For the Love of Books

Roaming their way through fiction, biography, history, memoir, music, and gardening, more than thirty acclaimed authors will gather to celebrate books at this year’s Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival. Island writers featured at the event include distinguished journalist, novelist, and short story writer Ward Just of West Tisbury, whose rumination on the Bunch of Grapes bookstore appears below, and poet Rose Styron of Vineyard Haven, who reflects on her literary life on page 54.

This year’s book festival features author readings, discussion panels, book signings, and book sales. Free and open to the public, the festival takes place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, August 3, at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown, and on Sunday, August 4, at the Chilmark Community Center. For details, see

Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Vineyard Haven

Someone at dinner was going on and on about Zola, his provocations, his headlong narratives, his fierce and spacious conscience, his embrace of controversy. The novel being discussed was Thérèse Raquin, scandalous when published (in 1867), scarcely less so today. Wonderful descriptions of the erotic life, the more erotic for being clandestine, and the murder that results. The denunciations from church figures and others were so fierce that Zola was obligated to write a preface to the second edition defending himself, which he did with tremendous relish. “The critics have given this book a hostile and indignant reception. Certain righteous individuals, writing in no less righteous newspapers, have picked it up between thumb and forefinger, screwed up their faces in disgust, and thrown it on the fire…

Well! Who can resist that? So I took myself downtown to the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, where Thérèse Raquin was nestled against another Zola novel called The Kill, and that was not all. Next to Zola was the Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, and a little further up the line all the literary wolves, with their various spellings, Virginia, Thomas, and Geoffrey. I walked out of the store with half a dozen novels, and therein lies the definition of a full-service bookstore of the sort called “independent.”

This sort of thing happens all the time, and if Bunch of Grapes doesn’t have the book they’ll order it. And often on the flimsiest description. My memory is not what it used to be and what it used to be was not exactly investment-grade so the clerks are obligated to make huge leaps of the imagination and with the same alacrity and good cheer as Zola’s roughing up an archbishop.

I heard about a novel last night. I forget the title.

Who’s the author?

I can’t remember that either, except he was a professor of English somewhere in the Midwest. Maybe Kansas.

Recent book?

No. Published years ago.


It’s in paperback. I think it’s a New York Review of Books book.

Ah! That would be Stoner by John Williams. Beautiful novel.

That’s the one!

I’ll have it for you by Friday.

Walk into these bookstores, either on a mission (Thérèse Raquin, Stoner) or simply to graze, and your reading life passes before you – the first time you read The Old Man and the Sea in Life magazine, sitting in a chair by the big window in your parents’ house in the suburbs north of Chicago, the light failing and you so caught up in the sea and the old man that you could not stop long enough to switch on the reading light—and here, more than sixty years later, through God knows how many printings, the old man lives once more. Scan the shelves and recall the books you put aside after an hour or two, knowing the failing was not the author’s but your own and promising to pick it up later, when you are older and have more patience or perhaps understand the world a little bit better. The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil’s novel, the lovely two-volume edition published by Knopf, rests in my library to this day, a rebuke; one of many. Comforting also to see the books of friends, Kib Bramhall’s meditation on the art of fishing, Jonathan Randal’s search for Osama bin Laden. Remain in the stacks long enough and your whole damned life passes before you.

Excerpted from My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, edited by Ronald Rice and Booksellers Across America, and published by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.

Dog therapy

The Dog Who Danced, by Oak Bluffs resident Susan Wilson, interweaves the stories of four lives: three humans and one canine. When Justine loses her Shetland sheepdog Mack on a road trip, her unsteady world unravels. Yet when a couple suffering from the loss of a child rescue the dog, their lives begin to brighten. Mack is the connection as these disparate stories come together to create a heart-wrenching tale of canine love and human recovery. (St. Martin’s Press)

Murder in the park

Author Linda Fairstein, Chilmark summer resident and former head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, has added a new novel, Death Angel, to her series of urban detective thrillers. Her protagonist, Manhattan Assistant DA Alexandra Cooper, confronts the spectre of a serial killer in Central Park. Twists and turns mount as Alex races to prevent another murder. (Dutton, Penguin Group)

Notable Island women

The late horticulturist Polly Hill left behind a tranquil arboretum in West Tisbury. Actress Katharine Cornell’s legacy is honored by the Vineyard Haven theater that bears her name. In his latest book, Women of Martha’s Vineyard, historian Thomas Dresser of Oak Bluffs tells the stories of fifteen remarkable women who have made their mark on the Island community, with a foreword by Rose Styron of Vineyard Haven. (The History Press)