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Welcome to READERS' BOOKS, Sonoma's literary gathering place where you'll find good books, good talk, lots of events, and opinions, jokes, and music in abundance.

Located in the town of SONOMA in the heart of California's lovely and historic WINE COUNTRY, we are a general bookstore with a particular focus on contemporary fiction, poetry, children's literature, food, wine and religion. We carry both new and used books and host several author events each week.

We are located one-half block off the Sonoma Plaza on the southeast side.

Readers' Books
130 E. Napa St.
Sonoma, CA 95476
Tel: 707-939-1779
Fax: 707-939-8013
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Some of you have wondered aloud as to how I go about writing these little ditties. What sort of excruciating medieval pain and torment do I endure to come forth with all these pearls of wisdom? Or, if there is no pain and torment involved, why then is it so bloody easy? What do I know about the creative process that the rest of you don't?  


First of all, let me just confess that I don't think of what I do as creative. I've done "creative"-made up stuff out of whole cloth-and in my experience that's hard work. Why? Because when you're writing fiction you're always trying to cover your tracks. You want your character to be plausible and realistic, so what do you do? An example: You hand him an old C-melody saxophone and dress him in the most beautiful blue-striped double breasted suit and painted silk tie. You give him a slight tell-tale limp left over from his traffic accident on Sunset Boulevard and a tiny scar on his forehead from where he hit the pavement. You let him stare too long into space. Then, as finishing touch, you put only the few snarky words he would ever say in his mouth.  

I don't do any of that. No, I just sit down in front of a blank screen, and sooner or later I think of sentence that sounds like me and I put it down. Then usually another sentence happens along that sort of goes with the first one, and so on and so forth, until to my amazement, I've strung together a whole page. Unless I am obsessing about a news item I just read, I honestly don't have a clue as to what I'm going to write in the beginning; it's entirely by the seat of my pants, which is more or less how I've led my life, so I guess you could say it's all of a piece.


I don't mean to suggest that I have nothing to say. I do. I just don't know what it'll be. This is a bit worrisome, because I've written so many essays now, and said so many things, that I often wonder whether something I wrote one day directly contradicts something I wrote the week before. I'm already sure that I'm starting to repeat myself, which means I'm running out of family anecdotes and such. Is this old age waiting in the wings? When you run out of stories? When it's all too familiar?


My main concern is coherence. I have too many relatives and a growing body of friends who, with each passing day, seem less and less coherent. They can't remember why they walked into a room. They can't remember the lyrics to their favorite song. Here in the bookstore almost everyone gets the title or the author or the color of the book they want wrong (I think I wrote a piece on that before). The truth is, things fall apart, and my main goal (sometimes it seems like my only goal) is to prevent that for as long as possible.


We eat right, therefore. Therefore, we exercise. And when we sit down to put forth another one of these opuses, we always do our best. But please, don't ask me how I do it.


What Me Worry

Now that President Obama has returned from his two week vacation on Martha's Vineyard I think the time has come to do a proper retrospective. Many people (mostly Republicans) have criticized him for being away from the White House playing golf while the rest of the world went to hell in a hand basket. And of course, it didn't look great, optically, I mean.  To be sure, most of those same Republicans who were criticizing him were also on vacation, so yeah, August, tit for tat. And an argument can be made that the President, whoever he is, is never really on vacation. The White House is, in the end, a traveling circus, and there's always that guy following the prez around with a briefcase full of secret nuclear codes in case...well, in case the world goes to hell in a hand basket.  


We shouldn't fret, in other words. And I don't. I remember the many days Ronald Reagan spent on his ranch riding horses. I remember all that time Papa Bush spent on his sailboat off the coast of Maine. I remember Bill Clinton doing whatever he did, and George W. on his spread in Texas gleefully clearing brush while all kinds of bad stuff happened. The point is, things are going to happen, whoever is in the White House and wherever they happen to be. And the bigger point is, there is often little or nothing a sitting President can do about some events-at least not immediately. And maybe the biggest point I'd like to make is that if something truly terrible is happening in the world-- something that catches everyone by surprise--there is usually not a simple, knee-jerk response a President (or anyone) can make right away that will change things for the better.


As a nation we have developed a number of set responses to some kinds of predictable events. If there's a forest fire, for instance, we know enough to call up nearby fire departments. We know the police will begin rerouting traffic and start evacuating certain neighborhoods. If it gets too wide spread the governor may order the Air National Guard to do water drops. Normal, everyday problems can probably be solved at the local or state level. But when big things happen, and especially when they happen beyond our borders, there is no easy answer. And virtually all the things that land on a President's desk are made of that kind of intractable silly-putty. Global warming. The madness in the Middle East. What the Russians are up to in Ukraine.


Even domestic issues are often beyond the scope of one individual. Still, we'd all like to be able to turn to the President and feel comforted in stressful times. That's what Presidents do best. I remember Ronald Reagan's speech after the Challenger blew up in Florida. He didn't write the words, some lowly speech writer did, but he certainly knew how to deliver them. And George W. Bush, I remember, gave a short but pretty rousing speech atop the rubble of the World Trade Towers. Reagan and Bush were both big believers in the value of down time. Obama, by contrast, could no doubt benefit from a few more days away from the labyrinth we call Washington.


As it happens, I'm going on a little vacation this fall. And I fully expect that for two weeks the bookstore will go to hell in a hand basket, but by the time I come back I also expect that everything will be just fine. That's just the way it works, isn't it.


Sundays at Readers' starts tomorrow August 24th, 10:00 a.m. until noon

For those of you who missed our first explanation, we thought we'd do a second because, you know, repetition never hurts, unless it drives you mad, and we aren't about to do that. Anyway, we've dreamed up a weekly program to benefit local charities, non-profits, artist groups. This is how it works:  for the first two hours of every Sunday 10% of whatever we sell in the store and 10% of whatever Foxfire Baking sells in our Reading Garden will be donated to a specific agency. A representative from that group will be on hand, possibly with brochures and other material to promote what they do. You can get to know them and who knows?-- they may even entice a few new recruits to join their cause. This week's beneficiary is Sonoma Overnight Support.  We envision a relaxed, yet fun time in our Reading Garden.  This Sunday, for example, beyond Foxfire Baking's magnificent array of croissants, sticky buns, Danishes, etc., we're going to try to have the Sunday New York Times available for perusal, and with your permission, yours truly will do a little noodling around on his guitar. You don't have to buy anything, but just remember that anything you buy during that time goes towards improving the life of the whole community. So you get yourself a book you were going to get anyway, you indulge in a croissant, and in your own Sunday morning way, you help to put a human, caring face on your town.  That's the idea.

Flash forward, flash back

If you can remember the Sixties, people used to say at cocktail parties in the Eighties and Nineties, you weren't there. Which was, of course, a joke. The thing about jokes is that they're funny the first time you hear them, but if told too often they start to lose their potency. The truth is, I can remember the Sixties, and, despite the lingering haze of marijuana and LSD, I was there, and, along with most every other Baby Boomer, I survived.


And what I remember vividly is the way our country, which began the decade with such a burst of hope and optimism, lost its way. Not that the Sixties didn't produce amazing things: There was the Peace Corps and the Free Speech Movement; there was the Freedom Summer in Mississippi and Alabama, and the Civil Rights Act, and the Great Society legislation, and the challenge to put a man on the moon before the Russians could beat us to it. Doors were opening everywhere, it seemed. There was the Women's Movement and the beginnings of gay rights. If you were a young person then (and who wasn't) there was a certainty in your heart that you were riding the crest of an unstoppable wave. Our music (we thought) contained all the truth we'd ever need. You might not know where things were headed, but still the times they were a-changin', as Bob Dylan told us.


I won't go into the litany of what went wrong. Oh okay, maybe I will mention just a few things: Vietnam, and our government's hubris on that score. The nightly body count in our living room beamed in through the magic of television. That, plus the relentless gunning down of so many iconic leaders-John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. The riots in the Watts, Chicago, and other places. I've probably left many topics out, but I recall how each of these things drained me steadily of hope and left me more and more depressed.


The reason I'm thinking at all about this now is of course because of the tragic events happening in Ferguson, Missouri. The murder of yet another black youngster by a white law officer, and the doubt in my mind that anything resembling justice will follow. This happens so frequently that it almost doesn't seem like news anymore. The legal system, it feels like, doesn't have a proper place for people of color, not unless you want to put them behind bars or in a coffin.


I have no answer for this. The police, in spite of their bone-headed excesses, are not the enemy. The angry, grieving people of Ferguson are certainly not the enemy. And justice is often only found at the end of a long and winding road. Still, I can't help but feel that this last decade is another one in which we started out hopeful and ended up lost and blind.


I remember that General Electric had an ad back in the Sixties, with a tag line that went: Progress is our most important product. It's still a great line, but I can't help but wonder now after so many years and so many dead children in the street, what does progress really look like?


No Dummies Need Apply

Maybe it's because we're in the dog days of summer and reporters are bored silly, but nevertheless there has been this kerfuffle over Hillary Clinton's supposed criticism of the Obama Administration's ad hoc foreign policy. The former Secretary of State quoted (sorta) the President's remark that we "don't do stupid stuff" and pronounced that that, in and of itself, was not sufficient for a great nation such as ours.


I heartily agree. We should also stand for freedom and democracy around the world. We should promote free and fair trade. We should do away with racism and homophobia. We should end global warming today if not yesterday. We should uplift the down trodden and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. All that stuff and more. You go, girl. But it's also true that President Obama made a very sound point when he said "don't do stupid stuff."   Think of it as just another iteration of the Hippocratic Oath. Every physician is sworn to "do no harm." Why should our President, the most powerful man on the planet, be any less careful? We can, of course, argue as to what constitutes "stupid stuff," but Obama's words were surely uttered with a vivid memory of the previous administration and their lazy forays into stupidity. That's largely how he was elected after all, because people were so fed up with the neo-cons in the Bush Administration and the havoc they let loose in places like Iraq and New Orleans and Wall Street.


Say what you will about the current President, you can't accuse him of not being thoughtful and cautious, especially when it comes to introducing American soldiers to exotic places where everyone has a gun and loves to shoot it. He has not done that. Now, Dick Cheney, John McCain, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz -those folks are quick on the trigger and darn proud of it. They have no regrets (why is that?), and no ability, it seems, to understand that not every problem can be solved with a bullet or a drone. We can't just drop the Big One and be done with it. In fact, you could argue that most of the woes in the world today stem from that kind of sloppy thinking.


All politicians make grand assertions about what kind of administration they will have. They like to think that they can see far into the future. You may recall that once upon a time George W. Bush was going to be the "education" president, and later on, that he was a "uniter, not a divider." Unfortunately, events have a way of reshaping our leaders' vision. History doesn't stand still, and the hand Obama's been dealt is probably not what he would have preferred, but to his credit he has made the best of it. Or, put another way, you can make all the plans you want, but God will invariably laugh, and then what do you do? Well, I'll tell you: for starters, you don't do stupid stuff.


In the end, it's all soup

It may be a generalization, but in my experience you don't learn much of anything by going to a wedding. Weddings nowadays are drunken, decorative (overly decorative if you ask me) affairs where people spend far too much money, and they're still smiling, long after the band has packed up and left the stage. This wasn't true many years ago when my cousin Bennett got married, I remember: the bride wasn't Jewish, that was the problem, and Bennett's mother wasn't about to be diplomatic and attend. On top of that, when Bennett tried to crush the wine glass at the end of the ceremony, the damn thing wouldn't break. Not right away, anyway, and I'm sure there were those in the audience who regarded this as a sure sign of tragic things to come. (They're still happily married, by the way, and Bennett's mom has passed away, which just proves my point: there's nothing to be learned).


Funerals, on the other hand, bring out the truth-or lots of different truths-- in spades. People speak glowingly of the deceased; they tell little stories that illustrate this or that point. How Ralph was an avid butterfly collector, how funny Helen was at cocktail parties, especially after she'd had a few high balls herself, how devoted Margaret was to all children everywhere, even though her own children kept their distance once they were grown. One of the great advantages of talking about the dead is that they can't talk back. Your version of events-no matter what axe you may still have to grind-that's the truth. In fact, whatever you say becomes part of the canon.


When I rose to speak at my father's funeral I'm sure I said a few things that were outwardly true. In his youth he was a socialist. Unions and strikes and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial were part of his upbringing, just as the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam would be part of mine. He read Karl Marx and he saw suffering and inequality all around him. Given those circumstances, I would be surprised if he hadn't been a socialist. Then Stalin made a pact with Hitler and the war came along and everything changed. He came home looking for opportunity, and by the grace of the GI Bill, he found it. He graduated from pharmacy school, moved to California, bought a tract house, and started reading the Wall Street Journal. He wanted to succeed. I don't know that he didn't want to succeed when he called himself a socialist; perhaps what changed was the definition of success.


As our family made arrangements for his funeral, we realized that flowers were not a big part of my dad's life. I can't recall a single time he ever bought my mother flowers (to be fair, my mother didn't appreciate flowers, either) so on his casket we placed a large colorful basket of root vegetables. These would later be boiled in a pot and made into good, thick, proletarian soup. Looking back now, I don't know that my father would have approved or frowned on this kind of business; it was a metaphor for his life we were aiming at, that's all, a simple, loving way to sum things up. He did like to eat. He once was a socialist. If he had any taste at all, it was probably utilitarian. So okay then, soup. There you go.


Ashes to Ashes

This is how it was for me years ago in Los Angeles: I once worked for a man who fervently believed-and told me so in no uncertain terms-- that the inanimate universe was out to kill us. I think he called this philosophy of his entropism, a term which speaks to the notion of nature slowly grinding everything into dust. And maybe, just maybe, there's something malicious going on as well, who knows. Anyway, this fellow, who I'll call Michael, was charming, well-bred, well-schooled, a gentleman married to a somewhat famous, if aging, movie star. And, in the manner that life unfolds, I found myself doing office chores for his non-profit theatrical foundation. This meant making him tea in the morning exactly the way he liked it, and copying papers, and occasionally writing a letter to other aging movie stars on his behalf. What I did for him was pleasant, and, even though I was bored half out of my mind most of the time, I endured it, because he paid me and there was air-conditioning in the building, and I was married with small children. It was what it was, as they used to say. The only possible downside was that there were many hours where I had to smile politely and listen.

Don't get me wrong: I was more than willing to believe his theory. After all, my own world abounded with anecdotal tales about the havoc wreaked by Mother Nature-- how, when you picked up a ceramic mug filled with hot coffee the handle might break off and leave you with third degree burns on your lap; how, when you walked beneath a eucalyptus or palm (or any tree, really) an old limb or a frond could easily drop from the sky; how anytime you stood on the beach and wriggled your toes in the water you were very likely to be swept away by a rogue wave. I mean, I kind of bought into this because of my Jewish upbringing. Bad things are bound to happen. We know this from our careful reading of the Bible. We know this from history. I once heard someone on National Public Radio say that among Jews and African Americans, the word "paranoia" has no meaning. Why? Because people really are out to kill us. That made perfect sense to me (in a way I hope never has to make sense to you). Of course he meant it as a joke, but how can you joke that way about something that's basically true?

No one was out to kill Michael. He drove a nice car and lived in a nice part of Beverly Hills (actually, I don't think there are any not-nice parts of Beverly Hills). He came to work when he felt like it and threw wonderful parties for his many friends and admirers. He believed in art and in the power of artists to do good in the world. Maybe when he talked about the universe being out to get him what he really meant was he was getting older and weaker; maybe he could see down the road and envision the dust he was turning into. Maybe that scared him. Or I don't know--maybe there was some part of him that secretly yearned to be Jewish or African American. There are plenty of people like that, although given the man-made trouble in the world right now, it's a bit of a luxury to worry much about palm fronds or rogue waves. Personally, I think we'd be in far better shape if we spent more time just getting acquainted with ourselves. The truth is, we don't need the universe to kill us off. We're doing a fine job all on our own.


Book List from the Unruly Book Group Talk last week

If you were unable to attend our summer round-up of reading last Wednesday here is a list of the books that were presented:

Readers' Books Unruly Book Group 2014 Recommended Reading

Hardcover Fiction

The Temporary Gentleman - Sebastian Barry

Painted Horses-Malcolm Brooks

All the Light We Cannot See-Anthony Doerr

The Plover-Brian Doyle

Midnight in Europe-Alan Furst

The Stories of Jane Gardam-Jane Gardam

Euphoria-Lily King

Thunderstruck-Elizabeth McCracken

Next Life Might Be Kinder-Howard Norman

The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry-Gabrielle Zevin


Paperback Fiction

Longbourne-Jo Baker

Archangel-Andrea Barrett

The Circle-Dave Eggers

The Signature of All Things-Elizabeth Gilbert

Enon-Paul Harding

Instructions for a Heatwave-Maggie O'Farrell

Fin and Lady-Cathleen Schine

Brewster-Mark Slouka

Mary Coin-Marissa Silver

The Rosie Project-Graeme Simsion


Hardcover Non-Fiction

Distant Neighbors-Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant-Roz Chast

Elephant Company-Vicki Constantine Croke

The Fishing Fleet-Anne De Courcy

Silvia, Queen of the Headhunters-Philip Eade

Preparing the Ghost-Matthew Gavin Frank

The Interior Circuit-Francisco Goldman

War of the Whales-Joshua Horwitz

The Mockingbird Next Door-Marja Mills

Take This Man-Brando Skyhorse


Non-Fiction Paperbacks

Good Manners for Nice People who Sometimes Say F*ck-Amy Alkon 

Lawrence in Arabia-Scott Anderson

Levels of Life-Julian Barnes

On Paper-Nicholas A. Basbanes

Going Somewhere-Brian Benson

One Summer, America 1927-Bill Bryson

Eighty Days-Matthew Goodman

I Hate To Leave This Beautiful Place-Howard Norman

The Telling Room-Michael Paterniti 


Cook Books and Gift Books

Straight From the Earth-Goodman and Goodman

Local-Douglas Gayeton

The Bahn Mi Handbook-Andrea Nguyen

Done-James Peterson

The Real Food Cookbook-Nina Planck

Works on Paper-Squeak Carnath

The Truth is a Cave in the Mountain-Neil Gaiman

Wine Country Trucks of Napa and Sonoma Counties -Lisa A. Harris

Girls Standing on Lawns-Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler

Letters of Note-Shaun Usher ed.


Children's Books


Picture books

President Taft is Stuck in the Bath-Mac Barnett

It's an Orange Aardvark-Michael Hall

The Huey's in None the Number-Oliver Jeffers

This is a Moose-Richard T. Morris

Planet Kindergarten-Sue Ganz-Schmitt


Middle grade readers

The Glass Sentence-S.E. Grove

A Snicker of Magic-Natalie Lloyd

All the Wrong Questions-Lemony Snicket

The Riverman-Aaron Starmer


Young adult novels

Conversion-Katherine Howe

Firecracker-David Iserson

Steering Toward Normal-Rebecca Petruck

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender-Leslye Walton

What You Need To Know About Baseball

Although he never spent a moment of his life there, my dad was a devoted fan of the Cincinnati Reds. This was strange to me, because he came from New York, which was then the epicenter of the game. In fact, before he could even spell the word "Cincinnati" he used to hang around outside Yankee Stadium, where he'd wait hours sometimes just hoping to get a glimpse of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.


After we moved to Southern California, I imagined that he would have gravitated naturally to the Dodgers. That's where I ended up, drawn not so much by the team as by their colorful history and by the mellifluous voice of their announcer, Vin Scully.  Scully knew everything there was to know about the game, but he was also a poet; he could describe in a few choice words the deep green expanse of Chavez Ravine's left field as well as the simple justice of an umpire's called strike three. For me, that was magic. That was romance. But whenever my dad and I spoke of baseball, the Reds were his team. In his youth they were the habitual underdogs, he'd explain, always in the cellar, always underperforming. Of course, by the time I took any interest in the sport it was the seventies, and Cincinnati was a force to contend with. My dad couldn't be happier. Loyalty and patience (albeit from afar) had finally begun to pay off. Once in a while when the Reds came to town we would go to the game. We'd bet a nickel, him on the Reds, me on the Dodgers. And win or lose, a grand time would be had by all.


Last week my wife was away on a business trip. On the return leg, they routed her through Detroit, and I asked her to buy me a Tigers baseball cap, which is now sitting on my desk. It's a handsome thing, dark blue with an ornate white D in front. And I look pretty good in it, even though I've never actually been to Detroit, and I don't think I've ever seen the Tigers play in person. If you were to ask me why I need a cap from Detroit, the answer is, I don't (in fact, I don't actually need anything) but I want to support them. Not the team, mind you, but the town of Detroit. And not even the town of Detroit, but the idea of Detroit.


Detroit, as you probably know, is in terrible straits these days; people are leaving in droves, housing prices are in the single digits, unemployment is huge, the city has declared bankruptcy and just recently, about half the homes there had their water shut off for failure to pay the bill. There are whole blocks that have burned down and are being slowly turned back into farm land. The D on my cap could stand for "Detroit" or "down-and-out" or-I don't know-"done for." But I choose to let that D stand for "determined."


There are good, honest, hard-working people living there, after all, and even though their world has been shredded by what economists and academics call the "creative destruction" of capitalism, they are still there, still getting up every morning and putting cereal on the kitchen table, still shuffling one foot in front of the other, still trying to make ends meet. We in Sonoma may be a little better off than they are at the moment, but that could change in a heartbeat, you never know. And what doesn't change is the fact that they are our brothers and sisters. That's what this cap reminds me of. That's why I wear it. My dad, I think, would understand.


The Arc of History

When I was nine or ten, we lived right across the street from a family with a little boy named Don. He was an only child, and perhaps because of this, his family seemed to shower him with gifts far beyond what the other kids in the neighborhood received. Also, he was kind of frail and fearful, or at least, he acted frail and fearful. Whenever we were rough-housing and one of us inadvertently tripped him, he would go into great spasms of agony, rolling around on the ground, groaning and crying and carrying on in a most un-male-like fashion. Sometimes it would get so bad he would pick up his toys and go home, but not before insinuating that we were all out to get him. This was a tragedy from our point of view, because Donny had the best toys on the block-the best bat, the best glove, the platinum Monopoly game.    


I can't say I liked Donny; I don't think any of us really liked him, but we tolerated him and his rich-boy-poor-me antics. This was our world, after all, and he was part of our world, the hand we were dealt.


The other day on television I was reminded of this kid again when I watched John Boehner talking about immigration reform and the prospects (dim) for any legislation this year. Boehner is afraid of the Tea Party and what they might do to his incumbent friends; also, he says that if he put any immigration bill out for a vote he doesn't trust the President to enforce it. This is the same president who has probably deported more illegal immigrants than all the previous ones combined, but hey, let's not bother about facts. As he has done similarly with the issue of climate change, Boehner would rather whine and moan and point fingers somewhere else.


The problem with this approach is that immigration is not climate change. Climate change is difficult for some folks to get their heads around, because they confuse it with weather, and weather is always, well, changing. You get hot years, then you get cold years. And even if the climate is changing, as the scientists tell us, it's an incremental process, which means we probably won't be around to witness all the dire effects.   Immigrants, however, are already here, millions of them. And even if many of them are undocumented, their children are American citizens. And more and more of their children can vote. This will have enormous consequences. In Arizona, Texas, and Georgia-states with long traditions of voting Republican-there are large Latino populations and political movements to organize them for the upcoming elections. It might not happen in 2014, but time is not on the side of a Republican Party that turns its back on this constituency.


You can't beat demographics. You can stamp your feet and not put out any legislation, you can slow it down maybe with questionable voter suppression tactics, but sooner or later, the people will win out. It's the arc of history. Think of how Mandela went from being a prisoner on Robin Island to being the President of South Africa. Not overnight certainly, but it happened.


Donny moved away from our street. When he left, of course, he took his toys with him. And for a while, we were all sad. But then we found other kids to play with. We moved on, and you know what? It was okay. In fact, it was fine.


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