Portland Oregon, capital of weird…..and Powell’s City of Books.

Many cities around the world have slogans that they identify with for example Los Angeles is “City of Angels”…..although I’m not sure how angelic L.A. is. Portland has a rather strange one – it’s “Keep Portland Weird!” Actually I found Portland quite delightful.

There you have it… the weird side of Portland.

First of all Portland is a foodie’s paradise. The food is some of the best, by which I mean locally grown, freshest and tastiest that I have had anywhere on my travels. Secondly they revere the art of making great coffee….and thirdly they have some awesome boutique breweries. Add to this trio, scenic surrounding natural wilderness, parks and formal gardens, a farmers market, a huge weekly art and craft market on the riverside and a great range of boutique shops and department stores to satisfy the most demanding shopper and you would think that Portland has it all.

BUT the crowning glory of Portland has to be the ultimate in bookstores – Powell’s City of Books – which occupies an entire city block and houses around a million books displayed in 3,500 sections in 9 colour-coded rooms, over several floors. When I say rooms I mean massive rooms of warehouse size.

I am a huge book lover….not that I am large and overweight….nor that I like over sized books….but you know what I mean. I’m a bibliophile. You’d think therefore that a store like Powell’s would have been a delight for me to wander through – right? Actually I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the place and the selection of books was mind blowing. It was sensory overload for book lovers. After a half hour of moving quickly – running like a headless chicken – with no real meaning or goal, I managed to calm down and slow down enough to start taking things in and having a proper look around. Up on the top floor…I think it was the top floor…was an amazing selection of books on photography, art, design and architecture. The phrase “spoiled for choice” doesn’t even cover it. Some of the prices were “up there”, but many were a lot cheaper than I’d be able to access at home in New Zealand. It was such a pity that having to fly home meant strict weight restrictions and so ruled out many of the large format picture books that I would otherwise have selected.

Powell’s have a computer screens and keyboards throughout the store enabling access to their huge catalogue of books. Key in the title of a book or an authors name and the computer will tell you the room and rack of books where they can be located. In the end I think I bought maybe 4 or 5 books from Powell’s, as did my wife. This sounds pitiful when there were a million titles at our disposal, but we’d already “shopped ’til we dropped” in the book stores of San Francisco so space, or more exactly weight, available for extra books in our suitcases was minimal. I’d love to take another trip there, this time with an empty case!

Unfortunately we were only there for one weekend, but if you read on you’ll see that we squeezed in quite a lot during our brief stay in the capital of weird.

One place we wanted to go to we pre-booked before leaving San Francisco. That was Stumptown Coffee Roastery. We’d booked in there for a guided coffee tasting….or coffee cupping also known as spooning….but not the cuddling kind.

We arrived early and were shown to a waiting area where we could sit on comfortable sofas and try hot coffee from a pumps….or iced coffees from the refrigerator. Wow what a choice there was. Also in the same area were a collection of old style coffee machines. All chrome and absolutely wonderful. By the time we were shown through to the “cupping” area I was already wired on caffeine.

We had maybe 15 people or so in our tasting group and the young lady who led the tasting was friendly and extremely knowledgeable. First of all she laid out about a dozen different coffee bean blends and we could examine the bean and smell it’s aroma. Next came the ground coffee…again to sniff at while dry. Then the hot water was added and we went along the line sniffing at each cup just after the water had been added and again after a few minutes…the difference in aroma was very noticeable. Finally we got to taste the various coffees. Some very mild…moving through mid range…to rich and strong. The tasting was done by taking a spoon – a cupping spoon…a little like a shallow soup spoon – and then slurping the coffee from it to make sure the flavour goes all around the mouth. You could choose to spit out the coffee or swallow….now where have I heard that before? We also got to know all about how they source their beans from all over the world – predominantly Africa and South America. It was quite a fascinating afternoon. My preference was toward the stronger, richer, chocolatey end. But having said that, I also liked a couple of the milder brews. The aftertaste flavours were almost peachy.

We hit a number of micro-breweries and bars to sample the amber nectar, and sometimes the almost chocolatey nectar too. One bar we went in, and I can’t for the life of me remember the name, had a deliciously rich chocolate Porter. Never have I tasted one so delicious. Another one called 10 Barrel Brewing had a tasting board where you could try all 10 brews. My son and daughter-in-law had a go at those while my wife and I settled for a pint. I must say, whilst in Portland, I didn’t meet a beer that wasn’t delicious.

The cafes were marvelous too – excellent coffees served at every single one we went to. Heart coffee/café was probably the best. But it would be a tight run thing as there were so many delicious cups of coffee consumed over the 3 days of our trip.

Another thing that Portland is famous for is donuts. If you want quality donuts try Blue Star Donuts, but if you want to put the weird into Portland’s donuts you have to go to Voodoo Doughnut. The choice of toppings for your donut is mind boggling. I went for the Portland Cream – basically a cream filled chocolate covered one. Very YUM! But you’ll see from the photo below that there are some odd toppings. They are very popular and we had to line up outside the shop for fifteen minutes or so before being served.

Evening dining saw us dining in a couple of restaurants. My favourite was Besaw’s. It was kind of 50’s style with high backed green leather booths. Excellent food…tasty and ample sizes…and the staff were attentive and friendly. I hate going to restaurants where you order your meal…a steak maybe, along with the several items that come with it…only for it to arrive at the table to look small and lost, sitting alone in the middle of a plate with swirls of ‘Jus’ around it and 3 little cubes of something, artistically placed to one side. The waiter comes along and asks “How did you find your steak sir?”….the reply – “I moved a pea and there it was!” They then sting you extra for ‘sides’ of potatoes and veg. Not here at Besaws. You order a meal and you get a meal. The bottle of 2014 Pinot Noir to accompany the meal, from Angela Estate in Oregon, was rich and delicious. And takes the award for best wine I tried whilst in Portland.

We never made it to the Farmers Market, but did get to the Saturday arts and crafts market by the riverside. Lot and lots of stalls to wander around all selling hand made items…plus the usual buskers and food stalls. Some of the prices were ‘up there’ though, due to the poor exchange rate with the NZ Dollar.

I was also very impressed by some of the murals on the side of buildings. Excellent quality art. And there was a wide range of architecture….the old and new sitting side by side.

The only thing that let Portland down was the weather. One day was sunny but two days showery and cloudy. I guess that’s what you get in the Pacific North West. Fortunately it was a fine day when we explored Portland’s parks and gardens. The Shakespeare gardens with it’s Rose Garden was beautiful, high on a hill overlooking the city….and would have been even better if the roses had been in bloom! We were maybe a month early. Afterwards we had a wander along a little trail through woodland back down to the city…..eating Blue Star Donuts along the way.

Weird or not, Portland Oregon is a great place to visit for a weekend…..but be warned, if you’re a book lover, you need a week to explore Powell’s Book Shop.

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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.

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.

Potrero Hill (and books and bookshops).

Heading west and up hill from the flatlands of the Dogpatch area is the mainly residential Potrero Hill which clings to the curves of the east facing hills, giving it a sunny disposition. The condition and quality of the homes here change with each street and sometimes with each cross street from swanky to shabby. Along with homes, this neighbourhood also has cafe’s and eateries and an interesting local music scene…..plus Christopher’s Bookshop which is on my “to visit” list.

Historically a working class neighbourhood until the gentrification of the 1990’s – you’ll now find a mainly working-professional and upper-middle class, family-oriented scene. And talking of scenes, due to the elevated position you have a wonderful outlook over both the Bay and the financial district skyline. I guess I could have lumped Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch together as the Spanish name for the Dogpatch area was Potrero Nuevo, but as you saw from my earlier Dogpatch post there was enough happening there to warrant a post of its own.

I’m not sure how much there will be here of interest from a tourist viewpoint as it is mainly residential and by San Franciscan standards very quiet…..but we’ll see. One benefit is that there is a Caltrain station here so that means easy access to and from the main city.

When ever we visit cities anywhere in the world, we usually seek out the parks and open green spaces for a break from the hustle and bustle to give us a chance to recharge our internal batteries. Potrero Hill has a few such areas. Mckinley Square, popular with children and dog lovers and contains several levels of trails that make up the official off-leash dog area. The park is pretty much on the crest of Potrero Hill and since my blog is primarily about books and writers, has a literary connection. Part of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel “The Language of Flowers” describes the park.

Published in 2011 The language of Flowers is Diffenbaugh’s first published novel and is about Victoria Jones, an itinerant foster child who gets moved from home to home until at the age of 18 she becomes a flower arranger…..hence the title. According to Wikipedia, “The novel was inspired by a flower dictionary, a type of Victorian-era book which defines what different types of flowers mean”. It’s also love story, which is why I won’t be reading it, but for those who enjoy love stories with a heavy accent on flowers and their meanings…it is most likely a good read. In fact Goodreads (did you see what I did there??? Lol) rates it at four and a bit out of five and says “A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past”.

Around the corner from McKinley Square you’ll find Potrero Hill Community Garden which was established in the 1970s and has a panoramic view of the city. About 10 minutes walk from the Community Gardens is Potrero Hill Recreation Center. Renovated in 2011 – here you’ll find a baseball field, a tennis court, a basketball court, and another dog park. It seems like Potrero Hill residents love their dogs. Likewise, the Jackson Playground at the North Slope also has a baseball field, a tennis court, and a basketball court. And another loosely literary connection…there is a public library which was renovated in 2010 and is located on 20th St. and Connecticut St.

So what else other than homes and parks does Potrero Hill have to offer, I hear you ask? The answer is….not a lot. It’s mainly a residential area with a few shops and cafes to service the locals – which actually makes it quite a good place to visit….WHY? – no tourists and no crowds. From our son and daughter-in-laws apartment, the closest mini-markets within walking distance, of any note – mainly Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are in or along the edge of Potrero Hill so we have ventured into this area quite a few times since our arrival almost a week ago.

To get to Christopher’s Book Store means a steep-ish climb from the Dogpatch up 18th Street to the corner of 18th and Missouri, where you will find a lovely little shop (open every day 10am to 9pm) on the corner with a good variety of stock and a knowledgeable lady owner. The original owner “Christopher” who opened the store in 1991 has a New Zealand connection. Christopher Ellison was from Te Kauwhata (not too far from Hamilton, New Zealand) a very small town of just over 1000 people – serving an outlying area of maybe 10,000 people. He decided that what the Potrero Hill area of San Francisco needed was an independent bookshop. The current owner – Tee Minot – started off working for Christopher back in 1992 and has been here ever since, taking over sole ownership of the shop in 1996. As you would expect of someone who has owned a bookshop for over 20 years, Tee is very knowledgeable about her stock and the area of San Francisco that her shop is based.

The only thing I could even begin to be negative about this shop is that it’s not big enough to have a dedicated reading area. There are just 3 aisles of books – but a good selection. Tee herself said she wished that there was room for a couple of couches in there – sadly there isn’t – otherwise this shop would be just about perfect.

I can buy books cheaper on line but, as I may have mentioned in earlier blog posts, I prefer to support the bricks and mortar establishments – particularly independents – when ever I can. Visiting San Francisco, I wanted to buy a book or two either by San Franciscan writers or featuring stories set in San Francisco. With this in mind, Tee recommended several books/writers and I selected two of them – Rebecca Solnit’s “Call Them by Their True Names” – American Crises (and Essays) printed in 2018 and which I have just started reading.

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Solnit, although born in Connecticut in 1961, moved to California when just a girl where she was educated from kindergarten to graduate school. She’s been an “independent writer” since 1988 and has published over twenty books covering everything from Feminism, History, Politics and Power, Social Problems, Travel, Insurrection, Hope and Disaster. This book however is a series of essays about, as she says, “the war at home” – referring to social injustice, climate change, domestic violence and of course the travesty that is Trump. The people at Goodreads rate this book as a 4 out of 5. I’m only about 20 pages in so far but she writes well – informs rather than preaches – so I will no doubt enjoy it.

The second of my book selections from Christopher’s is David Talbot’s “Season of the Witch”. Which according to the cover “tells the story of San Francisco in the turbulent years between 1967 and 1982 – and of the extraordinary men and women who led to the city’s ultimate rebirth and triumph”.

Paperback Season of the Witch : Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love Book

According to the Washington Post “An enthralling and harrowing account of how the 1967 Summer of Love gave way to 20 or so winters of discontent”.

So it should be a good read – at over 400 pages I am going to have to set aside some serious reading time for this one. Talbot was born and raised in Los Angeles, but now lives and works here in San Francisco. He specializes in “hidden histories” where his journalistic training is put to good use.

It scores a high 4 and a quarter on Goodreads but has been criticized for it’s racially singular accounts – being told by a white man basically from a white viewpoint about predominantly white people. I’ll keep an open mind when I eventually get to read it.

My wife Liz bought Jenny Odell’s “How to do Nothing” subtitled “Resisting the Attention Economy”. Unlike my two paperbacks, this is a very nice hard cover book with a colourful dust cover.

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Odell is another local writer, being based just over the bridge in Oakland.

Again this book is a 4 plus rating on Goodreads. “This thrilling critique of the forces vying for our attention re-defines what we think of as productivity, shows us a new way to connect with our environment and reveals all that we’ve been too distracted to see about our selves and our world”.

Where better to sit and peruse our new purchases than just over the road and slightly down the hill at Farley’s Coffee. Farley’s have really good coffee, by the way, so if you’re in the area you’ll be doing yourself a favour by calling in for a cup. The prices are much cheaper than in the tourist parts of the city too – a win / win situation. And the barista’s there are friendly and very good at what they do.

There are tables inside where you can sit and work / browse your laptop, or enjoy a bite to eat from their menu. We chose to sit outside in the sunshine beneath the Bottlebrush trees, sip coffee and read. This little seating area is right outside Farley’s door but is actually a kind of mini public park….or “parkette” if you like…where anyone can sit and while away a few minutes of a few hours, with or without a purchase from Farley’s.

Just a block further up the street from Christopher’s – which is quite a steep climb – there are some nice views of the city from this lofty vantage point on 19th Street.

Later on in the morning, passing the back of the library, the shutter doors were open revealing an area dedicated to selling used books – either ex library books, or donated by members of the public. Every book regardless of size, type or condition costs a mere $1. What a bargain. AND never being one to pass up a bargain I bought 4….and my wife bought 2. Our suitcases will be right up to that 23 kilo limit by the time we’ve finished buying books.

My picks were – Randy Shilts “The Mayor of Castro Street” about the life and times of Harvey Milk. A book of Essays edited by Jennifer Lee by American writers about their experiences in Paris – “Paris in Mind”. A pictorial feast of a book “Gertrude Stein in words and pictures” and my final selection was ironically by a guy who lives and works in my town of birth – Sheffield called Simon Armitage “Walking Home” subtitled “A Poets Journey”, which is about is attempt to walk the Pennine Way (the backbone of England).

My wife’s books were a paperback by Marianne Williamson’s “Healing the Soul of America”, and a cookbook by Terry Walters called “Clean Food”which is a nice quality hard cover book.

I’ll leave you with a few more photos of buildings that caught my eye – this time showing the bottom of the hill, back on the flat easy walking streets….and I’ll throw in another shot or maybe two of Christopher’s Books for good measure, since it’s such a great little shop.

Next post will be of the Mission District Murals.

Quotes about bookstores

I don’t know about you, but my home is full of books. Bookcases line the walls of my lounge and my office, the shelves sagging under the weight. And there are more books squirreled away, hidden in boxes, under the beds. Which is probably why, of all shops, I feel most at home and at my happiest in bookstores. Here are a few quotes from like-minded souls.

“You see, bookshops are dreams built of wood and paper. They are time travel and escape and knowledge and power. They are, simply put, the best of places.”
—Jen Campbell

“Browsing through the shelves in bookstores or libraries, I was completely happy.”
—Louis L’Amour

“I have gone to [this bookshop] for years, always finding the one book I wanted—and then three more I hadn’t known I wanted.”
—Mary Ann Shaffer

“Don’t patronize the chain bookstores. Every time I see some author scheduled to read and sign his books at a chain bookstore, I feel like telling him he’s stabbing the independent bookstores in the back.”
—Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I will end on that quote from the centenarian poet, publisher and co-founder of City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco…..a bookstore that I will be visiting in the next few days. One of many of San Francisco’s independent bookstores on my “to visit” list.

San Francisco beckons

I’ll soon be heading off to San Francisco to catch up with my eldest son and his wife….and aim to visit as many of the amazing independent bookstores there as I can. Immediately Green Apple Books, City Lights, Alley Cat Books and Dog Eared Books spring to mind, but there are dozens more scattered around this awesome city. Since my blog is primarily about books, writers, and bookstores, this will form the “bones” of my trip, but I’ll also flesh it out with lots of other bits and pieces and pursue my other passions of photography and travel…..not to mention the cafes and boutique breweries, bars, restaurants, galleries and shops. Speaking of galleries, there will be visits to photography galleries and art galleries plus there is a lot of art in public spaces outdoors such as the hundreds of murals in the Mission district. Then again, San Francisco also has some wonderful parks and open spaces to explore too, so after exhausting ourselves in the parks on this side of the bridge, we’ll probably head over the Golden Gate Bridge and see the mighty Redwoods in Muir Woods and since we’re almost there already… there are the vineyards of Sonora to check out.

We’ll also be spending a few days on the Monterey peninsula and a long weekend in Portland, Oregon – where I’ll spend some of my time in Powell’s bookstore – the biggest independent bookstore in the USA.

If anyone has any other tips on “must see” things in San Francisco, OR if you have any requests for things you’d like me to check out and blog about while in SF, please let me know in the comments below. I won’t be going to visit Alcatraz as I have already been there twice – once a few years ago and once back in 1986….but any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

An inspiring story of a determined woman.

My local independent book store Wardini’s in Havelock North had an author event a couple of weeks back that I was fortunate enough to be able to attend. A very sprightly, articulate and entertaining octogenarian lady by the name of Robin Robilliard was there to give a talk about her book “Hard Country” – A Golden Bay Life.

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It tells the story of how she and her husband Garry arrived in Golden Bay in 1957 and took on a rocky, rundown marginal property aptly called “Rocklands” and their attempts to turn it into a successful sheep farm. They arrived there with a baby, only a few months old, armed with very little money but a lot of determination and a willingness to work hard.

The three previous owners of the land had gone bust but over the years Robin and her husband came to love this “nightmare land” and sixty years on still call Rocklands home.

She was a delight to listen to. Not only had she and her husband raised 3 children and battled the elements to make a go of their farm, but she had also worked as a nurse and later as a journalist during which time she travelled the world.

It’s a fascinating book and has sold over 10,000 copies so far. Robin says she has another book coming out soon. If it’s anything like this one, it should sell well and the best of luck to her.

She very kindly signed a copy for me and added a little personal dedication. What a lovely lady.