Danville experts weigh in on summer reading favorites
By Lou Fancher
At Rakestraw Books’ 7th Annual Book Group Festival, the only things in short supply are chairs.
“Are there more chairs?” asks Ella Kauffman, a store employee who calls to her counterparts while greeting participants.
The San Ramon Valley High School student has worked at owner Michael Barnard’s downtown Danville store for just under one year. Kauffman says her first festival experience and the approximately 75 people wedging themselves between book-laden tables and shelves are “a thrill.”
“We always need more chairs,” says Amanda Reid, a more seasoned member of the staff who will present favorite book selections to avid readers clutching coupons for discounted purchases at the end of the two-hour festival.
In abundance for the past seven years at the event have been enthusiastic staff people, solo and book club readers and insider tips about the best books.
“I can’t recall how many times I’ve attended, but it’s more than twice,” says Claire Conger, San Ramon. “Our book club always has trouble agreeing on books and we run out of selections. This helps.”
Conger will bring to her book club a short list of highlights from the 46 books presented. “The reason I and others join a book club is to read books we’d never read on our own. It broadens us,” she says.
Similarly, Jennifer Krolow, of Danville, says encountering something unexpected is one reward of belonging to a book group. A book by Anthony Marra, “The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories,” was an elegant read she didn’t expect to enjoy. “I can’t explain it. And I’d never have read it without the group.”
Krolow and other people say local authors catch their attention. Although most readers admit they download from the internet a proportion of the books they buy, every person asked says they shop at Rakestraw for physical books.
“The staff knows books,” says Krolow. “I’m a retired scientist and came late to reading fiction. I can come in, describe what I want to read and they find the perfect book for me. I love supporting local business and authors.”
At the end of the evening Krolow has snatched up “Border Songs” (Vintage), by Jim Lynch, suggested by staff person Chris DePaoli; and Idra Novey’s “Ways to Disappear” (Back Bay), one of Barnard’s recommendations.
Unexpectedly, staff people who read countless books each year and demonstrate wide-ranging interests in conversations about literature, discover the act of selecting top books reveals philosophies they have about reading. Kauffman’s choices were deliberate — she chose five young adult books and realized she believes it’s important for adults to read about and reflect on life as a teenager.
“Plus, most kids are reading books on devices, but these are books you hold and keep and re-read,” she said. There is permanency to a physical book that can’t be matched by a digital experience, she adds.
DePaoli has plans to travel and will leave the store in upcoming weeks, but prefaced his recommendations with a tribute. “I got to grow up in Danville which had just the best reading culture anywhere. I had great teachers in school and Michael running this store where I grew up.”
Bay Area-based publisher rep Lise Solomon says her job is a treat.
“I get paid to read books and go to bookstores to talk about books. It’s wonderful,” she said.
Among her list of challenging and accessible books selected primarily from small, sometimes-overlooked publishers, there are surprises: a stunning graphic novel dealing with immigration; a quiet story about a man who’s lost a cow and in searching, perspective on his marriage is gained; and epic or intimate refugee stories with characters Solomon finds so compelling she misses them months after the books are finished.
Naturally, Barnard’s recommendations include a broad range: dark stories, poignant tales, quirky and humorous books, whip-smart essay collections and one book he bought for the store because he loved the cover.
“A beautiful cover isn’t enough to make my list,” he cautions, “but it’s a place to begin.”