Ask a Bookseller: 'The English Understand Wool'

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Ask a Bookseller is hosted by Emily Bright.
MPR News

Part of the fun of talking with independent bookstores is hearing about great books from smaller, independent presses. Today's recommendation combines both.

Tom Nissley of Phinney Books in Seattle recommends the novella “The English Understand Wool” by Helen DeWitt. It's part of a series put out by New Directions publishing called Storybook ND. These slim, hardcover books for adults are reminiscent of the classic children's series, Golden Books.

The English Understand Wool
The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt
New Directions

“The English Understand Wool” is a “deliciously designed story that doesn't go where you expect it to in a short period of time,” says Nissley.

The title is the first and last line of the novella, which follows a 17-year-old girl whose mother has raised her to very exacting standards of culture. The English understand wool, the girl is told; the French understand wine and cheese, etc. Phinney says that when the rug is pulled out from under her during annual Ramadan travels, she turns out to be very capable of using that high standard of behavior to her own benefit.

Part publishing satire, part amorality play, Nissley says “The English Understand Wool” was one of the rare books that everyone at the store read: “We all loved it. My wife loved it and made our kids read it. It's the kind of book we love putting in people's hands.”

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