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This summer has been fantastic so far, mostly because Boyfriend and I have been able to visit bookstores all over the place. When we went from Seattle to San Francisco, we plotted our stops based on proximity to certain bookstores. Being in all these wonderful places (and reading a recent list of some of the best bookstores in the nation) made me think I should make my own list. Because I really, really like books. And I really, really love being in a bookstore. Without thinking about it too much over the years, I’ve somehow come up with this whole philosophy on what makes a wonderful bookstore. There’s lots of subjectivity involved here: for instance, I do not enjoy The Strand in New York. Feeling packed in like a sardine among infinite stacks of books under grim fluorescent lights is not my idea of pleasant. No, a good bookstore in my opinion is a sort of lovely space between your home and books and mind, and another’s; there’s peace and recognition, excitement, shabby old books that break your heart, chatty and spacey owners who love their books like the sleepy dogs at their feet. Here are the ones I love most, and a few extra things.

Honorable Mentions

*Cellar Stories 111 Mathewson St., Providence, RI

Providence is a sorta darling town, or at least that’s my impression from driving through it every now and again. I like this place, though it does tend to be daunting when I’m either loaded down with new books on my way back South, or about to be loaded down with new books. But I’m drawn in nonetheless.

*Kramerbooks 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC

I’ve grown up with Kramer Books, and I still have a lot of love for this place. I’m no longer young and unemployed or working odd hours, and so going in there around six to look at books and have some wine is sort of terrifying for me. But it will always be wonderful to wander in here after midnight in September, have some pie, and wander off again with three or four new books.

*The Globe Corner Bookstore 90 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, MA

I love everything about this place. Browsing an entire bookshelf dedicated to Afghanistan? Finding my dearly loved Blue is the Colour of Heaven on the shelf? The Afghan Amulet? The Way of the World? If you like to look at dreamy, gorgeous cookbooks, or obscure books on the Middle East, Central Asia, Bolivia, Berlin, Cairo; really, anywhere in the world: this is the place. Expensive, but well-worth it, and the staff has always been super nice.

10. Powell’s Books 1005 W Burnside, Portland, OR

I can see the arguments for placing Powell’s higher on this list. And I admit, it’s something. Powell’s is just this enormous, sign-filled Goliath. I followed Blue Signs, and Gold Signs, and found entire shelves dedicated to Native American Literature, found one of the best science fiction stockings I’ve yet seen (though the former Book Alcove is always in my heart). The problem is just that it’s too big. It is overwhelming in a way I find cold. I like to know the people at a bookstore, to recognize them, to know these particular owners are passionate about Mid-Western cookbooks and bird-watching. Powell’s, on the other hand, takes up city blocks. It’s here for it’s fantastic, incredible selection that truly blew me away. It’s number ten though, because I need more than that.

9. East Village Books 99 St. Mark’s Place, New York, NY

East Village has maybe 1/1000 of Powell’s selection, but what they have is pretty impeccable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down in there and picked up a book I was utterly unfamiliar with, bought it, and fallen in love with it. Most recently I got all gooey over The Dud Avocado. But it happens all the time. Maybe I love it because it feels so intimate and low-key after I get dragged to The Strand. I’m sure there are cheaper bookstores with broader selections in New York, but this is the one I know best, and I’m glad of it.

8. Octavia Books 513 Octavia St., New Orleans, LA

One of our roommates in New Orleans complained to us about how no one in that city likes to read, which drove me crazy because that is so not true. People in New Orleans do everything overblown, and of course they do some things like drinking and porching more than others. But they also produce incredible literature. Note the italics: incredible. Not only has New Orleans and the rest of the South produced some of the finest writers in the United States, but New Orleans also happens to have some charming bookstores. There’s a lovely shop in the Quarter owned by a former lawyer who scours the country for books. It’s hideously expensive, but I still frequent it just to sort of breathe the air.  There’s some terrific used bookstores as well (I recommend McKeown’s); but my heart belongs to Octavia. The sunlight! The bakery next door! The fine Southern Literature section! The cookbooks! The history and political science books! Whoever selects the books for Octavia is doing an incredible job.

7. City Lights 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco CA

City Lights is airy and lovely just like San Francisco. What a wonderful, perfect city full of wonderful, perfect bookstores. And what wonderful, perfect books City Lights is filled with; and isn’t their poetry selection stunning, and yes, I was insanely filled with book-lust as I looked upon all of Rebecca Solnit’s essays lining the shelves, and yes the light and the sky were other-worldly. Well, la-di-da. Yeah, I’m maddeningly jealous of people who get to live near City Lights. Someone tell me about Oakland. That seems like my kind of town.

6. Normals 425 E. 31st, Baltimore, MD

A bookstore where one has to step over a dog to get to the cash register and everyone is moving slow and calm: Yes. The hours are peculiar and strict. The selection is odd and fascinating. The vinyl collection is sterling. I’ve gotten some of the most interesting books in my life from Normal’s. This little place in Baltimore is never crowded. Like Baltimore itself, it’s an overlooked gem. An afternoon at Normal’s is to browse through obscure (and I mean obscure) science fiction and fantasy, great fiction, history, an enormous record collection, and to watch the dog never move. I love that dog. I love this place. Normal’s is fantastic and over-looked, but as long as they’re getting by and doing well, that’s fine with me.

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I really like books. I feel like, I dunno, I should talk about that.  Because talking about politics just makes me melt into a puddle of fireworks.

What Happens When I Think of Politics, Only With More Sobs and Ranting and Anger.

So! Since I didn’t see enough movies last year in theaters to make a really decent list of what I liked best, I think it would be preferable to talk about some of the books I read and loved last year (though none of them came out in 2009). For the record, if I was to make a list of movies it would go 1) Goodbye Solo 2) Precious and 3) Inglourious Basterds. I also feel I shouldn’t have to see Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans to know it is a work of genius. Plus, I think I will be madly in love with Departures if I can put my books down next weekend and watch it. Anyway! Books!

A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry

I did a lot of weeping when I finished this. I don’t think crying at a book or movie means anything special most of the time; I mean, I fucking teared up watching the Christmas episode of Little Bill (He just wanted Alice the Great to come home for Christmas! I love that show). But A Long, Long Way made a mess out of me because Sebastian Barry is such a compassionate writer. I didn’t just weep. I became nauseous and sick for the rest of the day. It’s about human beings caught up in the sweeping, senseless drama of their times; of war, of politics, of human folly, innocence, and maliciousness. Barry likes to tackle stories about people shut out of the dominant cultural narratives of their time, of how they are persecuted, of their failure to “get with” popular opinion, of society’s inability to empathize, and thus turns kind, harmless people into outcasts. Also, Barry writes prose like poetry. It is a completely beautiful book.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

This book is so important. I would like everyone I know to read this book. I wish I could give it a copy to every person who has ever spoken the words “free market” with the passion of an idolater. This is what historians in a hundred years will look back upon. I spend a lot of time reading excellent books on politics and contemporary issues, but this one is the only one I would really describe as epic, and that I believe will be relevant for decades to come. This is a beautiful, precious, enraging, overwhelming, nausea-inducing work of magnificence.

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

I will stop talking about being sick and reading books after this one, I promise. But first: I read Jitterbug right after I quit the worst job I’ve yet had and subsequently developed what must have been fucking swine flu. I swear. I was holed up in bed for nine days, unable to go to a doctor since I could no longer afford health insurance. And it was June, beautiful June. So I read this, and was subsequently delighted. New Orleans! Perfume! Immortality! Funny dances! I’m not obsessed with Tom Robbins, but this book is not only my favorite of his, it was also one of my favorites of the year. Also, I have been eating a lot of beets ever since.

Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks by Simone Weil

Simone Weil defies blurbs or explanations. This is a work of genius. It’s difficult to come up with a quotation or anything to describe it. Well, here’s a try regardless:

“Whoever does not know just how far necessity and a fickle fortune hold the human soul under their dominion cannot treat as his equals, nor love as himself, those whom chance has separated from him by an abyss. The diversity of the limitations to which men are subject creates the illusion that there are difference species among them which cannot communicate with one another. Only he who knows the empire of might and knows how not to respect it is capable of love and justice.”

Or:

“The universe is a memento for us; the reminder of some beloved being? The universe is a work of art; what artist is the author of it? We have no answers to these questions. But when love, from which the consent to necessity proceeds, exists in us, we possess experimental proof that there is an answer…Whatever a person’s professed belief in regards to religious matters, including atheism, wherever this is complete, authentic and unconditional consent to necessity, there is fullness of love for God; and nowhere else.”

I love her.

From Yale to Jail by David Dellinger

David Dellinger

I’d been excited to read David Dellinger’s autobiography for a long time since I love to learn about other people’s paths to non-violence and activism. He’s an overall lovely and sympathetic storyteller. It’s fascinating how even as a little boy, with no real examples, he came to surprising conclusions… and stuck to them. The dude once punched a guy after a high school football game when everyone was acting like an asshole and fighting. Dellinger swore he would never hit a man again, picked the guy up and walked him home, apologizing all the way. I know, right?

But there’s more to it than that. He went to jail for refusing to fight in the Second World War. But he was no coward (funny how people who speak out against insanity are called radicals, and then called cowards when they say they don’t think dropping bombs is the best solution). When he toured Europe with his family in the 30s, he leaped out of his car and yanked off a swastika stuck on his guards by nazis at a border crossing. His parents were terrified they’d all get in trouble and told him it wasn’t a big deal, but Dellinger was a courageous anti-fascist and refused to allow that symbol of hate and racism be placed on his car. In jail he risked being knifed to stand in front of the door of a new inmate that older inmates had sworn to rape. He insisted on recognizing the humanity of everyone and reaching out to it to prevent more violence.

He was an incredible human being, and his story is one of the most impressive autobiographies I’ve ever read.

The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt

Isabelle Eberhardt

It’s short. It’s strange. A good friend of mine gave me her copy one evening. She told me her grandfather loved it, and it was one of her favorite books. I liked it when I read it, but when I look back over everything else I read this year, this one stands out as being something completely different. Now, a biography of this woman is something I’d love. But her life was too brief and mysterious, it would probably be nearly impossible to amass anything much bigger than this little book. So I guess these vignettes of people living in the Middle East nearly a century ago will have to suffice.

The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, and the whole Earthsea trilogy by Ursula LeGuin

There is a reason that despite having all of these books at my parent’s house for decades, I had not read them until this year. The reason looks a little bit like this:

I Had One of These.

When I was a young lass, I liked space. And wizards. I watched Star Trek (especially TNG) constantly. I had Star Trek books (Q!) I had written out who I thought should play Gandalf in a movie remake of The Lord of the Rings (hint: see above picture) as well as all the other characters. I would watch over and over the terrible cartoon versions of TLOR and old Star Trek episodes. When we would play Capture the Flag in the woods, I would imagine I was Eowyn or Galadriel about to do something wild (I would not tell anyone else this, obviously). It was bad. It was real bad.

So why not Ursula LeGuin? I mean, it seems only natural. Why stop? Why not dive in and embrace it? Well, because of that Picard doll. And Catwings.

Mom had given me a copy of Catwings, a children’s book by Ms. LeGuin, as a girl. I loved it. Cats! Wings! The title would come into my head sounding something like “jazz hands” and I would add it silently after sentences. And be embarrassed. Because what the fuck? Why was I thinking about cats with wings? Why did I have a doll of a sixty-year old imaginary space captain with not a lot of hair?

I had to draw the line somewhere. No, Mom, no Ursula LeGuin for me. On it went, for years. No, Mom.  Tolstoy, Vonnegut, Dostoevsky, Maugham, I don’t care who. But when I thought of Ursula I saw my Captain Picard doll and heard a breathy voice cry “Catwings!”

What changed things? Well, when you’re packing for New Orleans and you really want to read about a wizard but you’re sick of reading about the same old ones and only thinking of epic movies, and you can’t stand any of the thousands of books you have because you’re an ungrateful brat, well, you let someone give you A Wizard of Earthsea and you thank god there are still more wizards in the world to fight off your spoiled sense of ennui.

It was awesome. I read ’em all. Then I read The Dispossessed, which was wonderfully brilliant and compassionate and insightful. Then The Lathe of Heaven. And it was just heavenly (ha?), and now I have to steal all of Mom’s Ursula LeGuin books and I am finally, after all these years, able to think of something besides Picard and “Catwings!” in my head when I see one of her books on a shelf. Well, kinda…

So those are the books which made me full-on swoon this year. I read some mediocre books which I’m ready to forget. I read some horrible books (The Magus, The Corrections: I want those hours back!) There were other books I read this year which were wonderful too and really deserve a mention:

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty: southern, sad, mortal, and joyful.

The War Against Women by Marilyn French: enraging and fantastic.

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal: tragic, lovely, compassionate.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood: enthralling.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker: a completely enjoyable novel.

Deer Hunting With Jesus by Joe Bageant: a depressing portrait of life in a small, conservative town in Virginia which was written with great love of the people involved and left me with an unforgettable image of fathers and sons walking with their guns in an early morning November mist, the mist blotting out for a moment all the desolation of their hometown and the mortality of their lives.

The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox: a fascinating and not-depressing essay on faith today.

A Moveable Feast by Hemingway: well, it’s Paris, and it’s beautiful. What else do you need?

Middlemarch by George Eliot: love her, loved this. It truly is a novel for grown-ups, as Ms. Woolf said.

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild: infuriating and should be required reading by everyone, ever. I hate how people neglect their history! What is the use of spending so much time and money teaching children about math and science when those children don’t know how to use those skills to avoid doing harm? When they don’t know how to avoid past mistakes? Rant over; read this.

There were some I re-read (I passionately believe in the importance of re-reading books) which were as good, if not better than the first time: The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch, Mystics as a Force for Change by Sisirkumar Ghose, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami, The Razor’s Edge by Maugham, The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman, Jesus by A.N. Wilson. Gosh, I love books. So much so that I have to stop writing now and go back to reading instead. Books: my true love.

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