characters who inhabit them. This novel moves along at a satisfying clip and is a most rewarding experience. ~ John
“Revision is the process a poem endures to become its best self.” Skinner’s grab-bag of wisdom for poets with various levels of experience has a conversational tone and helpful, encouraging advice on large-picture issues—including MFA programs, “po-biz”, and how to cultivate discipline and a healthy view toward one’s poetry—as well as the finer points involved in the life of poetry. I appreciate the way he candidly interweaves his life experiences, including his divorce and his past career as a private eye, using them to illuminate the poetry writing process. I marked numerous passages that shed light on my life as a poet and poetry teacher: “Revision is the process poets endure to become their best poems.” ~ John
I acquired a genuine feeling of warmth toward the characters in this lyrically enchanting novel of a coastal Oregon town named Neawanaka, whose inhabitants include a talking crow named Moses and a doctor who names his twelve allotted daily cigarettes after the apostles. Just the right dose of magical realism infuses this quintessentially Northwest tale whose themes involve family, love, compassion, a nature-based sense of the sacred, and Native American and Irish ethnic identities. Storytelling at its finest, this book is a joy to read. ~ John
Petterson’s celebrated and compelling coming of age story set in rural Norway has everything you want in a novel, including a strong narrator whose calm, articulate voice shifts seamlessly between time frames, weaving his life into a whole. I especially appreciate the brush strokes of detail that render landscape and the rhythms of nature—river, forest, cabin, lake—around a meditative yet propulsive drama involving son, father, and two families. Eloquent and hard-won truths coming from the speaker’s advancing years complete this very satisfying read. ~ John
Calling Twain, “the poet of American life in the 19th century,” a friend emailed me an extended passage from this book, whose primary material is comprised of dictated memoirs Twain forbade to have published until 100 years after his death. In the passage, Twain lyrically recalls his experiences on a farm in his youth, immersing me in the farm environment: the stain of blackberries and walnut hulls, the sound of woodpeckers and pheasants, the autumn patterns of hickories and sumacs, the eating of a prize watermelon. Reading these words, I felt privileged to hear from this great American writer a voice rarely present in his novels and other writings. I take heart in my friend’s comment, that this is “a book to browse through in order to explore the workings of that cantankerous, brilliant mind.” ~ John
What gratitude I feel for having concluded 2011 with this moving, intensely lyrical novel! Revolving around the experiences of Japanese “picture brides” who came to America in the early 1900s, Otsuka’s book employs, to masterful effect, devices of poetry including litany and refrain to create a novel that is at once intimate and panoramic. Instead of characters in the traditional sense, Otsuka conjures up what seem like voices in the hundreds, each voice, each sentence, a thread in a hypnotic tapestry. Having as the latter part of its time frame the “relocation” of Japanese-Americans at the outset of War II, this beautifully kaleidoscopic work spans farms, fields, cities and suburbs to capture the complexities of cultural collision, racial discrimination, and myriad other struggles of finding a life in a new land. This slender volume is a masterpiece. ~ John
Imagine a rip-roaring, page-turning young adult novel whose protagonist is a talented, award-winning—poet?! From the opening pages, in which that protagonist, Jonathan, leans from a Seattle bridge rail, high on frozen vodka grapes and poised to jump, he invokes past masters of the lyric craft including Whitman and Kerouac in a narrative that braids two currents: the tragic death of his twin brother; and Jonathan’s assignment to write the memoir of a dying World War II survivor. Jonathan’s pain finds expression in the epic poem he composes for his brother, and in playing his acoustic guitar. In writing the war veteran’s story, he finds redemption through another’s suffering. Teens need to witness heroes who are poets, who articulate life’s passages in verbal, lyrical form. Wesselhoeft has taken that gift, goosed it up with several cases of Red Bull, and produced a fine, moving and valuable coming of age tale. Ages 14 & up. ~ John
In this masterful, engaging and thoroughly researched account, Horwitz pulls away the cloak of myth surrounding John Brown and his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, bringing forward the human aspects of Brown’s many roles including those of husband, father, charismatic abolitionist leader, patriot of his cause, and martyr. While detailing the background of the raid as well as its far-reaching consequences, Horwitz highlights Brown’s impact on historical figures including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Robert E. Lee, Emerson, Thoreau and Lincoln. The raid and Brown’s vision are thus placed fully in the context of the Civil War and, more importantly, of a legacy that endures to this day. I found this to be an enlightening, inspiring and highly enjoyable read. ~ John
Cold Mountain author Frazier, one of the great novelists of our time, has created a beautifully gripping novel through old-fashioned storytelling and his genius for bringing to life the people and landscape of the rural and wild Appalachia he intimately knows. He unfolds his tale with masterful nuances of motive, detail and emotion through the eyes of each of his characters, including Luce, his heroine, who cares for her murdered sister’s children while trying to unravel their dangerous ways. Janis, Andrew and Morley love this book, too. Bravo, Charles Frazier! ~ John
Beryl Markham was a pioneering bush pilot in Africa and an aviatrix who set global distance marks. It wasn’t just her daring that earned this memoir number eight on National Geographic’s list of The 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time. What also makes Markham’s book an engrossing read are the grace, lyricism, and vividness of her writing as she recounts her coming of age in Africa, her love of horses and flying, and her feelings of affinity for the land and its people. Highly recommended for fans of the wild or those with an African itinerary. ~ John
Barack Obama is a marvelous and inspiring writer and his gifts with language are engaging and profound. I really enjoyed the extra reward of “hearing” his voice as I read this memoir. With a fine sense of detail and dialogue, he tells of his youth in Hawaii, his further education on the mainland at institutions of higher learning and as an organizer and social activist on the gritty streets of Chicago, and his difficulties and breakthroughs in searching out his roots in Africa and the mystery of his father. This is a great work in the American vein, yet one that reveals the origins of global consciousness he brought to the White House. ~ John
In these beautifully powerful and wide-ranging essays, Kingsolver brings her passion to bear on large issues—globalism, war and genocide, genetically engineered foods, hunger and homelessness—while embracing the virtues of conservation, wild places, buying organic and locally grown foods, biodiversity, sustainable living, poetry, basic human kindness, and, yes, independent bookstores. Yet she writes as though she's speaking to you over coffee, and her words spring from the ground of specific observations in the places where she lives and visits: a bobcat seen outside a window of her home in the Tucson hills, scarlet macaws spotted in a Costa Rican jungle, a clutch of eggs gathered from her daughter Lily's chicken coop. How fortunate we are to have a brilliant novelist whose keyboard clicks every bit as lively for her nonfiction. ~ John
Not since Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain have I longed to recommend a novel to almost everyone I know, for the sheer magic of its story-telling. Having as its main characters an asthmatic eleven-year-old boy, his nine-year-old sister who writes heroic verse set in the Old West, and their father, a high school janitor whose faith bears remarkable powers, the story revolves around their search for a lost older brother in the Badlands of North Dakota. Along the way, through beautifully descriptive and figurative language and a narrative voice that possesses both humor and wisdom, the author gives us glimpses into the true nature of miracles, forgiveness, and difficult decisions. This moving page-turner is a true wonder, and gave me goose bumps at its conclusion. ~ John
Published two years after the author's death, this novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957, and remains one of the most beautiful works in the American language. Death and family-Agee renders the collision of these in the most intimate, tender, and eloquent terms. His book is unparalleled for the sheer brilliance of its poetry, for its nuanced evocations of affection, grief, and the ways we think and feel, and for its loving attention to the gestures of everyday life.
This toothsome and affectionate memoir, punctuated by some of the author's favorite recipes, opens with "The Queen of Mold"-a mother dangerously inventive in the kitchen-and unfolds, memory by memory, with dishes richly infusing Reichel's life experiences. Thoroughly engaging, funny and wise, this book is a delight. ~John
The premise of this compelling page-turner-a black man who owns slaves in 19th-century Virginia plantation country-serves as the springboard for a masterful exploration of the pivotal American issue of race. The stately beauty, authority and authenticity of Jones' writing lay the groundwork for an intricate yet accessible tale that involves a mosaic of memorable characters-overseer, slaves, masters black and white, free blacks, and whites of various stations and means. Vivid language that unveils without compromise the nuances, complexities, and profound truths of the peculiar American institution makes this a must-read for anyone interested in great literature. A novel for the ages. ~ John
I have had a life-long fantasy of hosting one of my heroes, Benjamin Franklin, on a tour of the modern world. Given his imaginative curiosity about the processes of nature and the ways knowledge of that realm could be put to practical use, I believe he would by fascinated yet not surprised at where some of his discoveries have led. Isaacson's engaging biography takes us beyond the image of the kite-flying inventor of the lightning rod, bifocals and swim fins, beyond the spinner of adages about fish and house guests and pennies earned, to the whole, complicated Franklin. This unsparing yet appreciative look at "the most accomplished American of his age," in Isaacson's words, shows Franklin in the light of his times and our own. In so doing, it gives us a vivid portrait of a man whose virtues seem to be growing rare in public figures, virtues including pragmatism, tolerance-religious and otherwise-respect for the individual, humility, lack of pretense, and opposition to arbitrary authority. ~ John
A novel of the Oregon Trail that richly details the westward odyssey, and a moving portrait of the collisions and confluences of European and Indian cultures.
These poems-each a distinct marvel and an invention in the finest sense of the word-are tight bundles of idea, image, and rhyme, bearing initial surprises like sparks, then offering much to ponder on successive readings. Thought-provoking in their brevity, plain-spoken yet often surreal, they derive their imagery and pleasure, their odd truths and their playfulness, from the everyday life that surrounds us.
Quite likely the most delightful book I've ever read and destined to be an all-time favorite, Durrell's memoir of his youth as a budding naturalist on the Greek isle of Corfu is a joy and a balm to one's cares. As lyrically insightful describing flora and fauna as he is detailing the comedic foibles of his family and the local population, he infuses his tale with warmth and a sense of wonder. Save this enormously satisfying book for your next vacation.
This novel possesses the beauty that places Frazier in the top rank of American fiction writers-indelible vividness of imagery in scene after marvelous scene; breathtaking lyricism; sterling humor, irony and wit; and a voice that places us on intimate terms with characters and the landscapes in which they move. Will, the protagonist, makes certain fateful decisions that delineate him sharply in relation not only to Claire, the love of his life, but to the character of early America, the force of westward expansion, and the near-annihilation of American Indian peoples and ways. Through Will and two compelling Indian figures-Bear, a chief who adopts Will at an early age; and Featherstone, a some-time adversary and friend-we gather insights into the Cherokee vision of the world, concepts of land and its ownership, and the complex border regions between Indian, white, and mixed-blood peoples. The sweep of this work held me through two consecutive readings. ~ John
This endearing and highly engaging novel revolves around the written correspondence between a precocious, persistent and ingenious Brooklyn youth named Joey Margolis and Charlie Banks, star hitter and third baseman for the New York Giants. Their relationship begins to unfold in 1940, and as time passes we get glimpses of developments in the nation and the world through news headlines and Joey's periodic letters of advice to Franklin D. Roosevelt. A unique reading experience with a quirky sense of humor and great heart, this book is one-of-a-kind. Take it on your next flight, take it to the beach, take it to the nearest Adirondack chair on a sunny lawn. It's the perfect summer read. ~ John
Beautifully written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Home Town, The Soul of a New Machine, and Among Schoolchildren, this book tells the story of a remarkable and inspiring doctor who has fought tuberculosis and AIDS epidemics in some of the most wretched places on earth, including the central plateau of Haiti, a slum in Lima, Peru, and in Siberian prisons. Mountains Beyond Mountains, like a bracing ray of light in a dark and cynical time, gave me perspectives not only on global health crises, but also on the power of the individual to change the world. -- John
Having as their setting Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a place caught between modernization and the pull of traditional culture, these haunting, quietly moving and elegiac stories evoke themes of loss, exile, dislocation, and the search for identity; and find redemption in family, clan, and the handing down of stories through generations and across the span between old and new worlds. Stunning in its beauty albeit almost heart-breakingly sad, this is the strongest short story collection I have read. ~ John
(Norton)Taking as his premise the little-known history of Royalist black settlers to whom the British granted freedom in Nova Scotia after the American Revolution, Hill has crafted a compelling novel around an extraordinary heroine whose life odyssey speaks for the experiences of many. Through vivid, fascinating detail that reflects devoted research in addition to a great gift for writing, we follow Aminata Diallo from her African village to capture, enslavement and the Middle Passage; her work on a South Carolina indigo plantation and as a servant in Charleston; her service for the British Army in Manhattan; her hardships in Canada; a return to Africa and an experimental settlement in Sierra Leone; and finally her life as a darling of London abolitionists. In addition to being a great read, Aminata’s engaging story of survival and triumph, steeped in history as well as abiding patterns of human existence, throws a unique and necessary light on the enduring global issue of race. ~ John
Spare and eloquently haunting is Wiesel’s voice, the voice of a teenage boy witnessing the destruction of his family amid the mass murder in concentration camps where he lived, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald. A terrible beauty endures in this survivor’s account, made more essential as Holocaust survivors pass away. As Wiesel, who died in July of ’16, notes of the book’s place in our collective memory, “To forget would not only be dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them again.”
Gifted with fluency in both literature and medicine, brilliant young neurosurgeon Kalanithi was uniquely poised to articulate his moving insights on what makes human life meaningful in the face of mortality—his patients’ as well as his own. Spurred by a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer to write the book, Kalanithi beautifully charts his struggle to reconcile his many accomplishments and early plans with what lay ahead for him and his wife. As he writes, “The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” I’m deeply grateful for his witnessing. His courageous, lucid witnessing bears lessons for us all.
Alexander, a distinguished poet, lost her husband Ficre suddenly, leaving her and her two young sons devastated. With a poet’s eye for detail, her deeply moving memoir charts the ways in which aspects of daily life become permeated with his simultaneous absence and presence. Ficre’s joys and passions—for his painting, his cooking, his garden, his family, for life itself—come alive in ways that bring the reader into intimate contact with the layers of Alexander’s grief. If any redemption of such a tragedy is to be had, this is one book that eloquently points the way.
A visit to Hawai’i gains intriguing dimension with this fine book as a background. Haley makes an accessible, engrossing read out of the complex series of collisions and confluences involving native and Western cultures that resonate in the islands to this day. He possesses keen insights into the personalities, including Hawai’ian royalty as well as missionaries, capitalists and politicians. This book deepened my understanding of the huge streaks of tragedy, exploitation and injustice that mark Hawai’i’s past, and gave extra meaning to stops I made at historically significant places including Iolani Palace in Honolulu and Hulihe’e Palace in the town of Kona.
What a welcoming volume of poetry Nobel Laureate Szymborska left us! Try out the poems on pages 177 (“Astonishment”), 216 (“In Praise of My Sister”), and 332 (“A Little Girl Tugs at a Tablecloth”). Usually I find single-author “collected” poetry books intimidating for their sheer bulk; this one I embrace for its gently profound, accessible and conversational tone, its lines spoken as though over a cup of tea.
Young Adults and adults alike have much to gain from reading this heartfelt coming of age novel, set in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation and based on Alexie’s own youth. Excelling at academics and basketball at a mostly-white high school off the reservation brings the protagonist’s view of the miseries and comforts of his own family and tribe into sharp relief, while dead-on humor and a supreme sense of irony—two of Alexie’s strong suits as a writer—elevate the whole into a masterpiece of fiction and cultural commentary. Ages 12 & up.
This novel, Kent’s “dark love letter to Iceland,” revolves around accused murderess Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who, in 1829, was the last person to be executed there. Taken to a remote farm, she lives with a family while awaiting her execution. Thoroughly researched and lyrically written, the book gives us a visceral sense of daily life, work, and society, with vivid scenes taking place in the interiors of dwellings and the beautifully stark landscape surrounding them. Kent lends the reader intimacy with each of her main characters, including the young assistant priest whose fate it is to try and provide comfort and counsel to Agnes. Haunting and strongly compelling, this is a bleak book with an immense heart.
Based on the excellence of this debut and of her second novel, Closed Doors, Lisa O’Donnell of Scotland is one author whose every book I would read. In The Death of Bees, through alternating voices of two sisters whose actions have been driven by frightful family circumstances, O’Donnell has an uncanny gift for making her young protagonists’ thoughts and feelings our own. The novel’s grim edge is redeemed by riveting storytelling and by comedic flourishes that seem to fall in just the right spots. I loved this book.
“Wilderness is not my leisure or recreation. It is my sanity.” ~ Terry Tempest Williams. With grace and passion, Williams brings her extraordinary gifts as a writer, naturalist and activist to these soulful, incisive and inspiring meditations. From Maine’s Acadia National Park to Cesar Chavez National Monument in California, she fuels the diversity of her subjects with an equally compelling array of viewpoints, often casting the value of these places in light of what threatens them. I feel deeply grateful to have crossed paths with this book.
This absorbing novel of exploration, love and adventure is based on an Alaska expedition in the late 1800s. Beautifully written and reflecting thorough research, it alternates viewpoints between newlyweds: an army colonel on an expedition deep into the heart of a Yukon-like river valley; and the wife who waits for him, finding solace in the pursuit of photography. Both places are haunted by a shape-shifting that occurs when the border between human and animal realms blurs, and a mysterious old Indian in a top hat presides over the strong presence of native culture. This book is a winner!
The rewards are many in this masterfully powerful debut novel that fuses a grand and terrible beauty with an elegant, richly layered narrative. Having at its core a handful of characters and two main settings—a village in Chechnya and a city hospital in the same country—the story juxtaposes the hurt that humans, sects, and governments wreak upon each other, against the sustaining forces of kinship, friendship, love and survival. What emerges from the pain and devastation is a convincing affirmation of the place of the child in our universe. This is the most moving novel I have read in a long time. ~ John & Rodie
This mesmerizing, lush and lyrical novel places you right in the highlands of Malaya. Intriguing circumstances bring together the two main characters: a Chinese-Malayan who survives a World War II prison camp but loses her sister there, and a man who once served as the gardener of Japan’s emperor. Themes of memory, forgetfulness, and forgiveness, on personal and historical levels, unfold in settings that reflect the cultivated and wild aspects of the mind: a Japanese garden, a tea plantation, and the jungle. Eng’s descriptive art and his nuanced rendering of human and natural landscapes make this a most memorable book. ~ John