We hope your summer goes well, with music, movies, outdoor excursions, and of course reading occupying some of your days. Along with this month's offerings of locally sourced reviews, we want to let you know about an exciting new independent bookstore-only event that is coming up: California Bookstore Day! Launched this month, it will happen next May 3rd at a bookstore near you. Based on Record Store Day, it will be both a celebration of independent bookstores and a celebration of independent book readers! Unique items will be produced by major authors and publishers for sale only at independents, only that day! So, along with the daily treasures, you'll be able to discover and buy limited edition printings for one day only. California Bookstore Day has launched an Indiegogo campaign, with less than a month left to contribute. You can help to get this historical event underway, and find out more about the day's offerings here.
We hope you help all of California's independents in making it a great celebration, by helping with the launch and by visiting our stores on California Bookstore Day!
John & all Dieselfolk
In The Humans, Matt Haig has taken "the outsider's perspective" to a whole new level. Sent to earth to stunt mathematical advancement, our alien narrator must take on the identity of a Cambridge mathematician and kill the people closest to this human. Completely baffled by the tenets and trappings of human existence, our visitor sees the commonplace through new eyes, offering a strange and wonderful sort of wisdom as he goes about his mission. The catch? He discovers peanut butter and poetry and a good dog and everything else that makes life on Earth make sense. Haig writes with wit and surety, so convincingly other-worldly that it could cause a person to wonder. -- Sus Long
I recently listened to Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou on CD. Her voice is mellifluous; I could listen to her for hours, and did! She recounts the time she spent as a child living with her grandmother, and then as a young teen going to live with her mother in San Francisco. At first Maya called her mother Lady, as she was beautiful and still too unknown to address as Mom. Angelou recounts some of the harrowing experiences that she described in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but with the new angle of the responses of her mother, a fiercely honest and vibrant woman who loved her children. As Maya grew up and became a mother herself, she looked to Lady for advice and support. The evolution of their relationship is inspiring, and gave me an even deeper respect for Maya Angelou. -- Mia Wigmore
Blue Plate Special, novelist Kate Christensen's new memoir about food and sex and writing -- or, as she calls it, "An Autobiography of My Appetites" -- opens with a homey scene familiar to the food writing genre. All the typical nostalgic elements are there: the weather outside is chill. The family is gathered around the table. Christensen's mother is making "soft-boiled eggs with pieces of buttered toast broken into them" -- ideal comfort food. The reader is lulled by this lovely Ruth Reichl-esque fantasy...into which Christensen then introduces a moment of shocking domestic violence.
While this sudden change in tone is certainly enough to gain one's attention, what impressed me -- and turned me from someone who was casually perusing this book's first few pages into someone eager to gobble it down like warm buttered toast and eggs -- was Christensen's forthright emotional honesty in analyzing both her two-year-old and her adult reaction to this scene. "In that moment, as a helpless child, I had two choices of people to identify with. In that moment, I split in half. As part of me stared at the eggshells, the toast crumbs, the empty, yolk-streaked bowls, that other part allied itself with my father, the person with the strength and force and power. And so, from then on, I denied that part of me that was female. I tried to be like some idealized version of a guy: tough, impermeable, ambitious, sexually aggressive, and intolerant of weakness and vulnerability, in myself and everyone else."
In the writing of Blue Plate Special, however, Christensen allows herself to be vulnerable and then some. With a refreshing lack of sentimentality but a richly flavored memory, she lays herself bare, mapping out the ups and downs of the rest of her childhood in Berkeley, Arizona, France, and beyond; her struggle to make a living as a writer in New York; and the travails of her love life and failed marriage. In all of these things she holds herself firmly to account, with psychological insight that was doubly fascinating to me: as if I were staring at a stage and looking in a mirror. Never have I read a memoir and come away so desperately wanting to be the writer's friend. (Call me!) This is followed quite closely by wanting to read all her previous fiction, and try out her wealth of recipes -- helpfully included. -- Anna Kaufman
The Literary Conference moves from puzzle-adventure, to science-fiction global conquest, to campy B-movie plot in less than a hundred pages. Aira, a struggling translator, solves a centuries-old mystery and inherits a fortune overnight. Suddenly more than financially stable, he is able to pursue his true aim, for Aira is, in secret, a mad scientist with a recently perfected cloning machine and dreams of world domination. And yet what good are clones of himself, a man of self-professed "quite minimal" intelligence? What Aira needs is an army of super-geniuses, and no one is a more perfect candidate to clone than that titan of Latin American letters, Carlos Fuentes. As it happens, Fuentes is attending a nearby literary conference. Aira steals a cell to clone, sets up his apparatus in the mountains around town, and settles in to wait. This hilarious and sarcastic story is the backdrop for the beautiful ruminations packed throughout this book. As the mad scientist, Aira speculates on the nature of intelligence (unique to everyone, as it must be); the tragedy of lost love and our never-ending quest to reclaim it somehow, somewhere, in someone, no matter the cost; and the creation and birth of any work of art. This little gem of a book invites (and deserves) multiple reads. -- Chris Phipps
Dr. Sweet has written a treasure of a book about her time practicing at San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital, considered the last almshouse in the country. It was a two-month stint that turned into a 20-year tenure. The almshouse, a descendant of the Hotel-Dieu (God's Hotel) that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages, tends to those who have met with hard times and need extended medical care to heal. This low-tech, personal environment allowed Sweet to practice what she describes as "slow medicine," when a doctor is allowed the time to pay attention to her patients -- to sit, observe, and think. While studying for her Ph.D. in Medical History, Sweet became an admirer of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century mystic and nun who also wrote a medical text. This led Sweet to sometimes ask herself "what would Hildegard do" while trying to unravel the tangled web of a patient's symptoms, and began to color how she looked at medicine and the way it is practiced in our fast-paced world. The warmth, the humor, the passion in God's Hotel all combine to make this one of the best pieces of nonfiction I've had the good fortune to read. Obviously others feel as I do given that God's Hotel received the the NCIBA Award for Creative Nonfiction and the Gold Medal for Nonfiction by the California Book Awards, and is a finalist for the PEN Award for Nonfiction. -- Pam Stirling
At first glance, Sorted Books seems like an easy-to-dismiss gimmick: artist Nina Katchadourian stacks books spine-out so that their titles read as droll, deadpan, poem-like phrases, and then photographs the results. But in the nearly two decades Katchadourian has been creating these works (which she calls "gatherings"), her project has taken on a weight far beyond the its initial novelty, and has become a love letter to books, book collecting, and the act of reading. In addition to garnering her artist-in-residence gigs at numerous libraries and collections, her photographs have inspired a vast crowdsourced pool of similar efforts from around the world. Inevitably, some are cute:
DEATH AND DISASTERS
While others have an uncanny strangeness and beauty:
THE LIFE OF BIRDS
ON FORBIDDEN PATHS
THE DREAM LAND
Ultimately, the best praise I can give Sorted Books is that its playful juxtapositions -- of familiar and unfamiliar titles, old and new books, and high and low culture -- will make you feel like reading. -- John Peck
Non-stop fun ensues once everyone arrives at the annual family reunion. There are hugs to be had, piles of food to eat, a creek to wade in, and fireflies to be caught. The action doesn't stop until, exhausted, everyone falls asleep wherever they collapse. This story, with its lyrical verse, captures the pure essence of a perfect summer day, whether you are a child, or just a child at heart. -- Cheryl Ryan