Andrea is the owner of Browsers. A medical librarian by education, she is now relishing talking about books all day. She has a lovely husband, two daughters in elementary school, two labradoodles named George & Annie and a flock of chickens. She loves books about books and really good fiction. When she's not reading or talking about books she loves to cook, eat good food and walk.
In Maggie O’Farrell’s imaginative and beautifully written new novel, Shakespeare purposely remains a shadowy figure. It feels right: she centers the heart of the novel around Shakespeare’s wife Agnes, a healer and herbist. Their young son, Hamnet (essentially interchangeable with the name Hamlet at the time) dies of the plague and O’Farrell explores grief, marriage, and creation after the death of a child. Hamnet is remarkable and definitely my favorite novel of the summer.
She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare. From habit, while she sits there near the fireplace, some part of her mind is tabulating them and their whereabouts: Judith, upstairs. Susanna, next door. And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again. At school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? And Hamnet? Where is he? Here, she tries to tell herself. Cold and lifeless, on this board, right in front of you. Look, here, see. And Hamnet?
May I suggest reading Austin Channing Brown’s absorbing memoir instead of White Fragility? This is a good place to start if you’re wondering which anti-racist title to read. It’s by a black woman, it definitely treads some of the same ground as WF, and ACB writes with authority on what it is to be a black woman in America.
This is partly what makes the fragility of whiteness so damn dangerous. It ignores the personhood of people of color and instead makes the feelings of whiteness the most important thing.
A heartfelt reminder: you matter. Funny and warm, tender and wise, this is my favorite picture book of 2020. My kids think they are too old for picture books at this point but that isn’t stopping me from collecting everything Christian Robinson has ever written or illustrated.
A Burning is a short, taut debut novel that packs a lot in but remains eminently readable. A train in modern India is attacked with flaming torches and many passengers are killed. The novel follows three characters in the aftermath of the attack. All three lives are upended and the character’s trajectories in fortune are inextricably linked. Big themes are explored well: class, fate, power, and justice. You won’t forget this one anytime soon.
Seattle nature writer Leigh Calvez came to the Olympia library a few years ago and Browsers sold the books for the event. I so enjoyed her presentation and took home a copy of her book. I finally pulled it down from my shelf and spent a weekend immersed in the strange, wondrous world of the owl. Calvez writes of Northwest owlers and owls in an accessible, personal, and informative style.
I am always drawn to a book that brings together good writing and good food. Add the word “comfort” and this book becomes necessary reading for 2020. This edited collection brings together writers as diverse as Mira Jacob, Carmen Maria Machado, Anthony Doerr, and Colum McCann and the essays do exactly as they say they will: bring the reader (eater) both comfort and joy.
Naively, I didn’t even consult a recipe first, just bought some tomatoes and garlic and onion and threw them, chopped up together, in a pan. Over the years, I learned, slowly, to do better than that. I learned where the ingredients came from. The order of things. Learning how to cook better was like learning how to be better.
-Beth (Bich Minh) Nguyen
Part memoir, part history, Jazmina Barrerra “collects” lighthouses as a concept and as individual places. These essays are descriptive and personal, both lonely and life-affirming.
A controlled flame is an indication of human presence…Lighthouses speak in that primordial language of flame, and their message is, first and foremost, that human beings are here.
Love and War (literally) collide in this absorbing WWI novel. Two couples fall in love in the midst of war, Hazel & James and Aubrey & Colette. Thirty years later, Aphrodite, goddess of love, is telling the lovers’ stories to her husband Haphaestus and her lover, Ares. It works, really. I could not put down this YA novel and read it in one day - vacation reading at its finest.
Brit Bennett’s second novel is about racial identity and three generations of mother-daughter relationships. The Vignes sisters - Stella & Desiree - are identical twins and raised in a Southern community established for black residents with light skin. The girls escape to the big city and their paths diverge - one sister passes for white and marries a man who knows nothing of her past and the other sister ends up back in the small town she had tried to escape, with a dark daughter who does not belong. Weaving together multiple generations over decades, this is a beautifully imagined and deeply moving novel.
In the time of COVID, I am (re)listening to Jane Austen’s six perfect novels in order of publication. I’m on Emma right now with just Persuasion to go. It’s been a wholly satisfying reading project. I took home an advanced reading copy of Natalie Jenner’s first novel, The Jane Austen Society (out 5/26), and promptly read the whole thing in one day. If you love Jane Austen and are craving a light but not at all silly novel, may I humble suggest this one? There’s a bit of a mystery, a little bit of heartbreak, and the ending is hopeful and sweet.
I loved Stephanie Danler’s first novel, Sweetbitter, a coming of age story set in New York’s restaurant world. Her new memoir explores the dysfunctional relationship she has with her mother, her father and a married ex-lover she dubs “The Monster”. Written in short, location-based vignettes set mostly in Southern California, this is a moving account of addiction and family trauma and what it takes to create a life and narrative beyond our families of origin.
In the midst of the pandemic, I found reading about Winston Churchill to be infinitely soothing. Larson’s new book traces Churchill’s first turbulent year as prime minister from May of 1940 to May of 1941. Larson uses personal diaries to great effect - the Blitz feels terrifyingly fresh and real in this account. If you’re a fan of Larson’s previous books, Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, you will not at all be disappointed.
It is not given to human beings — happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable - to force or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events.
Winston Churchill, Eulogy for Neville Chamberlain, November 12, 1940
A warm, inviting food memoir (with recipes) by the daughter of Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. Singer is funny and writes about food and her famous mother with a light touch despite her rarefied food background. The accompanying photographs are beautiful. Always Home makes a lovely gift and is comfort reading at its finest.
The Glass Hotel delineates the financial collapse of a Ponzi scheme and how it influences the lives of five characters. If you’re a fan of Station Eleven, there are some similar notes here, especially in tone and structure. Characters weave in and out of the story, hopscotching around time. The novel is a puzzle and the pieces don’t fit together until the very end. A very satisfying, beautiful novel.
One of our signature flaws as a species: we will risk almost anything to avoid looking stupid.
The long-awaited conclusion to Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy is finally here. Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies traced the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the service of Henry VIII and this final volume outlines his inevitable fall from the capricious graces of the King. I adore Mantel’s sentences and bracing prose and at 754 pages, it’s a good thing I do. Someday, I look forward to rereading all three novels in quick succession. Project reading at is finest.
His new friend will understand that princes are not as other men. The have to hide from themselves, or they would be dazzled by their own light. Once you know this, you can begin to erect those face-saving barriers, screens behind which adjustments can take place, corners for withdrawal, open spaces in which to turn and reverse. There is a smooth pleasure in the process, a gratifying expertise, but there is a price too: a bilious aftertaste, a jaundiced fatigue.
A warm, life-affirming, funny, complicated multi-generational family story. This is just a yes, especially right now. Emma Straub is the owner of the bookstore Books Are Magic in Brooklyn and I will read anything she writes.
I absolutely loved Straub’s many observations on parenting: Who ever did something right the first try? Astrid knew that she had failed, maybe not in the ways that she thought she had, but in so many ways she had never even noticed. This was the job of a parent: to fuck up, over and over again. This was the job of a child: to grow up anyway.
Simply one of the most charming memoirs I have ever read. The perfect Corona quarantine read - laugh-out loud funny, sweet but not too sweet. Nina Stibbe moves to London as a 20-year-old to work as a nanny to two young boys. Her letters home to her sister record daily life and the snippets of conversations and daily happenings of life with the boys, their mother, and her literary circle of friends.
Brian Doyle’s posthumous nonfiction collection, One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, is easily my favorite book of 2020. My copy at this point is dog-eared, beloved, and underlined. I think I have read fully half the book out loud to my husband. I have been unexpectedly delighted by the two-way-street of book recommendations. I recommend books all day, but I am equally beyond grateful for the books and writers my customers have recommended to me.
All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference. Humility does not mean self-abnegation, lassitude, detachment; it’s more a calm recognition that you must trust in that which does not make sense, that which is unreasonable, illogical, silly, ridiculous, crazy by the measure of most of our culture. You must trust that you being the best possible you matters somehow. That trying to be an honest and tender parent will echo for centuries through your tribe. That doing your chosen work with creativity and diligence will shiver people far beyond your ken. That being an attentive and generous friend and citizen will prevent a thread or two of the social fabric from unraveling. And you must do all of this with the certain knowledge that you will never get proper credit for it, and in fact the vast majority of things you do right will go utterly unremarked.
We are all spending a lot more time in our homes these days, no? You might appreciate this memoir-in-essays of one family renovating a derelict Victorian in Port Townsend. Bauermeister also movingly reflects on the psychology of architecture and what it means to take care of a home. When we can gather again, we are planning an event with Erica at Browsers.
There is beauty in seeing the small things, in taking care of something. I’ve always thought that phrasing odd - taking care. I’ve always though it should be giving.
Perhaps that is what rituals and stories really are - another place to put our anxious minds. A safe space inside yourself in a world that doesn’t always make sense, that can terrify you or break your heart.
The Office is easily my favorite sitcom and I am enjoying this recent surge of The Office fandom moments, including Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey’s podcast Office Ladies. Andy Greene’s book is just enjoyable. The oral history / interview style works well and I especially loved the deep dives into individual episodes.
I’ve now read this twice, once on vacation in January and once for a nonfiction book club I’m in. This graphic memoir is funny and brilliant and you’ll want to talk about it when you finish. Through often hilarious conversations with her six-year-old son, Z, Mira Jacob explores what it means to be a person of color in America right now.
I don’t necessarily have the ambition to read historian Robert A. Caro’s Lyndon Johnson series or his biography of Robert Moses, but I found this personal essay collection absorbing. I am interested in why people choose to do the work they do, especially projects that absorb a lifetime. This is a fascinating glimpse into the process and motivations of a great historian, researcher, and writer.
Silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it - as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer….When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” for (Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SUs” there.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King is a coming of age novel set in the late 1990s. The details and small moments here are beautiful: observations on writing, waiting, and grief. We read King's breakout novel Euphoria in our book club last year and this novel is wildly different in tone, but just as mesmerizing.
I feel like a conductor who is finally able to hear all the instruments at once. I think back on all the rooms in all the cities and towns where I wrote the pieces of the book, all the doubts and days of failure but also that knot of stubborness that's still inside me.
This is Anne Bogel’s (of Modern Mrs Darcy fame) third book. If the title seems like it could be for you, you should add it to your TBR (to be read) list. Anne offers a framework for easier decision-making and her insights are a beautiful mix of practical and personal. I loved it!
"We can be creators of justice, love, joy, compassion, and peace. But when we take a look at the world around us, it's clear these things don't just happen; we have to think about them - and then act on those thoughts. We need to ask ourselves important questions, such as What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of world do I want to live in? How can I - in my own small way - make that happen?
Memory, truth, unspeakable violence. If you like your novels a little twisty, all beautiful words and opaque motivations, read Idaho. Ann and Wade live in rural Idaho and as Wade’s memory fails, Ann seeks to understand what happened to Wade’s first wife Jenny and to their two young daughters. For fans of Marilynne Robinson (especially Housekeeping).
I love everything about this cookbook. The photos are beautiful and the idea is simple - Williams give you ten simple base cakes with room to experiment. I have baked three cakes so far, and all have been wonderful. Make sure you read this cookbook - the author is funny and warm and you’ll want to make cake for everyone.
The Dearly Beloved is a debut novel, for fans of Elizabeth Strout and Ann Patchett. The reader follows two very different young couples who become inextricably linked when the husbands are hired as co-ministers of a NYC church in the 1960s. This is a novel of faith and forgiveness, friendship and commitment, marriage and parenting. It’s wise and beautiful. I loved it.
“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work at work worth doing.”
I don’t identify as an artist or writer but I found Jessie Kwak’s book on productivity to be enormously helpful and practical. She lays out how to organize a system to catch all of our floating to-dos and priorities and then really dives into how to actually accomplish the work. You can read this in an afternoon and immediately put Kwak’s system into practice.
First of all, this cover is so beautiful and fits the novel perfectly. Patchett’s writing always seems effortless and I couldn’t stop reading this novel once I started. Spanning five decades, the story is centered around Danny and Maeve, a tight brother and sister pair, and their relationship with the family home, the Dutch House of the title. If you are an Ann Patchett fan, The Dutch House will not disappoint.
“I know what it’s like to be small in the city…”
This is such a tender, surprising, and beautiful picture book. The narrative is simple - a child is giving advice on how to navigate the big, snowy city. At first, the story seems a little lonely but keep reading. The art is as breathtaking as the ending.
Harrowing (definition: acutely distressing) is the word that keeps coming to mind when I try to describe The Nickel Boys. The novel is based on the true story of a school for boys in Florida (closed only eight years ago) and follows Elwood and Turner, two boys sentenced to the reform school during the Jim Crow-era. It’s a slim novel but a devasting one - the narrative is precise and direct and hits hard.
“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.”
If you read and loved The Signature of All Things, Gilbert’s surprising 2013 novel about a moss specialist in the 19th century, City of Girls is your book. Gilbert is such a big, generous writer. Set in 1940s New York, the novel follows a silly young 19-year-old girl named Vivian Morris as she moves to Manhattan to live with her aunt who owns a falling down theater called the Lily Playhouse. There are odd characters, big drama around men and sex, and a successful musical. As Viv grows up, the novel also grows up and by the end, all the threads come together in emotional, wise, and life-affirming ways.
“Never has it felt more important for me to tell stories of joy and abandon, passion and recklessness. Life is short and difficult, people. We must take our pleasures where we can find them. Let us not become so cautious that we forget to live.”
(From the letter to the reader at the beginning of the book).
Rise of the Dragon Moon is Olympia resident Gabby Byrne’s first novel. Yes, this is a book with dragons, and yes, Princess Told is a strong female character and yes, there’s dynamic world building (cold planet! A couple of moons!). But it’s Princess Toli’s emotional life and the development of her relationships with her mother and sister and friends that make this into a truly wonderful novel for middle grade kids. In preparation for publication and the book launch party, I wanted to read this book out loud to my daughters. We made it through two chapters before my 10-year-old took it out of my hands and said, “Mom, this will take too long to read this out loud.” She took the book to bed and her light stayed on too late. But it was summertime, and do you remember? It’s the best kind of reading: staying up too late, reading just one more chapter.
Can you believe A Better Man is the 15th Armand Gamache mystery? I am to the point where I will read anything by Louise Penny but the series continues to be immensely satisfying. In this installment, Gamache has returned to the Sûreté du Québec from a nine-month suspension and demotion and is now reporting to Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his son-in-law. Of course there is a compelling mystery to be solved. But what I love most about the series is Penny’s loving attention to the place of Three Pines. Let’s meet at Olivier’s bistro, share a delectable meal (sandwich? tart? eggs Benedict?) with a glass of red wine in hand and discuss.
A beautiful, compulsively readable debut novel. Two young sisters go missing on the shoreline of the Kamchatka Peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia. The novel takes place over the course of a year and follows a cast of characters connected by the girls’ disappearance. The plot is familiar enough but the writing is stunning. Phillips’ observations are rooted in the passing year and the characters emotional lives are richly portrayed. The setting is completely unknown to most Americans but the reader is drawn into the natural world of the Kamchatka Peninsula as well as it’s social and political divides. I can’t wait to see what Phillips writes next.
“You believe that you keep yourself safe, she thought. You lock up your mind and guard your reactions so nobody, not an interrogator or a parent or a friend, will break in. You earn a graduate degree and a good position. You keep your savings in foreign currency and you pay your bills on time. When your colleagues ask you about your home life, you don't answer. You work harder. You exercise. Your clothing flatters. You keep the edge of your affection sharp, a knife, so that those near you know how to handle it carefully. You think you established some protection and then you discover that you endangered yourself to everyone you ever met.”
I have thought a lot about why these personal, journalistic essays are so compelling. They aren’t written by a dispassionate voice trying to understand the American political and cultural divide. These essays work because they are so personal - Lenz’s marriage ended because her husband voted for Trump. She’s a mid-Westerner who still lives in the heartland. She’s wrestling with the dissolution of her marriage through the larger lens of how faith and politics interact during this intense time in America.
“Everything is political. Our wounds and our worship. We want our faith to transcend the political, but we can only do that when we exist in sameness. When barriers collapse, our wounds are revealed, and wounds are political because they involve pain.”
An epic, beautifully written novel reimagining the life of the sorceress Circe. The ancient Greek gods and heroes - Zeus, Odysseus, Penelope, Hermes, Jason, Medea - are all here, but the familiar stories are filtered through the perceptive eyes of Circe. I wasn’t sure how this novel would feel to read, but it’s absorbing and real and magical and has so much to say on the big human questions.
“Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.”
“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
I can’t help but say it: these essays are delightful. Poet Ross Gay spends one year writing essayettes enumerating his delights. They are funny, warm, surprising, wise, and tender. The only downside to this small book is that it ends.
“It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.”
“Rest is an essential component of good work.” This book will convince you to restructure your days and to think deeply about how you work and how you rest. Pang is an engaging writer and has clearly done his research, both scientific and historical. This is the perfect book to take on vacation or read on a Sunday afternoon - I came away with so many concrete ideas on how to work more deeply and rest more deliberately.
“Rest is not something that the world gives us. It’s never been a gift. It’s never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”
“When we treat rest as work’s equal and partner, recognize it as a playground for the creative mind and springboard for new ideas, and see it as an activity that we can practice and improve, we elevate rest into something that can help calm our days, organize our lives, give us more time, and help us achieve more while working less.”
I think I expected How to Do Nothing to be a somewhat practical manual on how to leave my phone alone for more than two minutes. So I was surprised, and then completely refreshed, to read a wide-ranging, almost political manifesto, on what it actually means to pay attention, to listen, and to participate in a technologically driven culture on our own terms.
“Given how poorly art survives in a system that only values the bottom line, the stakes are cultural as well. What the tastes of neoliberal techno manifest-destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetic, or less-than-obvious.”
Jody J. Little visited the store this summer to talk about her first novel, Mostly the Honest Truth. It’s a tender middle grade novel (ages 8-11) about foster care, forgiveness, community, and belonging. This is a book that both my 10-year-old and I deeply loved and connected with. Jane Pengilly is a wonderful character and by the end of the book, you’ll want to live in Three Boulders.
Jayson Greene’s two-year-old daughter Greta was killed while sitting on a park bench with her grandmother, hit by a falling piece of masonry from a nearby building. Greene beautifully delineates impossible feelings - his grief, his anger, and his immense love for his daughter. Yes, this is a hard book to read but I am so thankful Greene is sharing his story with readers. Life is a gift.
“I am allowed to be angry forever. I tell this to myself again and again. I am allowed to be confused forever. I had a child die and chose to become a father again. There can be no greater definition of stupidity or bravery, insanity or clarity, hubris or grace. In my moments of strength, I simply surrender to this confusion and allow it to envelope me.”
After the news that Meghan and Harry’s baby boy (Archie!) was safely delivered this week, I quickly pulled off the shelf my (only) favorite book about the British monarchy: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. It’s been at least ten years since I first read it but it’s held up so beautifully. The book imagines this scenario: The Queen of England becomes a reader. It’s a complete and utter delight.
“Reading is untidy, discursive, and perpetually inviting.”
“The appeal of reading…lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or where one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth: letters a republic.”
“You don’t put your life into your books. You find it there.”
“Books are wonderful, aren’t they?… At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak, they tenderise one.”
Women Talking is Canadian novelist's Miriam Toews take-down of the patriarchy. A Greek chorus of a novel, set in a Mennonite community in Bolivia and based on real-life events wrestles with big things. Even occasionally funny.
“Life was the only thing. Migration, movement, freedom. We want to protect our children and we want to think. We want to keep our faith. We want the world. Do we want the world? If I’m outside it, my life outside it, outside of my life, if myeline isn’t in the world, what good is it? To teach? To teach what, if not the world?”
This is a stay-up-late-and-finish-at-all-costs type of novel but honestly, I could have read another 200 pages about Connell and Marianne. This novel is smart, subtle and absorbing; it’s worth your time and all the attention it’s received. Read it.
“The conversations that follow are gratifying for Connell, often taking unexpected turns and prompting him to express ideas he had never concisely formulated before. They talk about the novels he’s reading, the research she studies, the precise historical moment that they are currently living in, the difficulty of observing such a moment in process. At times he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronization that is surprises them both.”
Educated by Tara Westover is a gripping, beautifully told account of growing up in a fundamentalist, survivalist Mormon family. Westover is thoughtful and has done the work. I loved her rumination on what it means to be “educated”. A truly unforgettable memoir.