People are reading now more than ever, and sure, you can use a Kindle or buy an e-book to get your lit fix. But it’s just not the same as holding a real, physical book in your hand and feeling the paper on your fingertips as you flip to the next page. It’s a ritual, and one that can’t be easily re-created by simply staring at scanned PDFs on a screen. And nothing will ever replace the experience of browsing the aisles of a favorite bookstore, looking for serendipity to strike — or a bookshop owner, one gifted in the art of pairing reader and tome, to offer tips.
This trio of Bay Area bookstores may be just the spot for that.
Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary & Garden Arts
That eye-catching name was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel, which opens with the charming line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” No wonder, then, that this cozy Berkeley neighborhood bookstore lined with well-curated shelves offering fiction, poetry and children’s books, includes an expansive Garden Arts section of books that combine literature with lifestyle.
Founded by Marion Abbott and Ann Leyhe in 2004, the store was purchased by longtime customers Eric and Jessica Green in 2021. Eric spent years in sales for Publishers Group West — and he has ideas for what you should be reading on these cozy winter evenings.
Book recommendations from Mrs. Dalloway’s
“The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell: “Set against the backdrop of Florence during the mid-16th century, this novels brings the world of Renaissance Italy and the House of Medici to life with a brilliant reimagining of the short and unhappy life of Lucrezia de’ Medici,” Eric says. “It’s a tragic story, but one beautifully rendered in a time and place known for its sumptuous art and power-hungry deceit.”
“The Philosophy of Modern Song” by Bob Dylan: “A master class on the art and craft of songwriting, this work by iconic musician Bob Dylan presents over 60 personal essays on a range of musical artists, from Stephen Foster and Elvis Costello to Hank Williams and Nina Simone. Dylan analyzes what he calls ‘the trap of easy rhymes,’ breaks down how the addition of a single syllable can diminish a song and even explains how bluegrass relates to heavy metal.”
“Five Laterals and a Trombone” by Tyler Bridges: “The 85th Big Game between Cal and Stanford is still famous for the wackiest finish ever to a college football game, with 21 seconds that featured five laterals on the final kickoff and a sprint through the Stanford marching band for the winning touchdown. Journalist Tyler Bridges has reconstructed the pivotal moments and resulting lore of the game, offering a nostalgic play-by-play trip down memory lane, especially for Cal faithfuls.”
“The Three Billy Goats Gruff” by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen: “A fabulously creative spin on the all-time children’s cult-classic, this is Billy Goats Gruff like he’s never been seen before. This risky read will have readers burning through pages with eager anticipation and anxious giddiness as they await the high-stakes meeting of beloved goat and hungry bridge troll. With arresting writing and mesmerizing illustrations, the book more than lives up to its legacy.”
“Inciting Joy” by Ross Gay: “In a collection of personal essays, author Ross Gay prompts readers to find joy in their daily experiences, the small moments in life and notably, the times when we care for others. Gay’s thoughtful, explorative reflections of his own experiences are the framework for his ideas on compassion, sharing and community. Written in a meandering, easily palatable conversational style, it’s a gorgeous and provocative must-read.”
Mrs. Dalloway’s is known for its author events. Catch these authors in early 2023 for readings, book talks and signings:
7 p.m. Jan. 24: Peggy Orenstein, “Unraveling: What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater”
6 p.m. Feb. 9: Grace Lin and Kate Messner, “Once Upon a Book”
3 p.m. Feb. 26: Monica Wesolowska, “Elbert In the Air.”
Details: Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays at 2904 College Ave. in Berkeley; mrsdalloways.com.
Founded in 1955 by peace activist Roy Kepler, this famous Menlo Park bookstore has deep roots in the Bay Area literary scene, drawing everyone from Beat poets to Stanford students, the Grateful Dead and Joan Baez. In 2005, financial conditions saw Kepler’s teetering on the brink of insolvency, but the community wouldn’t let it go under. The outpouring of support allowed the shop to reopen. Today, it’s a hybrid business that includes a community-supported bookstore and a nonprofit events foundation.
Kepler’s buyer Aggie Zivaljevic has some thoughts about what you should be reading this winter.
Book recommendations from Kepler’s
“Foster” by Claire Keegan: “Foster is a majestically beautiful tale set in rural Ireland, centered around the story of a young girl’s transformation within a loving home,” Zivaljevic says. “Written with purposeful economy and strict precision, Claire Keegan’s words remain chiseled in the minds and hearts of readers. Don’t miss this unforgettably spiritual story that reconciles the heartbreak of childhood with the power of kindness.”
“If I Survive You” by Jonathan Escoffery: “This novel-in-stories brilliantly captures the complicated life of a young man’s Jamaican heritage family as they go about their days in Miami, Florida. A fiercely authentic challenge to the typical immigration success story, the book surprises and arrests readers with its genuinely raw, exuberant voice of humor, warmth and compassion.”
“Rabbit Hutch” by Tess Gunty: “In this debut novel, author Tess Gunty masterfully channels the mystical powers of the novel’s young main heroine, Blandine Watkins, and her uncanny insights. Blandine’s otherworldly beauty and an astute awareness of other people’s struggles make for an unapologetically unforgettable character. Beautifully dark yet charmingly humorous, it’s impossible not to laugh through the tears of this cathartic fiction.”
“Passenger” by Cormac McCarthy: “There is nothing that is not offered by this breathtaking, nomadic book centered on the travels of a plane crash survivor. Within its pages, you’ll encounter a never-ending flood of forbidden love, profound sorrow, cosmic loneliness, tormented minds, dreadful futility, empty religion, scientific theory and lingering mystery.”
“Last White Man” by Mohsin Hamid: “This fablelike, thought-provoking story greets readers with a shocking premise: What if you woke up one day, and your skin had drastically changed tones? The book’s main character takes readers on a tour of love, loss and rediscovery as he deals with the fact that he is darker than he was the day before. A masterly examination of personal and societal metamorphosis, race and mortality, the sheer force of these pages is absolutely haunting.”
Kepler’s “This Is Now with Angie Coiro” series features journalist Coiro in conversation with authors and luminaries. These ticketed events are typically held at 7 p.m.
Jan. 17: In Conversation with Pico Iyer, “The Half-Known Life”
March 8: In Conversation with Lucy Jane Bledsoe. Lucy Jane Bledsoe, “Tell The Rest”
Details: Open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and until 6 p.m. Sunday-Monday at 1010 El Camino Real, Suite 100 in Menlo Park; keplers.com.
Founded in 1973, this charming Danville bookshop has a devoted Bay Area following, with book lovers from as far away as San Jose and Pleasant Hill detouring off Highway 680 for a browse. The bookshelves brim with books of all sorts, from biographies to children’s books, but what sets it apart is the store’s curated contemporary fiction collection, its profusion of live and virtual author events, and owner Michael Barnard’s impressive ability to not only pair reader and book, but remember a book lover’s favorites even years later.
Naturally, he has some thoughts about what you should read next.
Book recommendations from Rakestraw
“Portrait of a Thief” by Grace D. Li: “This mind-bending crime novel centers on themes of colonization and reparation, following a Chinese-American college student who finds himself wrapped up in a museum heist,” Barnard says. “History is told by its conquerors, and the spoils of war often go with them. Artifacts are uprooted from their land and placed behind glass by those who looted them, but this straight-A student turned heist leader has a plan to steal them back and finally restore some justice to his heritage.”
“The Dog of the North” by Elizabeth McKenzie: “This smart, funny, heart-strong novel features Penny Rush, a woman leaving her Santa Cruz life behind — including her job and cheating husband — to go help her grandmother in Santa Barbara. There begins a madcap adventure, reminiscent of a Coen brothers movie, which includes a cast of quirky characters, each more eccentric than the next. But it’s Penny’s humor, outlook and compassion that’s the real heart of the story, and we root for her every step of the way.” (Publishes March 14)
“The White Lady” by Jacqueline Winspear: “This charming historical fiction tells the story of a former wartime operative and trained killer who is desperate to leave the past behind her. She hopes to live an unremarkable life in the quiet Kentish village of Shacklehurst, occupying a ‘grace and favor’ property granted to distinguished servants of the Crown. However, adventure soon comes calling, and she’s reluctantly dragged back into the world of deceit and violence she barely managed to escape the first time around.” (March 21)
“Unraveling: What I Learned about Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater” by Peggy Orenstein: “This humorous personal memoir begins with a woman who sets out to learn how to make a sweater from scratch, but her innocent interest soon blossoms into a journey of serious contemplation. She thought she was just picking up a hobby but winds up grappling with major modern issues, including climate anxiety, racial justice, women’s rights, the impact of technology, sustainability and ultimately, the meaning of home.” (Jan. 24)
“The Return of Faraz Ali” by Aamina Ahmad: “In this thrilling and enigmatic novel, a man is placed as head of the Mohalla police station in India and charged with the task of covering up the murder of a young call girl (while) hailing from Lahore’s notorious red-light district himself. This morally deplorable mission forces him to reckon with his past, uncovering not only the secrets of the city’s seedy labyrinth alleys, but those of his own hazy history as well.”
Rebecca Makkai, JoJo Moyes, Peggy Orenstein and Jacqueline Winspear are among the authors headed to Rakestraw in early 2023. This spring, Rakestraw Books will be celebrating its 50th anniversary with a season of special events, author appearances and parties. Look for details at rakestrawbooks.com.
Details: Open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays at 3 Railroad Ave. in Danville.
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