I recently picked up John Steinbeck's classic Cannery Row and was pleasantly surprised by how fresh and finely wrought it is. This book is a gem, examining the lives of the downtrodden people living on Cannery Row in Monterey, California in the 1930s. Steinbeck paints his characters with humor and love, not sparing the bleakness of their lives yet including the small moments of beauty and joy that keep them going. Cannery Row is lighter than The Grapes of Wrath but also more precise, despite the apparently loose structure; while it's easy to get lost in the book, you can also put it down for a day or two in between chapters and come back to without losing a step. - Joe, owner and Cannery Row visitor
Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer
Annihilation is an unusual science fiction novel, and it immediately seized my attention. I knew only a little about the story going in - somewhere along the southeast coast of the United States, a team of scientists enters the otherworldly Area X, seeking to understand what it is and how and why it has come to be. Strange events begin almost immediately, as the scientists wonder what is out there and how much the shadowy government agency that sent them already knows about it.
The story, simple in some ways and startlingly original in others, blends elements of weird fiction and psychological thriller, with amazing results. Our narrator, a biological researcher who focuses intensely on the object of her study, is not the warmest character, but I quickly and easily fell into her way of thinking. As the scientists unravel the secrets of Area X - and the biologist reveals her own secrets to the reader - they wonder to what extent they observe, or are the subject of observation.
Annihilation is the first in a series of three books: it works as its own story, but leaves plenty of loose ends, and I ordered the next two titles as soon as I was finished.
-Joe, bookshop & beard owner
There are some books that get a lot of hype, and I put off reading them. The Kite Runner was one of those – and when I finally picked it up, it took all of one paragraph for me to decide it was worth all the hype. Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell, is another such book. I was hooked immediately, not just by the unique narrative voice in which Woodrell writes, but also the vividness with which he brings to life a dark, dirty winter in the Ozarks.
This is a book that says no more than it must – but paints its scenes with amazing clarity. It is a book of subtlety and silences, of knowing what cannot be told and telling without speaking; a book of steely women and violent men. Our protagonist, Ree Dolly, must find her father, a crank cook who will forfeit his house and land if he misses his court date. Frustrated by the poverty which has stunted her life and threatens to ruin her younger brothers’ future, she refuses to back down to anyone as she navigates the clan’s Ozark omertà for any hint that will prevent her own family’s ruin. It is a brutal and beautiful story that will linger in your mind long after you finish.
- Joe, Owner & Inventory Manager
Our Favorite Reads of 2017!
Last year I read a ton of books… this year, not so much. I started a lot of books but I wasn’t able to finish all of them. Maybe it was the general malaise I felt / feel about what is happening in our country or maybe my obsession with true crime podcasts filled my drive time / audio-book time.
Of the books I did manage to read all the way to the end, these were my three favorites:
1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter navigates the duality of her world, between her working class family life in a poverty-stricken neighborhood and her experiences with her wealthy private school friends. When one of her best friends from the neighborhood is killed, Starr’s life is turned upside down and she must reconcile the two spheres she’s been living in. I got to walk around in Starr’s world during one of the hardest times of her life and I feel lucky to have spent time with a smart, funny, loving character who chooses to speak up for the injustice she witnesses.
2. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
You may have heard of Lindy West from the episode of This American Life: Tell Me I’m Fat where she talks about being trolled on the internet about her weight and how she chose to fight back. Shrill is a memoir about misogyny, fat shaming, falling in love, being a writer, and much more. West’s voice is powerful and cuts through the bullshit about what’s “appropriate” to talk about.
3. The Widow’s House by Carol Goodman
Goodman once again sets her suspenseful story in the Hudson River Valley, this time focusing on two married writers who move back to their college town and into the historic, unnerving house of their former professor. As always, the writing is clear and crisp with a bit of supernatural mystery thrown in to make this an easy and fun read.
I set out to read over 30 books in 2017 and only finished 10. My goal for 2018 is to finish 25 books, which feels very ambitious after having just typed the previous sentence...
Finding time to read has been a struggle ever since we opened the shop - but I still read whenever I can! Here are my favorites from the past year:
1. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
I cannot believe it took me seven years to get around to reading this book - and now I recommend it to everyone I can. Set in a future Africa, this novel turns the conventional fantasy narrative on its head. Onyesonwu is a would-be sorceress in search of a teacher, but as an outcast child of rape it is difficult for her even to find a friend. When she comes into her power, she sets out on a quest to find and destroy her father, and the consequences of her journey go beyond anything she envisioned. Mixing the biting humor of Onyesonwu’s narration with stark commentary on the brutality of ethnic violence and weaponized rape, Okorafor transports us and transforms us.
2. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh (1992)
This multilayered sci-fi novel follows “Rafael” Zhang, an engineer in New York, in a future America dominated by China. The story is mostly from Zhang’s perspective, but also from those whose lives he connects to around the world. Zhang and his friends negotiate the tensions between individual expression and the good of the community, the difficulty of living in an inherently unfair world, and the importance of finding and spreading peace. Ahead of its time both for featuring a gay protagonist and for its uncanny (and unnerving) predictions of our future, this book will remain with you long after you finish it.
3. On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder/How to Fight by Thich Nhat Hanh (both 2017)
These two slim volumes provide outsized advice on how to live and function in present-day America. In the first, Timothy Snyder provides twenty actions for resisting the advance of tyranny, and the necessary historical context from the past century to understand how tyrannical governments have taken power and held it. The second, by Zen Buddhist and spiritual writer Thich Nhat Hanh, teaches us how to maintain our peace in the face of suffering, struggle, and real anger at injustice, and how to channel negative emotion in a positive way. Neither of these books offers easy solutions, but both offer us a path to work toward a better world, from the personal to the local to the global level.
I’m looking forward to reading more this next year - right now I’m in the middle of Pale Fire by Nabokov, just starting Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (beginning a new series in the world of His Dark Materials), and about to begin A Short History of Reconstruction, by Eric Foner - and beyond that in my stack are Chimimanda Adichie, Ursula K. LeGuin, and more Okorafor. Hope you join us in making 2018 a year of reading!
What book are you most looking forward to reading in 2018?
From the archives, written by Joe.
Since taking over the bookshop in August, I’ve often been asked what my favorite book is. That’s a difficult question to answer – between the years of studying literature and the years of working in bookstores I’ve read a lot! And my favorite changes as time goes by; some books I loved in college, I’m cool on now. My favorite book of the last few years is The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern; it was beautifully written and utterly captivated me; it’s a world I want to live in. But the book I come back to most – my desert island look, the one I can read endlessly and never tire of – is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I generally have one or two volumes by my bed for easy reference. I used to read it straight through every year or two, and though I haven’t done that in a few years, I still read my favorite passages on a regular basis. I particularly enjoy the whole first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, the Battle of Helm’s Deep and the hobbits’ meeting with Faramir in The Two Towers, and the whole first half of The Return of the King (not to mention the appendices!).
The Hobbit is one of the first long books I remember reading (not the first – that was probably either The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Haunted Fort, both my brother Jamie’s books). We had a storybook anthology that contained the first chapter of The Hobbit; I read it over and over again, but wanted more, and I eventually found it in my library. I finally got my hands on The Lord of the Rings itself in the summer of 1983, when I was ten; I still remember reading a real thunderstorm crashing outside the house as I read about the storm at Helm’s Deep. These were library books, the late 70s hardcovers with white jackets with the Ring and Sauron’s Eye. I tore through them, reading each one twice before I turned them back in. When I started a new school that fall, I was astounded that the library didn’t have them, and immediately told the librarian they needed a set.
The Lord of the Rings is also the first book I began to collect. There are a handful of other authors or books I collect – Herman Hesse, Lawrence Durrell, Ursula LeGuin, George R.R. Martin – but I’ll write about those in later posts. But my largest collection by far is Tolkien. My first copy came at Christmas 1983, the Ballantine boxed set of mass market paperbacks. I loved the covers, with art by Darrell K. Sweet, and I read them so vigorously that the covers started to fall apart. I quickly added The Silmarillion (that cover has been held on with Scotch tape since 1985!) and the few other Tolkien books then in print (The Tolkien Reader, Smith of Wootton Major/Farmer Giles of Ham). Since then I’ve added several more versions, mostly from used bookstores in Illinois and California. There are the lurid Ballantines from the 1960s (Tolkien hated those covers!), the beautiful 1970s versions with Tolkien’s own paintings as the cover art, hardcovers of the pre-1965 version (the books were revised in 1965 to foil Ace’s pirated paperbacks, which I do not own), the gorgeous single-volume hardcover illustrated by Alan Lee (a birthday present in 1992), the seven-volume boxed set from 1999 (a Christmas present), the recent trade paperback editions with Tolkien's original concept art for the covers (a present from my brother Chad), and even the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings, with its parody of the 1960s covers. Also I have the whole twelve-book series of The History of Middle-Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien, detailing the vast and intricate writing and drafting of the entire legendarium, from its beginnings in a poem written in the trenches in the Great War to JRRT's last musings on scraps of paper just weeks before his death. It's a monument to one man's incredible imagination and skill.
All told, I have twelve full copies of The Lord of the Rings (five single-volumes, seven sets) with four unmatched volumes, six copies of The Hobbit, five copies of The Silmarillion, two copies of Unfinished Tales, three copies of Smith/Farmer Giles (plus the annotated Farmer Giles), two copies of The Tolkien Reader, two copies of the Father Christmas Letters, and two collections of Tolkien’s artwork. Whew! And several of his scholarly works, including The Monsters and the Critics,Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the recently published (and magnificent!) Fall of Arthur. Besides this, numerous books about Tolkien and his works, of which the prize is a hardcover edition of Humphrey Carter’s biography of the Professor. Together they fill up an entire four-shelf bookcase.
I don’t have everything there is to have by any means. Some I don’t want, like the late 1980s mass markets. Some I doubt I’ll ever find for any reasonable price, like a 1930s Hobbit, or the Middle English text I found at Black Letter Books in Stillwater, Minnesota for only $300 – too much for me! But I still hope I’ll find some of the few I still really want. I know I could go online for some of them, but I would rather stumble across them in a little store, or a booksale, or when someone walks in with some books to sell. That experience of finding something long desired, right in front of you, is one of the things I love about owning a bookshop.
We have several Tolkien books in the store right now, and it’s a goal of mine always to have some on hand. We won’t often have a complete set, but we may very well have the one you’re missing, and I’m always looking for what I consider the good editions.
I recently finished reading The Hobbit to my daughter Sally, and I hope it was as magical an experience for her as it was for me. I carefully chose which edition I would read, and settled on the green slipcase hardcover, featuring both the original monochrome illustrations by the author as well as several color prints of his paintings. I'm excited about passing on our love for books, and my love for these particular books, to our children, and I look forward to one day discussing all the intricacies of the stories with both of them.
We recently went to see the movie King Arthur, by Guy Ritchie. We loved it! It plays around with the legend, no doubt, but mostly in very interesting ways, and it’s fun to watch regardless. I’ve been a fan of the Arthurian legends ever since I can remember; the first version I read was probably a copy of Howard Pyle’s version of the tales, checked out from my grade school library. Next I found an old condensed version of Malory; this was the first antique book I owned, and I had to puzzle out the meaning of some of the archaic words. But my liking grew into an obsession when I encountered the major retellings of the twentieth century.
The first great modern rendition – and possibly the greatest – is The Once and Future King, the masterpiece of T.H. White, originally published in four parts from 1938 to 1958. You may know the first part the best: The Sword in the Stone, adapted into a movie by Walt Disney. Deliberately anachronistic in its settings, the book serves as much more than a retelling of the story of Arthur, expanding it into a truly great tragedy and commentary on history, politics, and the futility of war. The novel was also the basis of the musical Camelot.
Next up was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s epic The Mists of Avalon, which retold the saga from the points of view of its women: primarily Viviane, Igraine, and Morgaine. Though relying on Malory for infrastructure, Bradley revolutionized the tales by refocusing on likely conflicts in the actual fifth-century setting: pagan vs. Christian, old ways vs. new, female power vs. male. Brilliantly imagined characters and innovative adaptations of old plot elements make the story fresh and unexpected.
Not long after Mists, I was given the spectacular trilogy by Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, all narrated by Merlin (Stewart wrote a fourth book too, The Wicked Day, from Mordred’s point of view, but it never felt to me like it was truly part of the series). Merlin is a compelling character from the beginning, and the rise of the clever but humble child to feared advisor of kings is believable and captivating.
I’ve enjoyed other authors’ forays into the Matter of Britain as well: Bernard Cornwell, Jack Whyte, Stephen Lawhead, and Kazuo Ishiguro, whose brilliant novel The Buried Giant is set in Britain not long after Arthur’s death. I admit I still haven’t readThe Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, by John Steinbeck (yes, Steinbeck!) though I did read Twain’s Connecticut Yankee a long time ago. The Arthurian legends are a rich and fertile soil for imagination, with a huge cast of characters, a vast catalog of incidents, and a centuries-long precedent for making up your own contributions, from Nennius to Geoffrey of Monmouth to Malory to Layamon to Chrétien to Tennyson.
If you’re really hardcore, I’ll suggest you take on the Alliterative Morte Arthure (in the original Middle English), or possibly the recently published (though sadly fragmentary) Death of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, written in modern English but in alliterative verse, and very much in the spirit of the medieval poets.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
So there’s a new book you may have heard about: When Breath Becomes Air, by the late Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who died of lung cancer last March. In the last year of his life he published several essays on facing cancer, the irony of being a doctor with a terminal illness, and the sadness of not being able to see his daughter grow up. And Paul worked on a book, shepherded to completion and publication by his wife Lucy. But I don’t think of him as Paul – I think of him as Pubby (his nickname). Because that’s how he was introduced to me twenty years ago.
Pubby and I had a lot of things in common. We were English majors, active members of the Stanford Band, wrote scripts for the Band’s field shows, and served terms as public relations director for the Band. This is an understatement, but he had a great sense of humor – it worked on levels from subtle and dry to completely over-the-top and crazy. We liked each other’s writing, and shared stories about crazy hate mail we responded to. I remember when he tried to bleach his hair, and the closest he could get was orange. I’ve heard he always wore fake mustaches for ID photos, and was known to randomly show up to events wearing a gorilla suit.
He had another side, it turns out. Besides majoring in English, he also majored in human biology, and like many of my band friends, eventually became a doctor (by the way, majoring in Hum Bio alone is tough, without a reading-heavy major like English on top of it). He returned to the Bay Area, working as a neurosurgeon at the Stanford hospital. And the rest you know, or you will when you read his book. We weren’t close friends, and I hadn’t seen him in person in about ten years, but the news of his illness hit me harder than I expected. Reading his moving words made it a little easier to think of his impending death, if only because I could see how his various and disparate talents had melded in this perfect, tragic, way.
One thing that will really get you is when Pubby writes about his and Lucy’s daughter, who was born in the last year of his life. He knew he wouldn’t have much time with her, but he was determined to enjoy all the time he had. I look at my children and wonder if I have made the most of my time with them – how they would remember me if they were suddenly to lose me. Pubby was the third person from my era of the LSJUMB to pass away in a span of about a year (all from cancer), prompting me (and many of my friends, I’m sure) to dwell on my own mortality. But Pubby’s writing, I think, will not cause us to become obsessed with our deaths, but our lives: is what we’re doing worth doing? What is the best use we can make of the time we have left, however much time that is? What are the things that are really most important to us? I hope his book will help you find the answers to these questions. Snowden’s secret in Catch-22 is that man is matter, that we are fragile machines prone to destruction. Pubby’s secret is that despite that fragility, man can matter – we can choose to make a difference in this world before our own fragile machines break down, and our breath becomes air.