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I Yearn for the Hootenannies of Yesteryear

  • Posted on: 31 August 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Many moons ago, oh, I'd say half a century at least, there was a band of folksingers on TV called the Limelighters-witty, funny folks who sang a tune about world affairs that still resonates: "The whole world is festering with unhappy souls, the French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles; Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch, and I don't like anybody very much." These days, the countries may have changed, but the enmity is still palpable.

Take, for example, the Middle East (Please, somebody, anybody, take it). Here the Syrian government has been involved in a civil war that's killed over 100,000 of its own people and is pitting Sunni against Shia, Al Qaeda against Hezbollah, and a dozen other factions in between.  The Syrian regime has now apparently taken to using nerve gas, something verboten in the international community, a red line that cannot be tolerated. Other countries, however, tolerate it just fine. The Russians and the Chinese don't appear to be bothered. And the Iranians, who just happen to be Syria's best bud, are not about to abandon them, even though Iran suffered horrible gas attacks during its last war with Iraq. You'd think  they'd have some qualms, but no. Somehow it's the United States that feels it must act. With or without UN authorization, we're about to launch cruise missiles into that country to "send a message" to President Assad.  (Things are moving so quickly that by the time you read this those missiles may have already done their work).  Leave aside for a moment the fact that the US is war weary and only 9% of Americans favor another military intervention. And leave aside also that our military is not in business to simply send messages; no, they would much prefer to either stay out completely or go in to win (whatever that means). And what will be the net effect of such a strike? Hard to tell.  The Syrians and Iranians are already declaring that they will strike Israel in retaliation, which on its face, makes no sense at all, but not much in that region ever does, does it. Our government says it doesn't intend by whatever action it embarks on to tilt the playing field toward the rebels, but of course when you fire a whole bunch of missiles at Syrian tanks and airfields that's just what you're doing. 

We don't want to take sides, because, in this case, there is no one to root for. Nor do we want to appear to be a paper tiger. I don't envy President Obama's current predicament-anything he does has tremendous downsides, and that includes doing nothing. The truth is, Syria is now just a more violent version of Egypt, another miserable place where we're left standing on the sidelines. We don't care for the Muslim Brotherhood, and yet they were fairly elected. We don't care for the Egyptian military's coup, and yet they stand for stability and the people are behind them.

The lesson I take away from all this is that democracy is inherently a very fragile creature, at least in the beginning, and not something easily transplanted from one bed to another. Also, that we Americans never seem to handle nuance well. We know what we know and we believe what we believe. And sometimes this makes us look naïve in a world where cynicism is king.

 Andy 

Pastures of Plenty

  • Posted on: 26 August 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Today I read an interesting article in the Press Democrat which says that the top priority of the vintners at this year's Sonoma County Wine Auction will be to improve literacy. This annual event raises gobs of money for many charitable groups, of course, and this is not the only year they have focused their attentions on the importance of reading. But it's worth talking about. First, let's be clear, the reasons for illiteracy are many and varied: children who come from homes where no one speaks English, for example, or children who come from broken homes, or homes too poor to ever buy a book, or teachers whose classes are too big to spend enough individual time with struggling students to get them reading on their own, or schools whose budgets have been so stripped of funds they end up "teaching to the test" and spending little or no time on the basics. The good news is that you can alleviate a great many of these difficulties with money. So hurrah for the vintners and their efforts.

To me, however, what this is really about has less to do with money and more with class. The people in the wine industry (and I know many of them personally) are, by and large, a wonderful group of folks. They are big dreamers, big readers, big book buyers, and, with very few exceptions, supportive of progressive causes. And literacy among the children of Sonoma Valley should be one of their priorities. Why? Because the children we're talking about are basically children of immigrants (legal or otherwise), and those immigrants are the backbone of this place. I pass them every morning on my way to work. Without those immigrants working in the field--let's be honest-- there would be no wine industry, no Mcmansions with stone walls and rose trellises and gardens of lavender, no fancy tasting rooms, no merlot, no cabernet sauvignon, no pinot noir, nada.

You could argue without the least bit of cynicism that it's in the wine makers' interests to better the reading scores of children. Those children will grow up someday, after all. Some of them will go to work here in the wine business; most of them will make their homes here and buy wine from time to time. And the wine business, much like the book business, depends on an educated middle class with disposable income.

Over the last generation the middle class in America, and certainly here in California, has been systematically hammered down, almost to the point of extinction. But now at last, things seem to be on the mend, and this wine auction, with its emphasis on literacy, is, to my mind, another very good sign of things to come.

I'll Believe It When I See It

  • Posted on: 17 August 2013
  • By: readersbooks

People have been coming up to me lately with concern in their eyes. They all want to know what my thoughts are about the purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos. The answer is not so simple. On the one hand, I probably ought to make a full confession-I don't care for Jeff Bezos. I'm sure he has many nice qualities (I liked, for example, the fact that he coughed up a million dollars or so to support gay marriage in his home state of Washington, although a million dollars to him is probably the equivalent of a cup of coffee to the rest of us), but overall, what I know about his business practices suggest a general lack of compassion toward employees and certainly (oh, let's be generous) a laissez faire attitude toward old fashion bricks and mortar booksellers like myself. Even though his wife is a novelist, he doesn't seem to care that his take-no-prisoners, pay no sales tax and sell-below-cost techniques have devastated many of the ma-and-pa shops across the country. He calls his approach "customer-centric," although most of his customers presumably live in communities with main streets that are being slowly boarded up because of his tactics.

That said, I am not against change per se, and it may well be that the Washington Post, a great newspaper by anyone's lights, could stand a make-over if it's going to prosper in this brave new century we are entering. I don't know. I have no fondness for Rupert Murdoch either, and he seems to have enabled the Wall Street Journal and other papers to do all right. Murdoch, of course, comes from a newspaper background, and Bezos does not. To his credit, Bezos has said that he will leave editorial policy in the hands of the editors, but there is no physical or legal firewall between the owner of a newspaper and his employees, and I really have to wonder how it would sit with him if a Post reporter ever dared to write an uncomplimentary story about Amazon. I mean, think about it: if you owned a company, and one of your workers started mouthing off, how long would he/she last? And then, you have to ask, what happens to freedom of the press?

What Jeff Bezos buys with his money is his business, of course, and at the moment what he seems to want to buy with the Post is influence, or at least a seat at the table. Nothing wrong with that, according to the Supreme Court. Also, not much we can do, even it it was wrong.

What I can say emphatically about this deal is, it makes me nervous. Jeff Bezos is doing just fine with his empire; he could easily keep on evolving until, someday in the not too distant future Amazon morphs into "we-will-sell-you-everything.com." The truth is he didn't need to buy the Washington Post, even if it was cheap; there are plenty of other business opportunities. And the Washington Post is not a diaper company or a toy company or farming implements firm. It's a newspaper, and a newspaper is different. A newspaper's mission is to tell us the truth. Maybe I'm just being hopelessly nostalgic, but I wish someone else had come forward, someone smart, decent, understanding. Someone you could trust. Bill Moyers maybe. Or Mr. Rogers, if he weren't dead. That's the sort of guy I'd pick. For now, about all we can do is keep our fingers crossed and wait for the newspaper to land on our doorstep. God only knows what it'll look like.

On the Road with Gia Coturri

  • Posted on: 16 August 2013
  • By: readersbooks

A few days ago, one of our vaunted employees, Gia Coturri, left our happy home and started driving across America in search of her new life in graduate school. Actually, we describe all our employees as "vaunted," so I guess I am not revealing much by calling her that. Anyway, she gave her notice, hopped in her old beat up Toyota (or whatever it is) and made her getaway. We were sad, naturally, because, while no one is irreplaceable, Gia was startlingly bright, cheerful, and ever busy, which possibly made her seem more efficient than she really was, but probably not.

She promised to stay in touch, and true to her word, we have received three missives thusfar: one, a postcard featuring Reno lit up at night, which she describes as "very flat, but rather lovely in its own way." She also thought it strange to be staying at a casino, you know, seeing people wandering around with drinks in their hands, smoking cigarettes. Personally, I think that is exactly what one would expect to see in a gambling den like Reno, but then Gia is young and perhaps not as worldly as moi. Next she sent us a letter from Park City, Utah, with a map of downtown Park City enclosed. One of the big pluses of historic Park City, so says the map, is that it is home to not one, but three public parking structures that enable you to park your car for free. Park City also has a FREE bus system (capitalization is theirs, not my own) that operates every day of the year from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. all around town and beyond. (Gia didn't comment on this most salient fact, which I took as proof that she never left the confines of her car except perhaps to sleep. She did say, by way of dismissal, that Park City was simply a beautiful vacation spot for rich people. I guess rich people are just automatically entitled to free public transportation, something we all may have to get used to.)

The last postcard from Gia came yesterday from the great state of Wyoming. It was a photograph of bison cavorting in a field, although Gia claims she did not see a single bison the whole time she was there. Of course it was raining the whole time she was there, and one can only pray that she still has a decent set of windshield wipers on that rattletrap of hers, so maybe that explains the lack of bison.

Gia is an avid fan of our weekly email blasts and we at Readers' Books would just like her to know that whatever ditch or dive or cow pasture she's currently stuck in, we're looking forward to her next postcard. We love road trips, it turns out, particularly the vicarious kind.

 Andy 

What we're reading

  • Posted on: 14 August 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Whenever a customer comes up to the desk and asks Andy what he's reading right now he always says "Oh we read months ahead--what I'm reading now won't be in the store for a long time." This is somewhat true: we do get advance readers copies and we do try to read ahead--however--the books eventually become available, and often we go back and dive into a classic or at least something that has actually been around a while.

A case in point-- Thea has just finished reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, which came out ten years ago. Of course she read it in anticipation of the release in September of Maddaddam, the final book in the trilogy. She strongly suggests you start the first two now so you will be ready been the final volume arrives...and you won't get it if you don't read the first one!

I've just finished Archangel by Andrea Barrett--a gem of a book. I always contend that I don't like like short stories, but if they are written by Barrett I'll make a major exception to that rule. The four stories are all slightly connected, long enough to give a solid sense of character, time and place and so beautifully constructed that they beg to be read out loud.

Yvette has just finished Catherine Schine's Fin and Lady, a novel about a young boy who goes to live with his twenty-something sister in Greenwich Village, after the death of his parents. It's questionable who is parenting who as they navigate the sixties and learn how to be a family.

And last but not least, Andy would like to put in a plug for Curtis Settenfeld's Sisterland, an odd but compelling story of two twins, both of whom are psychic but deal with their gift in different ways.

Are you up for a swap meet?

  • Posted on: 27 July 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Some of us had a heck of a good time with Kevin West at the Friday Farmer's Market last week. In fact we had so much fun that we invited Kevin to come back in September (Friday the 13th) to do it again. His book Saving the Seasons has a wealth of good ideas about how to can and preserve all of the wonderful produce in the markets right now.

With that in mind--we wondered if you canners and picklers out there would
be interested in doing some trading after Kevin's next appearance.
After the market we would assemble in the Reading Garden and trade our
extra jars of jams and chutneys--one for one. Sort of like a Christmas
cookie exchange--everyone brings 3-5 jars and trades for what they don't
make themselves. Could be really fun--but it also requires some
advance planning.
And you'll want to start making some extra jars right now.

Shoot us an email if you think you'd like to do an exchange and if there is enough interest we'll start to put it together.

A Word to the Wise

  • Posted on: 27 July 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Many
years ago, when I was a young man, I had a great gig teaching English
in Japan. Even though they are an island nation and far, far away from
the English-speaking world, the Japanese like to latch on to Western
habits; young girls would sometimes on a Sunday
afternoon put on crinolines and dance in the park to the sounds of
Buddy Holly, while their male counterparts varoomed around on
motorcycles in the manner of James Dean. Others (older men in berets,
generally) would spend evenings in overpriced coffee houses listening to
Miles Davis records. They think of themselves as cosmopolitan, in other
words, and learning to converse in English is one of those hip
obsessions many folks there have. There are English clubs and private
classes in conversational English, and of course, virtually every child
is put into an after-school English school (they call them juku) where
they spend hour after hour reciting all manner of trivial sentences:
What is your favorite fruit? My favorite fruit is apple. My favorite
fruit is cherry. My favorite fruit is lemon. (One kid actually said
that.)

We
don't seem to do a lot of that around here. Maybe we don't feel the
need because, after all, pretty much everyone speaks English, don't
they? And English is already the corporate language of the planet, so
let's just sit back and wait for the mountain to come to Mohammed, so to
speak. Well, as someone who loves languages, loves the lilt and flow
and subtle meanings of words, I have to say that I find this notion
disturbing.

English is a fine language, mind you, but there are so many
other beautiful tongues, with so much poetry and wisdom to impart to us,
we're surely doing ourselves a disservice by our self-centered
disinterest. And as a practical matter, it's just plain stupid. Given
the way our demographics are changing in California it's only a matter
of years (maybe months) before street signs in Spanish and Chinese are
on an equal footing with English ones.

I guess what I'm saying is, it's way past high time we joined
the rest of the civilized world and started learning their
languages--not because we're inevitably doomed to be overrun by Chinese
business moguls, not because the Latino population is destined to
outproduce us "baby-wise," but just because there are only so many
resources here to go around, and the spaces between us on this globe are
growing smaller and smaller; like it or not, we're all part of the same
crumbling neighborhood now, and neighbors need to understand one
another.

Which brings to mind an old Yiddish proverb: Sleep faster, we need the pillows. This sounds a lot better in the original, of course. But how would you know?

Andy

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