Staff Book Recommendations

During the month of December, take 15% off any of these staff favorites, currently available in our bookstore.

The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

A gripping fictional account of Harold’s 600-mile walk from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, and all its twists, and turns along the way. It’s a journey about his own self-awareness in his later years. It’s her debut novel, looking forward to her next one!

Kathy Pottetti

Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir by Linda Ronstadt 

A story of rock and roll success, Broadway stages, and maintaining a deep sense of self in a fast-moving, not always kind, world. Discovering that Ronstadt still holds the record for making the biggest-selling non-English language record in history, Canciones de Mi Padre, which she made to celebrate her Mexican American heritage, was stunning. 

Chris Fanning 

19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Given the heightened awareness of school shootings as a threat in America, 19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult brings this tragic reality into fiction. Picoult forces readers to question their humanity and recognize the long term impact bullying imprints on youth. 

Misty Yarnall

Dune by Frank Herbert

The intricate overlap of ecology, scarcity, aristocracy, jihad, and cults of personality drive human history, but this we already know. What Dune teaches is how to judge what is important by how much water it carries.

Tristan Tomaselli

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Eugene Onegin is heartbreaking in its depiction of youthful innocence destroyed by rejection and unrequited love. It has the most painfully beautiful dream sequence I’ve ever read. A great winter read.

Laura Trowbridge

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

This is one of the most important books I have read. Part memoir, part history, part philosophical instruction, Kendi illustrates the concept that there is no such thing as “not being racist.” Policies and actions are either anti-racist, or they are racist. This book is a page-turning call to action. 

Sally Bittner Bonn

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

“Stories are compasses and architecture…to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.” In grappling with her mother’s fading memory, Rebecca Solnit turns her famously discursive, lyrical mind over apricots, arctic explorers, Che Guavera in leper colonies, fairy tales, and in an essay that unwinds across the bottom of each page, moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds.

Dan Herd

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado

I love spending time in Machado’s eerie worlds, where the fears of our age play out in folklorish style. Plus, you can’t go wrong with stories that are queer in every sense of the word.

Clara O’Connor

Remembering Ernest Gaines by Joe Flaherty

On November 5th, I saw in the New York Times the announcement of the death of the writer Ernest Gaines. Reading his obituary immediately took me back to the time that Gaines had spent in Rochester. It was in March of 2000, the year that Writers & Books launched the community-wide reading program, “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book…” The first book we selected was Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. But, let’s go back earlier in time to have a look at what led up to his appearance here. 

In 1995 the sociologist Robert Putnam published the essay “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” His thesis was that we Americans were no longer joining organizations at the rates we had in the past, that participation in various clubs and organizations such as the Elks, the Rotary, and the Chamber of Commerce were declining due to the inroads that television and the internet had made into our lives. He chose bowling as the signature example of this trend because although the numbers of people bowling had actually increased, those doing so as part of a bowling league had dropped significantly. People were now, as the title of the essay stated, bowling alone. 

At about that same time, we at Writers & Books were seeking ways to use literature as a means to bring people closer together. Reading as an activity was (is) primarily thought of as a solitary activity—the lonely reader communing with the lonely writer—but we believed that literature had a much broader role to play in the creative life of our community. What if we were not only a community of readers, we asked, but a community that read together? Out of that germ of an idea, and conversations with other literary presenters from around the nation, sprang the impetus for launching “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book…”

It has now been nineteen years since Gaines and his book kicked off the program (renamed “Rochester Reads” in 2015). We chose A Lesson Before Dying for a number of reasons. First, it was both deceptively simple and exquisitely well written, and thus accessible to the widest possible audience. Next, the book dealt with a subject—the death penalty—that could generate discussion and personal interaction with people throughout our community. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, we knew that Gaines would be the perfect writer/ambassador to introduce the idea that writers, and their books, can bring people from very diverse backgrounds together to talk face-to-face. One of our main goals in beginning the program, and one that know we achieved, was to bring together in the same room individuals who would have no other reason to be there than the fact that they had read the same book.

And, it turned out, Gaines was the absolutely best writer we could have selected to launch the program. He was open and generous, always interested in what people had to say, and willing to engage in sharing his thoughts on his writing and how experiences from his own life helped shape the book. He talked about growing up in rural Louisiana and the limited education available to the region’s African-American children. He talked about his own discovery of libraries after he had moved to California at age 15, and the enormous impact reading had on his views of the people around him and of the larger world.

Two events in particular stick out in my mind from his days here. The first took place at the Penfield Library when a white woman stood up to say that this was the first book she had ever read by a Black author, and the only reason she was able to read it was because her two sisters had recently died, because while they were alive they wouldn’t let her read those kind of books. She then added that A Lesson Before Dying was, it turned out, one of the most important books she had ever read.

The second moment transpired at the Central Library in downtown Rochester. In that instance an African-American woman stood up to say that this was the most integrated audience she had ever been a part of at the library and that it was the community reading Gaines’ book that had made that possible. 

For people to stand up and make statements such as these was a real tribute to Gaines and the sense of calm and openness that he projected, as well as a genuine interest in what each and every person he came into contact with had to say. Within that environment people felt safe to speak their minds and to share their thoughts not only on the book, but on the subject of racism in our community. 

Throughout his residency here in Rochester Gaines was accompanied by his wife Diane. He had married late in life, protecting his time and energies to devote to a career of writing and teaching, rather than to the demands of family life. It was obvious when you spent time around the two of them that with Diane he had found a true life’s companion, and she was a great addition to the time we spent together during that week.

Based on the overwhelming success of that first year, Rochester Reads has gone on to present eighteen other writers and their books to the greater Rochester community. But it was through Ernest Gaines, and his stately presence, that we continue his legacy to this day. His writings and wise counsel will be missed in this community and in many others throughout the country. 

In Memoriam: Norm Davis

—by Nick DiChario, former fiction editor of HazMat Review and former director of Adult Education and Programming at W&B

Writers & Books and the Rochester writing community suffered a great loss on Friday, September 13, when Norman Lorain Davis died in his hometown of Wellsville, New York, at the age of 85. Norm was a mainstay of the Rochester poetry scene, making it his mission to promote local poets, writers, musicians, and artists. He curated W&B’s own Wide Open Mic for more than thirty years and supported many literary events in and around Rochester, including readings and performances at the Greenhouse Café, Java Joe’s, Jazzberry’s, and Daily Perks, among others. He was a brilliant teacher and staunch advocate for W&B, and he loved to help people of all ages and backgrounds discover their voices, express their unique worldviews, and celebrate their talents.


In addition, during his lengthy career as an educational psychologist, Norm helped hundreds of highly creative, at-risk youth find purpose and direction—and many of those young people stayed in touch with him throughout the years.

A gifted writer in his own right, Norm often read publicly from his volume of poetry Rome Gothic, a book that is still cherished among the Rochester literati nearly twenty years after its original publication in 1991.

In 1996, Norm realized a lifelong dream by founding and becoming editor and publisher of his own magazine, HazMat Review, and used this forum for ten years to print socially and politically hazardous material featuring mainly local authors.

Well known for his skills as a conversationalist, Norm was intensely curious about every individual he met. He looked at human interaction as a challenge and opportunity to help us think critically, look deeper into ourselves, or simply laugh harder at the ironies and absurdities of life. He considered poetry a living thing that carried its own meanings, messages, and social implications far beyond the author’s vision. Most importantly, he believed that words could heal, and he never missed a chance to convince others of this truth.


Norm was profoundly antiwar, a recurring theme in much of his writing, and he often struggled with his role in what he called “the industrial war machine.” In addition to being a Korean War veteran, he served as a special weapons technician in the mid-1950s, responsible for loading and arming thermonuclear bombs. He returned to Korea after the war where he learned the Korean language, taught school, met and married his sweetheart, and eventually came home to America, much to our advantage. Along with countless friends, he leaves behind two sons, Foster and Walter; his daughter Lorraine; and his granddaughter Hana.


On a personal note, Norm was one of my oldest and dearest friends. He was among the first people I met at W&B (at an open mic) when I was a young man in my twenties. I remember thinking “Who is this strange guy in the black leather vest, wrinkled T-shirt, and frayed flat cap, wearing dirty glasses and carrying an armload of books?” Imagine my surprise when I saw he was running the show. I learned later that his wife, who could never quite master the English language, regularly accused him of dressing like a “bill-hilly.” He found this so funny that I think it shaped his wardrobe for the remainder of his days.


I was fortunate to see Norm a week before he died. While his health had been failing for some time, he was alert and in good humor that afternoon, and we sat outside on the porch with a group of friends reminiscing about the old days at W&B, our HazMat editorial meetings at Salena’s Mexican restaurant, and the quirky characters of the early open mic scene. I loved him dearly, and I’ll remember him always.

Of course, now that Norm is gone, we can only thank him for his service and commitment to the arts in Rochester. To say that he was a special person who will be greatly missed is a vast understatement, but it must be said nonetheless. Soon W&B will announce a celebration of Norm’s life and work. In the meantime, let us all remember him for the way he enriched our lives, for the gentle spirit, kind soul, and inspiration he was to so many.

Mira Jacob Book Signing June 7

Please join us at Writers & Books for a special conversation and book signing with critically acclaimed author/illustrator Mira Jacob.

Friday, June 7, 2019
6:30 – 7:30 pm

Good Talk is a bold, wry, and intimate graphic memoir about American identity, interracial families, and the realities that divide us, from the acclaimed author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing.


Like many six-year-olds, Mira Jacob’s half-Jewish, half-Indian son, Z, has questions about everything. At first they are innocuous enough, but as tensions from the 2016 election spread from the media into his own family, they become much, much more complicated. Trying to answer him honestly, Mira has to think back to where she’s gotten her own answers: her most formative conversations about race, color, sexuality, and, of course, love.