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What Are You Reading? December’s last-minute books gift guide

Portlanders reading around town recommend gift books ranging from Clive Barker to classics by James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.


Rain or shine, book lovers and bibliophiles have been frequenting the cafés and bars of Portland with their winter reads in hand. Though the weather outside has been bordering on frightful with a high chance of coming snow, the general indoor atmosphere has been warm, cozy, and speckled with distanced individuals enjoying their slow afternoons. 

With the spirit of gift-giving in the air as Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve approach, it’s time to pick up your last-minute literary presents. From sci-fi and fantasy to nonfiction and heartfelt generational stories, this month’s readers outline their current favorites and suggest gifts for the book people in your life.

Before I get to December’s featured picks, I’d like to highlight a few of Portland’s independent bookshops and sellers (other than the famous Powell’s Books) where you can shop this holiday season and all year long:

Will, reading at Caffé Vita in Portland, had a thumbs up for Clive Barker and a thumbs down for Harlan Ellison.
Will, reading at Caffé Vita in Portland, had a thumbs up for Clive Barker and a thumbs sideways for Harlan Ellison. Photo by: Amy Leona Havin

Melville Books
Open noon to 3 p.m. Christmas Eve
2827 N.E. Alberta St.

A quirky one-man operation owned by Mitch Melville, Melville Books features a patio of books available to browse as well as a small indoor shop stacked high with new and used volumes.

Belmont Books
Open till 6 p.m. Christmas Eve
3415 S.E. Belmont St.

An eclectic treasure trove of new, used, and rare books, magazines, and ephemera owned by Joe Witt, Belmont books also publishes The Sunny Pages, a local paper highlighting events and art in the Sunnyside neighborhood.

Mother Foucault’s Bookshop
Open till 3 p.m. Christmas Eve
523 S.E. Morrison St.

Specializing in used, rare, and vintage books, Mother Foucault’s is known for its collection of art books, poetry, philosophy, and live readings.

Paper Moon Books
Open by appointment only, noon to 4 p.m.
4712 S.E. Belmont St.

Owned by Andrea Drinard for more than 40 years, Paper Moon Books is a hideaway shop selling used and vintage books both online and by appointment.

Annie Bloom’s Books
Open until 6 p.m. Christmas Eve
7834 S.W. Capitol Hwy.

This Multnomah Village shop sells new and used books, magazines, CDs, and gifts along with a catalog of local and self-published Oregon authors. It also hosts free events virtually every month.

Third Eye Books
Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Christmas Eve
2518 S.E. 33rd Ave. 

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Founded in 2019 by Michelle Lewis and Charles Hannah, Third Eye Books is a Black-owned new and used bookshop with a vision to become the top supplier of African-centered books and accessories in the metro area.

Now to the recommended reads:

Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone
Written by James Baldwin
Read by Jordan Márquez
Caffé Vita, NE Alberta Street

“Deep and touching”

Having recently moved to Portland from Wisconsin, Márquez learned about Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone from a YouTube interview featuring James Baldwin and American poet Nikki Giovanni. A product design student focusing on user optimization, he was drawn to the title of the book, which he described as “intensely captivating.” We took a moment to talk about our long and ever-growing book lists and the joys of chatting with others in coffee shops. He suggests this book to anyone who enjoys overpowering and emotional stories. 

Márquez and I also talked about his sister, an independent New York-based poet who writes about food justice and issues of visibility for mixed-race communities in Wisconsin and across the East Coast. He then suggested the works of Ocean Vuong for anyone interested in poetry about love, loss, and transition.

The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World
Written by Nilofer Merchant
Read by Ron
Palio Dessert and Espresso House, Ladd’s Addition

“A game-changer”

Ron said his granddaughter recommended this book about an Indian woman meant for arranged marriage who broke away to choose her own path. The book sparked a conversation between us about the importance of appreciation and the willingness to admit when we do not know.

A hobby writer working on a book about his theory of “the three inheritances” (goods, genetics, and language), Ron explained his view of how language is in everything humans do. For those interested in science fiction, nonfiction, and physics, he suggests Merchant’s book about how to turn creative thinking into action.

Written by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Read by Sloan C.
Dragonfly Coffee House, Pearl District

“Unexpectedly beautiful”

I noticed Sloan from across the coffee shop reading a book that I am also currently invested in. Autumn, by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, is one of four books in his series named after the seasons. A collection of stories and essays written in creative-nonfiction style, the volume explores mundane objects and concepts through a detailed and ethereal micro-focused perspective. While my favorite sections so far are titled “Frames” and “Labia,” Sloan prefers the section called “Beekeeping.” 

Sloan said her artist friend, Sarah, recommended this book after recently traveling to Norway. Sloan suggests it to anyone who appreciates introspective writing, meditative art, and memoir.

Books of Blood: Volume 1
Written by Clive Barker
Read by Will
Caffé Vita, NE Alberta Street

“It will make you laugh at how gross and weird it is”

I chatted with Will, a self-proclaimed huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, who had two books at his table, both purchased from Melville’s Books. He described Barker’s work as “adult goosebumps” for anyone seeking a gory psychosexual thrill. Will was also reading Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, though he wasn’t a huge fan. Despite its cool concepts, the book is wordy, simple, and indulgent, according to Will, who wasn’t taken by its execution.

In addition to Barker, Will suggests Fevre Dream, a 1982 vampire novel by George R.R. Martin known for its dark undertones, and Portland author Patrick deWitt.

Song of Solomon
Written by Toni Morrison
Read by Carly O.
Lutz Tavern, SE Woodstock Boulevard

“The most invested I have ever been in a story”

A generational story about a family and community that deal with love, loss, mystery, and buried treasure all while confronting the effects of racism in America, Morrison’s 1977 Song of Solomon has quickly become one of Carly’s favorite books. From beside me at the Lutz Tavern, Carly said that she felt such a range of emotions while reading it that she was glad to have a drink in hand. She suggested it as a gift for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in literature featuring the experiences of Black Americans and stories of family resilience. She also recommends The House of the Spirits by Chilean author Isabel Allende.


The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love
Written by bell hooks
NE Alberta Street

The day after I heard American author and activist bell hooks had died, I spotted a copy of her The Will to Change under the arm of an individual walking with a cup of coffee in hand. Dissecting the oppressive environment created for men by a patriarchal culture, The Will to Change helps men look at ways to break through emotional barriers and express themselves.

The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work
Written by Eli J. Finkel
SE Hawthorne Boulevard

In the Hawthorne neighborhood, a woman carried a basket of vegetables with Finkel’s The All or Nothing Marriage balanced on top. “After years of debate and inquiry, the key to a great marriage remained shrouded in mystery — until now,” Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, says about Finkel’s 2017 release.

Amy Leona Havin is a writer, choreographer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based multi-media dance company The Holding Project. Her works can be read in Humana Obscura, San Diego Poetry Annual, The Dust Magazine, The Chronicle, Mountain Bluebird Magazine, and others, and she has been shortlisted for the Bridport International Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. Havin’s artistic process is rooted in classical and somatic movement practices, non-fiction writing, and honoring the landscape of the natural world.

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