Featherston NZ book festival 2019 and my haul of books.

The weekend of May 9th to 12th saw the fifth annual Featherston Book Festival. As you will know from my earlier posts, Featherston was admitted into the organisation of International Book Towns last year, so this was their first book festival as an official member. They ran a number of events – Author readings, literary talks, book binding workshops, printing, poetry, activities for children and much more, plus of course lots of books to buy from existing Featherston bookshops and a number of visiting booksellers who set up stalls in halls. I particularly enjoyed John Arnold’s seminar, titled An introduction to book collecting in the Internet Age, which was very informative and included free handout sheets of useful information.

I had only recently arrived back in New Zealand on the Sunday the previous weekend after almost a month in the USA where I’d visited several bookstores in San Francisco and the mighty Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon and was feeling a little travel weary, so maybe didn’t appreciate Featherston’s festival as much as I should have. But that’s down to my demeanour, not their efforts. I’d had visions of returning home from the festival with the back seat of the car covered in books, but alas that was not the case.

There were maybe a dozen book sellers who had set up stalls in the main ANZAC hall in town, some from Featherston and some from further afield, but I found their stalls of books either not to my taste, or overpriced for the condition of the books. As Yoda would say “Disappointed I was”. I only bought two books for myself from the hall and one for my wife – Roald Dahl’s My Uncle Oswald. She’s been a reader and collector of Roald Dahl books since childhood……I love to annoy her by calling him Ronald, telling her that his mum was dyslexic. My own purchases from the hall were Janesville – An American Story by Amy Goldstein. Goldstein follows the fortunes….or misfortunes of the people of the town of Janesville, when the General Motors plant that employed much of the town’s population closed. It won the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year prize. Tracy Kidder – the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of a New Machine says “Anyone tempted to generalize about the American working class ought to meet the people in Janesville. The reporting behind this book is extraordinary and the story – a stark, heartbreaking reminder that political ideologies have real consequences – is told with rare sympathy and insight.” Over four and a half thousand people on Goodreads have voted and given this book a rating of 4.12 out of a possible 5.

My second book from the hall stalls was Colombian writer – Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was browsing the various books in the hall and when I saw the title of this one it rang a bell of recognition as a friend of mine, Chilean born/Czech based writer Jorge Zuniga Pavlov, recommended it to me some time ago. I have not read any of Garcia Marquez’s books, but he is….or I should say was, as he died in 2014….a prolific writer, who started as a journalist, and wrote many acclaimed non-fiction works and short stories, but is best known for his novels, such as The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) and of course the book that I purchased, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). He was a prize-winning author, having won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1972 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. Over half a million people on Goodreads have rated this book at 4.06 out of 5 and say “The brilliant, bestselling, landmark novel that tells the story of the Buendia family, and chronicles the irreconcilable conflict between the desire for solitude and the need for love—in rich, imaginative prose that has come to define an entire genre known as “magical realism.

I had much more luck in the actual bookshops in town, rather than at the much hyped Anzac Hall. I visited 6 or 7 bookshops and made purchases in just two of them. In The Dickensian Bookshop (which incidentally sells much more than books by Dickens) I bought Tim Moore’s Do Not Pass Go where he takes us on a trip around London by way of the streets and utilities mentioned on the Monopoly Board. Its a comedic travelogue of one man’s erratic progress around those 28 streets, stations and utilities, Do Not Pass Go is also an epic and lovingly researched history of London’s wayward progress in the years since the launch of the world’s most popular board game back in the 1930’s. And according to the blurb on Goodreads….”Sampling the rags and the riches he stays in a hotel in Mayfair and one in the Old Kent Road, enjoys quality time with Dr Crippen in Pentonville Prison and even winds up at the wrong end of the Water Works pipe. And, solving all the mysteries you’ll have pondered whilst languishing in jail and many other you certainly wouldn’t, Tim Moore reveals how Pall Mall got its name, which three addresses you won’t find in your London A-Z and why the sorry cul-de-sac that is Vine Street has a special place in the heart of Britain’s most successful Monopoly champion.”

My second book from Dickensian Bookshop – where incidentally, I was most impressed by the friendliness and knowledge of books from the lady behind the counter – was a novel by Michael Palin called “The Truth”. Although I have read several non-fiction books by the great ex-Python comedian and renown traveller, I have only read one other novel by him (Hemingway’s Chair), however since I thoroughly enjoyed that one, I hope that this is equally entertaining. The Truth according to Goodreads…“Keith Mabbut is at a crossroads in his life. A professional writer of some repute, he has reached the age of fifty-six with nothing resembling the success of his two great literary heroes, George Orwell and Albert Camus. When he is offered the opportunity of a lifetime—to write the biography of the elusive Hamish Melville, a widely respected and highly influential activist and humanitarian—he seizes the chance to write something meaningful. His search to find out the real story behind the legend takes Mabbut to the lush landscapes and environmental hotspots of India. The more he discovers about Melville, the more he admires him—and the more he connects with an idealist who wanted to make a difference. But is his quarry really who he claims to be? As Keith discovers, the truth can be whatever we make it. “ Goodreads only rates this 1998 novel at around 3.5 out of 5 although it had good reviews from The Spectator, The Financial Times and Time Out magazine.

The remainder of my books, three of them, were bought from For the Love of Books. The first of which is a book that I have been meaning to read for a number of years. Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came to life from a drunken idea while hitchhiking around Europe in 1971. Originally a radio comedy broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1978, it was later adapted to other formats, including stage shows, novels, comic books, a 1981 TV series, a 1984 video game, and 2005 feature film. My version of the novel was published in 2005 and includes a tie in with the movie…..showing several still photos from the movie. As the back cover of the book says “One Thursday lunchtime the Earth gets unexpectedly demolished to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. For Arthur Dent, who has only just had his house demolished that morning, this seems already to be more than he can cope with. Sadly, however, the weekend has only just begun, and the galaxy is a very strange and startling place.” Over a million readers on Goodreads rate the book at 4.22 out of 5 and add…“Seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who, for the last fifteen years, has been posing as an out-of-work actor.”

So after 3 what may be called humerous books…..we come to a couple of books with more serious undertones. Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance although a novel, tackles the problems of real life threats to our privacy. The Times says “Post 9/11, everyone watches and is being watched…..in Raban’s black and brilliant portrait of his adopted city, all kinds of sinister forces filter and manipulate the truth. A wonderfully ironic, disturbing take on the un-privacy of modern life.” The Spectator adds…“Raban’s book should certainly be required reading. Of all the 9/11 books so far, Surveillance is perhaps the most disturbing because it offers scant comfort and no certainties.” Set in Seattle it follows fictional journalist Lucy Bengstrom on a particularly invasive assignment.

My final book is Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars (the World is a Battlefield). This is a non-fiction book in which Jeremy Scahill tells the story about how the USA came to embrace assassination as a central part of its national security policy – and to pronounce the entire world as a battlefield. No country is safe from the wrath of the USA. Although this was ramped up after 9/11, the roots of the story by far predate the day when the Twin Towers fell. The book tells of the expansion of covert US wars, the abuse of executive privilege and state secrets, the embrace of unaccountable elite military units that answer only to the White House and the use of drones to murder civilians…..some of them American citizens. The blurb on Goodreads states “Funded through black budgets, Special Operations Forces conduct missions in denied areas, engage in targeted killings, snatch and grab individuals and direct drone, AC-130 and cruise missile strikes. While the Bush administration deployed these ghost militias, President Barack Obama has expanded their operations and given them new scope and legitimacy. Dirty Wars follows the consequences of the declaration that “the world is a battlefield,” as Scahill uncovers the most important foreign policy story of our time. From Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia and beyond, Scahill reports from the frontlines in this high-stakes investigation and explores the depths of America’s global killing machine. He goes beneath the surface of these covert wars, conducted in the shadows, outside the range of the press, without effective congressional oversight or public debate. And, based on unprecedented access, Scahill tells the chilling story of an American citizen marked for assassination by his own government.” Ironically back in 2012 when speaking in Israel, President Obama said “No country on Earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” And yet that is exactly what American foreign policy is. It sends missiles and bombs raining down on countries all around the world in the supposed ‘defence of American lives’. What double edged bullshit is that? And because they have so much power in the UN Security Council they get away with it every time. Any other nations leader would be brought before a tribunal on charges of war crimes…..not the American President, no matter who he is. I am very much looking forward to reading this book.

If any of you have already read any of these books, please let me know your take on them. Were they good, bad, indifferent reads? As usual your comments, shares, likes are appreciated and thank you for reading my posts.

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Black Summer – Yes folks it’s a quick plug for the ZOMBIES!!

As I mentioned in my last post, which was about the post-apocalyptic novel “Earth Abides”, (which incidentally has nothing to do with Zombies) …I love tales about Zombies…..be it books, movies or TV series. Black Summer (released April 2019) is a “made for Netflix” series about the Zombie Apocalypse and although there has only been one series so far, (I believe another is in the pipeline…watch this space!) I think it’s great. It was inspired by and is produced by the same company who created another series on Netflix called “Z Nation” …..in which someone mentioned the start of the Zombie Apocalypse as being the “Black Summer”, when the whole map of the USA suddenly turned black with Z’s.

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It’s not like the “Walking Dead” – with their shuffling Zombies that even granny with her walker would be nimble enough to dodge….nor is it like the voracious Zombies of “World War Z” who are so fast that world champion sprinter Usain Bolt would have trouble outrunning them. The Zombies on Black Summer move fast….but human fast, not super hero fast. The story begins just six weeks in from the outbreak of the Zombie Apocalypse and is the usual escape the Zombies by trying to reach an almost mythical “Safe Zone” road trip. You have to have your wits about you to survive, and each episode from start to finish gets the heart pumping. It’s definitely “on the edge of your seat” stuff. And it doesn’t pay to get too attached to any particular character…for Z-obvious reaZons. Give it a look if you get a chance. There are just 8 episodes in series one and as of yet series two has not been confirmed. It’s low budget with mainly B grade actors, but it’s a lot of fun, thrills and spills. The Official Trailer is below…..enjoy!

Earth Abides – an “end of the world as we know it” classic.

George R Stewart originally published “Earth Abides” in 1949, but it’s as readable and as prophetic today as it was then. This book is a CLASSIC (yes in big letters) – classic post-apocalyptic story. It deals with an end of the world as we know it situation – one that wipes out 99% of humankind – and follows, initially a lone survivor, and then a small group, who learn to depend on one another and to begin again. It’s not the literal end of the world – just the end of the world “as we know it”. We as humans have to adapt to change in order to survive.

I love a good dystopian novel/survival novel/even a good zombie (blood splattered) novel. And often-times I even envy the survivors – having a chance to start again with a clean slate – where hopefully they, and humankind as a whole, will not make as big a mess of things this time as they did the last time. Here there are no politicians, no corporations, no armies – doing the bidding of the political or corporate elites….just ordinary people with a will to survive. Earth Abides has no zombies, no gratuitous violence, and only implied sexual acts and either in spite of, or because of, this it is still a great story – of hopes, fears, strength and frailty of the human spirit, of quest, an adventure and a journey into an unknown future by learning from, and in some cases ignoring, the lessons of the past. But don’t get me wrong – there is death/murder and there are relationships and the usual relationship issues in this story.

This was one of the books I bought recently on my trip to the west coast of the USA. The story is based primarily in San Francisco (where I spent much of my time) and is a multi-generational epic. I highly recommend it. It’s not only about the quest for survival and a rebuilding (of a kind) of society. It makes you question things. To look at your own life and evaluate what’s important (the theoretical meat and potatoes of life) and what is merely gravy…trimmings… that are more there as a front to give the ‘right’ impression rather than having any real substance. It makes you look at the possibilities that a totally fresh start – either for humankind as a whole, or for ones self as an individual – could mean. Does a fresh start mean a clean break from the past or are there some things from the past worthy of carrying forward into a new future?

There are a couple of quotes, that may help in pushing a person to take the decision to make a fresh start, from the book, that I’d like to share with you. The first is “men go and come, but earth abides.” Which I think kind of puts our lives into perspective by which I mean that all our struggles and worries of today in our daily lives mean very little in the grand scheme of things. The worrisome things that keep us awake at night are not really worth the importance that we give them…..we live, we die, we become one with the earth…the whole ashes to ashes, dust to dust thing. The earth goes on regardless, so why not do what makes you happy? The second is “without courage there is only a slow dying, not life.” Sometimes you have to stand up – for either yourself, or for an ideal – even if it means swimming against the tide of public opinion. Live YOUR life, by your rules, not someone else’s.

It’s taken me almost 60 years to find out who I am, who I was, and who I want to be, and to figure out what sort of world I would like to live in – to be a part of…and what I can do to start to move me in the right direction. I am not an anarchist, but do believe that we have had a lot of pointless rules and regulations imposed upon us, by the people we elect to represent us. The same people who seem to think of new things to tax us for each day. We are being over regulated, our freedoms are being taken away (little by little in the hope that we don’t notice) and we are being taxed to death to finance the lifestyle of the rich and powerful. Sometimes I ask myself… would the end of the world as we know it be such bad thing?

As usual your comments and thought on this are appreciated.

“Goodreads” gives the book a 4 out of 5 and I’d certainly give it at least 4 out of 5 myself. They say “A disease of unparalleled destructive force has sprung up almost simultaneously in every corner of the globe, all but destroying the human race. One survivor, strangely immune to the effects of the epidemic, ventures forward to experience a world without man. What he ultimately discovers will prove far more astonishing than anything he’d either dreaded or hoped for.

San Francisco’s independent bookshops.

There are an amazing number and diversity of bookstores in San Francisco and during my recent visit I wanted to call into and browse books in as many of them as possible.

Prior to leaving my home in New Zealand I had a look on-line and made myself a list of around 40 bookshops, in the San Francisco area, to explore. However time limits, transport logistics and the risk of what of spending our entire holiday inside bookshops would do to my marriage, forced a compromise of sorts. As a result, what follows is a review of the shops that “we” visited (with a rating of each shop) and the books bough in each.

Our ratings are based on a number of things such as range of books, condition and price of stock, the layout of the shop (was it easy to get around/pleasing to the eye?), the welcome or lack of welcome we received from the staff, the helpfulness/knowledge of product of the staff, was there somewhere to sit and peruse a potential purchase and was sitting and perusing frowned upon or encouraged – to name but a few.

The first bookshop we visited in San Francisco was Christopher’s Books – about which I have already blogged in a post titled “Potrero Hill (and books and bookshops)”. However, Christopher’s Book shop and it’s owner were such a delight that I want to say again what a lovely shop it is, despite its small size it has a huge heart. Except for the fact that there is no space to sit and peruse and that most of the books are full retail price – although I did get 20% off my purchase because April was Poetry month and if you presented the shop with a piece of your own poetry, which I did, you qualified for a 20% discount – I would have given this shop a perfect score. 4.5 out of 5 is the most I can give mainly due to there being no seating area. An excellent shop, and friendly and knowledgeable owner, all the same.

Although technically not a book shop, certain branches of the San Francisco Library have sales areas for discarded books/over stocked books/public donated books. These rooms are run by volunteers who have little time for arranging the books in any kind of sequence so you’ll find best sellers mixed in with cook books, kids books in the middle of political history etc. It’s a mess – and the area that the books are sold is a very stark, plain concrete walled room with little space and the books on trestle tables. BUT the staff were pleasant and tried to be helpful AND the books were all a dollar each regardless of condition. Again this one was covered in the same blog post as Christopher’s Bookshop. A score of 2 out of 5 for value and nice manners of the helpful staff is the best I can manage here.

On a wander through the mission district on the trail of the colourful murals there we called into 3 bookshops. The first was Alley Cat Books at 3036 24th Street.

Inside Alley Cat Books – looking toward the front of the store.

This is a bookshop and art gallery combined. The gallery is in the back part of the bookshop and is worth a look. But we were here to check out their range of books, of which they had a good variety and a range of prices. They had a couple of tables with sale books on for the cost of just a few dollars. I bought two books from here – Jack Kerouac’s “The Town and The City” – this was the famous Beat writers debut novel released 7 years before the book that made Kerouac famous, “On the Road”. And James Baldwin’s “The Devil Finds Work” – which is one of Baldwin’s book-length essays. Baldwin wrote mainly about racial, sexual and class distinctions and his experiences of being a gay black man growing up and living in America. He was described by many as a genius. Each book cost me a little under $7 each on sale. There were a lot of interesting books on sale and I had to exercise restraint to keep it to just two purchases. Had I lived in the USA and didn’t have to bring my haul of books back to New Zealand in my suitcase I would have really stocked up here. Helpful sales girl behind the counter was available to help, but left us to browse in peace. Very nice store and there were chairs to sit and peruse the books should you feel the need. I’ll rate them 4 out of 5

Next along the way was Dog Eared Books – which is owned by the same people who have Alley Cat Books. (Below are two photos – one interior, one exterior of Dog Eared Books, which is at 900 Valencia Street).

Again a nice store with a good selection of new and used books, but due to already having a heavy backpack (2 books, lunch, extra sweat top, camera etc) and still a long walk ahead of us, I resisted the urge to splurge on more books here. There were a couple of hard cover photography books here that caught my eye, but I couldn’t justify the extra weight. There were a couple of chairs in a corner for perusing books, but both were occupied by homeless guys – who, despite smelling a little ripe and muttering to themselves, were harmless enough and the store owner was happy for them to sit and shelter for a while. Nice store and stock, but the staff didn’t seem interested in their customers so I will only rate them 3 out of 5.

Just one block further along is Borderlands Books at 866 Valencia Street.

Boarderlands specialise in Sci-fi books, fan-fiction and rare editions. Since Sci-fi isn’t really my thing and my wife can’t stand it, we didn’t hang around here for long. They had a good stock of books in good condition and the prices were reasonable. 3.5 out of 5.

A couple of days later we were in the Central Business District of San Francisco and on our way to lunch in Yerba Buena Gardens we called into Alexander Book Company at number 50 2nd Street.

We got a nice welcome from the staff there and set about exploring the shop. It’s set over 3 floors and is just brilliant. Upstairs are some very comfortable chairs for sitting and reading your potential purchases and we were left undisturbed to do just that, having selected several books between us from the ground floor tables and bookshelves. We can’t resist bargains and I think, from memory, that all our purchases here were reduced in price. I was remarkably restrained yet again and bought just 2 books.

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My first choice was Michael Sims “The Adventures of Henry Thoreau”. In keeping with my intentions to buy books by American writers – Sims, born in Crossville Tennessee is a noted writer of American non-fiction. In this book, he charts the life of Henry David Thoreau from being a rowdy adventurous child in the mold of Tom Sawyer, moving on to his time at Harvard University, the years spent living in a cabin by Walden Pond…..through to becoming an icon – one of America’s most influential writers, ardent environmentalist and proponent of nonviolent activism. I haven’t had time to read it yet, so it remains on my to be read list for now. Goodreads gave it a middle of the road 3.8, but I think it’s going to be a really good read.

My second book was actually a photography book – or a book of photographs – of one of my favourite cities in the world – Paris. “Forever Paris”- subtitled “Timeless Photographs of the City of Lights”, is produced by Flammarion. The photos are all black and white and cover the period from 1930 through to 1970. Some are of everyday people and street scenes, others are iconic Paris landmarks, such as the Eifel Tower and there are even stars of the stage, screen and art world, such as Audrey Hepburn, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone and Salvador Dali. This book is a winner, as far as I am concerned, for anyone interested in Paris, black and white photography, street photography and/or celebrity photos. And as it was reduced to just $4.50 it was more than just a bargain.

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My wife outdid me at Alexander’s. Her haul of 5 books made my 2 look insignificant. For anyone interested in the environment and climate change, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth (which was released as both a book and a movie documentary in 2006) was a landmark book as it put climate change in layman’s terms for us all to understand. The follow up book to this – An Inconvenient Sequel TRUTH TO POWER – was the first of my wife’s book haul from Alexander’s. It’s sold as an “action handbook – to learn the science, find your voice and help solve the climate crisis”. Again written in laymen’s terms with accompanying diagrams and photographs, I will be borrowing it from my wife, at some point, as I believe that in these times of unusual weather phenomena, extremes of weather and rising sea levels, it pays to be informed.

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“Her Brilliant Career” (written in 2013), subtitled Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke. To quote the blurb on the back cover “Rachel Cooke goes back in time to offer an entertaining and Iconoclastic look at ten women in the 1950’s – pioneers whose professional careers and complicated private lives helped to create the opportunities available to today’s women. These intrepid individuals – among them a film director, a cook, an architect, an editor, an archaeologist, and a race car driver – left the house, discovered the bliss of a career, and ushered in the era of the working woman.” Just having a flick through and browsing some of the stories in this book, I may have to borrow this one too. It looks quite interesting.

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Geoff Colvin’s book “Humans Are Underrated” – “What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will – takes a look at what’s happening in the automated workplace. The unavoidable question – will millions of people lose out, unable to best the machine? – is increasingly dominating business, education, economics and policy. Doris Kearns Goodwin (Pulitzer Prize-winning historian) says of the book “Beautifully written and deeply researched, Humans Are Underrated is one of the most creative and insightful leadership books I have ever read. It is a triumph!” Again, just flicking through a few pages and reading random paragraphs, it seems like an interesting and thought provoking book and YET ANOTHER to add to my to be read list.

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“Reality is Not What it Seems” – The Journey to Quantum Gravity – is another of the books my wife selected. This one written by Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. “What??? ” I hear you ask…..”sounds like a real page turner!” But Rovelli’s earlier book “Seven Lessons on Physics” was actually a best seller and was translated into more than forty languages, so there must be something to it. Add to this, that one of our sons is a Harvard trained theoretical physicist – and this makes it a must read book for both of us…..so we can keep up with what our son usually talks to us about, instead of it going right over our heads – as usual. Do time and space really exist? What exactly is reality? Rovelli tells us how our understanding of reality has changed over the centuries and how physicists think about the structure of the universe today. He takes us on a wondrous journey from Democritus to Albert Einstein, from Michael Faraday to gravitational waves and from classical physics to his own latest work in quantum gravity. We’re invited into a world where space breaks up into tiny grains, time disappears at the smallest scales, and black holes are waiting to explode – a vast universe still largely undiscovered. So that’s four from four of my wife’s selections that I will have to add to my reading list. Not so however with her final choice.

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Reza Aslan’s 2017 offering is GOD: A Human History and is about the history of religion and how we as humans over the centuries have given our God – what ever our religion – human traits and emotions. Aslan says we should stop doing this. It is a book that will make us reflect and reconsider our assumptions about God and religion. He says “We bestow upon God not just all that is good in human nature – our compassion, our thirst for justice – but all that is bad in it: our greed, our bigotry, our penchant for violence. All these qualities inform our religions, cultures and governments.” My wife has an interest in religions and spirituality so will probably find it interesting. For me, the only redeeming quality of this hard cover book is that it is a first edition and the author has signed it – and so added to the collectability value.

So that brings to a close our purchases from Alexanders Books – a shop definitely worth a visit. Due to the great range of books, friendly staff, pleasant layout and great seating area I give them 4.75 out of 5.

I was hoping to go to an author reading event at Green Apple Books, but regrettably I never got to set foot in their main store at 506 Clement Street which has over 60,000 new books and over 100,000 second hand books on its shelves. We did however manage to call into their second, albeit smaller shop – Green Apple Books on the Park – on the southern edge of Golden Gate Park at 1231 9th Ave.

A smallish, long and narrow shop with knowledgeable staff, a good selection of fiction and nonfiction and a chair here and there on which to sit and read. The sale books were particularly worthy of our attention. Another 4 out of 5 rating from me.

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From here, my wife bought a beautiful large hard cover book about American Charcuterie put out by Olympia Provisions of Portland Oregon. We had only recently visited Portland a few days earlier and indeed the charcuterie – quality meats – on sale there were second to none. It has some lovely photos and simple to follow recipes and instructions on how to make, cure, preserve, cut and serve meats that will be the envy of your friends. The cover price of $40 US Dollars had been reduced to a bargain price of $15 – it would have been a crime not to buy it. I will be writing a separate post covering our weekend trip to Portland all about the quality food, drink and of course Powell’s City of Books.

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My purchase – yes, just the one – was again in keeping with my quest for books by local writers. Dave Eggers – writer, editor, publisher and philanthropist – although born in Boston, now lives and writes in San Francisco, so his nonfiction book “Zeitoun” which follows the fate of a couple caught in between two of America’s worst policy disasters: the war on terror and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was an apt choice. Timothy Egan of the New York Times Book Review wrote – “Imagine Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open, roaming New Orleans after it was buried by Hurricane Katrina….suspense blended with just enough information to stoke reader outrage and what is likely to be a typical response: How could this happen in America?….Fifty years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”

A book shop that we visited but didn’t buy anything was the Castro District branch of Dog Eared Books. Since we were passing yet another San Francisco book store we felt we just had to go in for a look, but by this point in our trip we were totally “booked out” having reached maximum weight for both our suitcases. The shop was well laid out and there were the usual sale tables. There was also a crate of free books just outside the door of the shop. Back inside, and this being the Castro District, the subject matter was slanted toward the predominantly gay/lesbian/transsexual clientele with the largest collection of material by LGBT writers that I never knew existed. There were also some rather explicit photography books and other picture books that I think I may have had problems getting through New Zealand customs….another reason not to buy. Some of the books would have made interesting reading of that I have no doubt. The shop itself was small, but well laid out. Due to the limited subject matter, the fact that the rainbow coloured plastic strips across the doorway made it look like a rather cheap ‘Adult’ shop, and the rather sullen girl behind the counter, the most I can rate this store is 2.5 out of 5. Definitely worth calling in for curiosity sake though.

No post about independent bookstores of San Francisco could be considered any where complete without a mention of, and a visit to, City Lights Bookstore. Home of the beat generation of writers, this shop has been around since the 1950’s and is probably the most famous book store in the whole of California. Original co-owner – poet, publisher, painter and social activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti still calls into the store every now and then, but sadly wasn’t there when we called in. It’s a pity really as his presence may have made the staff a little more approachable and less “up themselves”. Sometimes working in a famous store goes to people’s heads. The shop is a warren of rooms and bookshelves but very pleasant to walk around and browse the huge range of subject matter. There are a lot of “social issue” type books, in line with Ferlinghetti’s freedom of speech/freedom of expression mantra. The making one of the upstairs rooms exclusively for poetry, complete with a desk and a couple of chairs is a welcome refuge in which to read in peace. My rating of 3.5 out of 5 reflects the attitude of the staff and lowers what would have been a much higher score.

jacket, A Coney Island of the Mind

Despite the vast and interesting range of books I limited myself to a single book purchase here – Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s modern classic “A Coney Island of the Mind”, a collection of what is recognised as some of his best poems written during a short period in the 1950’s.

And that brings our little trip around a few of the many San Francisco Independent Book Shops to a close.

The Man in the High Castle – a book within a book and more than meets the eye.

I have just returned from a visit to the Pacific north-west – mainly staying in San Francisco, along with a side trip to Portland, Oregon.

A couple of things that I wanted to do while in this area was to firstly visit a number of independent book stores, and secondly buy books either by writers who live in the area, or books with stories set in the area. And so, during a visit to Powell’s City of Books in Portland (about which I will blog in detail in another post, shortly), I bought a second hand copy of Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” which is set, for the most part, in San Francisco. BUT it’s a very different San Francisco to that of today.

Image result for The_Man_in_the_High_Castle book cover

Set in 1962, just 7 years after the end of WW2, it offers up an alternative ending to the second world war. In this book the war was won by the Axis – Japan and Germany (with the Italians in tow). The west coast of the USA is in the hands of the Japanese and the east coast is under German control. There is a slim buffer zone – kind of a neutral area – in the middle, down the Rocky Mountains, where American life is more or less business as usual. In San Francisco where much of the novel is set, American’s are allowed to live, work and run businesses, but very much under the eye of their superiors – Their Japanese masters.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot as it would spoil things for potential readers. So here is a brief summary.

The Japanese are clearly in control of American lives and businesses in San Francisco and the west coast – and have stamped Japanese values into the American culture and yet, perversely it seems, the Japanese also hold American memorabilia in very high regard – almost like priceless antiques. Part of the story follows a memorabilia shop owner who is constantly trying to find pieces to satisfy the whims of his high ranking Japanese clients. This is a world where a Mickey Mouse watch is a sought after item.

As well as the memorabilia man, the novel follows a number of other lives and reveals that some of them have been reading a book – banned on the east coast by the Germans, yet a blind eye is turned to it on the west coast by the Japanese rulers…..some of whom also read and have copies of the book. The controversial book in question is called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” – a book that gives an alternative and, for some, unthinkable ending to WW2 where the USA, Britain and their minor allies are the victors. Whilst the Japanese are intrigued by the book, the Germans absolutely hate it, and it’s author, Hawthorne Abendsen, is believed to be in hiding, in fear for his life, in a fortress like building somewhere in the Rocky Mountains…hence the title of Dick’s book – The Man in the High Castle.

The story indicates that although the Germans and Japanese were on the same side during the war, there is a certain amount of political friction between the two over their control of the former USA. This “friction” boils over into violence…..BUT, I’ll say no more about that. Read the book.

Philip K. Dick is mostly known for his Sci-fi books. This is more of an alternative history/thriller and, to be honest with you, is the only one of his books that I have read…so far. It has had a lot of hype, many people love this book and I have a liking for a dystopian story. It is, however, a strange book for me to try to give a rating to. On the one hand I found the idea of the Japanese/German victory and control of the USA quite fascinating. AND I thought that the premise of the other book – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – with it’s real ending of the war was a nice twist of irony.

Dick starts off slowly focusing on the every day lives of the main characters and builds things up nicely for a big ending….starting very slowly, almost boringly slowly, and gradually adding action and tension. I kept looking at how many pages there were left and thinking that he wasn’t leaving a lot of time for the big finish. BUT I found the ending to be a bit of an anti-climax and the whole thing left me feeling quite flat.

As a result I could only give it a 3 out of 5. I’d say it’s worth a read just to see what all the hype is about.

Image result for 48 by james herbert

If you like the idea behind an Axis victory, but like a little more action and thrills, I’d recommend James Herbert’s book “48” – which is set in a post war London where Hitler has been victorious by using a biological weapon which targets specific blood groups. It follows one mans survival story.

Interestingly, Goodreads give The Man in the High Castle a rating of 3.63 and Herbert’s “48”, which I felt was a far superior story, rates only slightly higher on 3.75

As usual – thank you for reading – your comments and shares are always appreciated. AND please remember to support your local book sellers.

GLIDE along to San Francisco’s Tenderloin.

The choir and band at Glide Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.

One of the items on my wife’s “must do” list, when we visited San Francisco recently, was to visit a church where the choir sang Gospel music. A quick ‘Google’ recommended Glide church in one of San Francisco’s seedier areas – the Tenderloin. I wasn’t all that keen on attending a church service but went along to make sure she was safe on the streets.

Neither of us are overly religious and don’t attend church on anywhere near a regular basis at home (usually weddings and funerals), nor follow any particular religion, but for some reason when we travel overseas we tend to visit quite a few churches, chapels, temples etc. – mainly from an interest in their history and architecture. We do however feel a certain degree of spiritual uplift after visiting these buildings, particularly if there is a service on at the time of our visit.

We were in the UK a couple of years ago and, as is our habit when overseas, visited a few churches there. We were told the same story where ever we went – falling congregation numbers and churches closing or having services every couple or more weeks instead of every Sunday. In one village we visited in Cornwall, the church officials outnumbered the congregation, us included. I believe that, although modern day people live busier lives than in the past and the internet has made knowledge more accessible – particularly about “the Creation” and scientific alternatives – the main reason for falling congregation numbers in the UK is because the church still sticks to its format of old. It has not moved on, has not evolved.

No such problem, it seems, in America. Some churches maintain the status quo, others are more progressive and not only maintain congregation numbers but in some cases have increased them. And I add – slightly tongue in cheek – one can’t help feel that more people are praying these days as a result of who is in the White House.

Glide church, in one of the poorest areas of San Francisco, has two services each Sunday to accommodate everyone who wants to go – one at 9am and another at 11am. We went to the 11am service, or should I say “celebration”? Prior to the “celebration” we had mistakenly wandered into another room, downstairs in the church building, used to help both feed those in need and help to rehabilitate and offer assistance to people with addictions. We were greeted by a man of about my age who was obviously there to be helped, but also made a point of making us feel welcome. He gave us his life story and then shed tears when telling us how much he misses his parents who died in 2012. A lady helper then told us that if we were looking for the Sunday Celebration…..it was upstairs in the church proper.

It was certainly an interesting and surprisingly emotional experience. Being a “gospel” church, and I know I am being stereotypical and for that I apologize, I expected a black preacher. The main preacher here is white…..but delivered the sermon with a sense of humour, even if it did seem like he was using “dad” jokes. He made sure the emphasize that this is a church that is fully inclusive and supports the community it serves, by being a community. Every day they need 70 volunteers to help in the task of feeding the homeless. They also run rehabilitation programs for those dependent on drugs, alcohol or gambling. They care and they try their best to make a difference. Of course there was the usual plea for folks to “give money”, but when you see what they are doing with it and the programs they have to help the needy you don’t mind digging deep to put something into the collection plate.

San Francisco has a huge problem with homelessness. Except in the rich areas, where I’m guessing the streets are policed a little more strictly, you will find the homeless sleeping in shop doorways, the middle of footpaths, or even in some cases in makeshift tents on the median strip of busy roads. Most of them with cardboard signs asking for nickels and dimes “anything you can spare to help”. It’s bad enough in the middle of the day, but the “body count” increases once the stores close and more of the homeless take up their usual spot, wedged into alcoves against shop doors, to find as much shelter as is possible, from the weather, for the night. The weather is one of the reasons that San Francisco has such a high population of homeless people. The temperature range here is fairly constant – no extremes of heat or bitter cold – making outdoor living at least bearable, if not comfortable. Other cities, such as New York, constantly hassle the homeless and move them on as quickly as possible – in some cases they even bus them out of the city so that they become someone else’s problem. Not so in San Francisco.

And not so at Glide church where everyone is welcome regardless of your status, skin colour, gender (or gender choice), religious beliefs, social problems, health or mental state etc. So, as you can imagine, there is a diverse cross section of the community here and ALL are warmly welcomed and embraced into the heart of this church. Very early in the service – or celebration, as they call it here at Glide – the preacher gets everyone to shake hands (or hug) someone that they haven’t met before. It was something very much out of my comfort zone and not an inherently English thing to do, but after the initial pang of discomfort I couldn’t help but warm to the feeling of love and belonging that these folk – the congregation here – exude.

Before the “celebration” began a lady circulated though the pews offering either a fan or a tissue to each of us. It was quite chilly in the church anyhow so there was no need for a fan and I had no idea, at the time, why she thought we might need a tissue – other than to blow our noses on. However I could have used that tissue later on. I was emotionally affected by the whole experience – the sermon (which wasn’t much related to the usual biblical texts that I have been used to in more staid Church of England services) was more about life experiences and struggles that ordinary people have to get through to survive….not just those on the street, but working families where mum and dad are both having to work two jobs – drawing minimum wage – just to pay the bills.

The American Dream lifestyle of the 1950’s and 60’s has become an American Nightmare for many in the 2000’s as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen at an alarming rate, enslaving many in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of debt. Combine this with the singing of the choir and a talented bunch of musicians, playing everything from keyboards, drums and guitar to a brass section…..add in the words of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” – the choir and band did a brilliant job of this number – experience being in this tumble dryer of humanity and humbleness and next thing you’re dabbing away tears of emotion and gratitude.

The celebration featured many things other than the choir and the sermon. At one point a gentleman was asked to step up and talk briefly to us from the stage. He was 27 years sober, thanks to the support of Glide church, and a former member of the choir. He spoke most eloquently and you could see that he was in a good place both literally and figuratively speaking – very comfortable in his own skin and in addressing the congregation – interesting to listen to.

The “Fabulous” Stacy with friend, and at the lectern the Preacher.

We also had an appearance on stage from another member of the congregation – a transexual called Stacy – who was very flamboyant and totally ‘out there’ – and her favourite word was “fabulous”. She was on stage to announce a LGBT event coming up in May where everyone was invited “including straight people”….but they have to dress up and of course “be fabulous”.

Former Minister delivers his crucifixion story.

There was a short sermon by a former Glide minister (he also covers for the current minister when needed) – this time a black man, or man of colour (I don’t mean to offend but never know when to use the word black or colour so I’m using both to cover all bases). He delivered a very modern take on the crucifixion and why God didn’t save his son from the suffering of the cross. He said it was due to modern day pressures. God was holding down 2 jobs, had already taken time off work to help his troubled son out previously and was going to lose his job if he left his work station to take yet another call from him asking for help. He related it to the lives of every day working class Americans and the message came across very clearly. Another eloquent speaker.

It was a very humbling, moving and uplifting experience during which we weren’t merely visitors or tourists – we were part of the congregation and community….and I am glad that my wife dragged me along.

The link to the Glide church web page is
https://www.glide.org/

Photography gallery at Pier 24 – San Francisco.

Those of you who followed the blog of my backpacking trip around the UK and Europe will know that I usually have no luck at all when it comes to visiting photography galleries. I either visit on a day that they are closed, are between exhibits…or in one case… had moved premises. However thanks to the internet and Mr Google….and making an on-line booking I was able to visit and view photos at Pier 24 Photography.

Pier 24 Photography is a non-profit art museum located on the Port of San Francisco directly under the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. The organization houses the permanent collection of the Pilara Foundation, which collects, preserves and exhibits photography. It’s free to visit and view the exhibitions here, but to limit overcrowding they only allow a restricted number of visitors each day, so an on-line reservation is needed. See their website for details –
https://pier24.org/visit/

The current exhibition is called “This Land” which is a snapshot of life in the USA. The exhibition’s title is drawn from Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land” (1940) and features work by some of the best and most well known photographers around – such as Bruce Gilden, who is not only one of America’s best street photographers, but he is also a member of the prestigious Magnum Photo Agency.

The exhibition is housed in a collection of around 18 different rooms, is very well lit and displayed, but still left me feeling a little flat. There were very few photos that I thought were extraordinary…in fact I thought the majority were very ordinary indeed. Bruce Gilden’s contribution was a wall of faces – portraits – of the…and I hate to be unkind here or to be seen to mock the afflicted, but it seemed like he wanted to highlight the freakiest people he could find. He claims that the photos were taken “to try to capture the souls” of those who were captured by his camera.

I’ll pause here and post a few photos of the exterior of the building, the general area, and of course the exhibition and exhibition space its self. Pier 24 is directly underneath the Bay Bridge – I’d hate to be in there during a big earthquake.

Even though they were not -in my opinion – exceptional photos, they do give an insight into the people and places of ordinary America. I’m glad I took the time to visit the gallery but hope that next time…if there is a next time…that I visit, there will be something more inspirational. I am glad and grateful that such a place exists that is dedicated to photography.

I also paid a visit to the galleries at 49 Geary Street – there are round 2 dozen free to visit galleries of various sizes – many of which have the kind of art that I just don’t understand at prices I understand even less. BUT 2 of them have photographic displays. Robert Koch Gallery featured a number of black and white photographs from across the years and by numerous photographers. They were just in the one smallish room but of really good quality and content. The other photo gallery is Fraenkel Gallery currently featuring coloured photos by Alec Soth. They were OK but nothing marvelous. I just wish we were going to be in San Francisco in July for the Lee Friedlander exhibition.