David Kipen is a book world sparkplug. ¶ Bay Area residents may remember him as The Chronicle’s book editor and critic from 1998 to 2005. From there, he went to the National Endowment for the Arts and was behind the Big Read, an initiative to promote reading via One City One Book programs all over the country. He returned to his native Los Angeles to found Libros Schmibros, a multicultural lending library in Boyle Heights, and to teach writing at UCLA.
Sally Rooney got famous really fast. ¶ Her first novel, “Conversation with Friends,” won 2017’s London Sunday Times Writer of the Year Award. “Normal People,” published the following year, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, became a bestseller in the U.S., and was adapted as a widely watched TV series. ¶ According to the New York Times, her name has become “an easy shorthand for a certain cultural sensibility, even to those who haven’t read a word she’s written.” The Times goes on to say that Rooney has been called “the first great Millennial novelist” and “Salinger for the Snapchat generation.”
It happened again the other day. I was approaching the point to merge onto the freeway, driving in the right lane clearly designated for that. A guy in a Tesla (natch) zoomed up beside me in the left lane, attempting to sneak in after having passed all the other courteous drivers.
I don’t want to talk about it. ¶ “You really should weigh in.” ¶ No way. It’s a minefield out there. And nobody cares what a white, heterosexual, privileged woman of a certain age has to say. ¶ “So you’re scared.” ¶ Well, maybe. I’m always afraid of making a mistake these days.
The traditional Western novel was set in 19th century America and told the stories of cowboys, settlers and outlaws exploring the frontier and taming the Wild West. Think Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. ¶ Told as the triumph of “civilization” over “savagery,” these Westerns often whitewashed the U.S. expansion to the West, failing to mention the ugly realities of displacement and sometimes devastation of Indigenous peoples, the accompanying heavy environmental costs and the exploitation of the Chinese workers who built the railroads.
I remember, years ago, hearing a well-known novelist being questioned about why she never described the work her characters did in any detail. “I’ve never had a job other than writing,” she replied. “I don’t know what people do at work.” ¶ Such a privileged existence, I thought. Never having to work as a waiter, an office temp, a salesperson or teacher to support her writing. No wonder her novels seemed a bit vacuous.
“I only read nonfiction.” ¶ I’ve heard that more than once from a fellow reader, often accompanied by a bit of an attitude suggesting that an appetite for fiction is a tad lightweight. There is so much to learn, the implication goes. Why would you waste your time on made-up stories?
It is often said the city in which a book is placed is its own character. ¶ James Joyce once claimed that if Dublin “suddenly disappeared from the Earth, it could be reconstructed from my book.” He’s speaking, of course, of “Ulysses,” which chronicles the wanderings of Leopold Bloom throughout that city.
One of the happiest things about being fully vaccinated is I can once again go into a bookstore without heart-thumping anxiety and accompanying angry glares at people who get too close. ¶ Recently, I made a pilgrimage to my old San Francisco neighborhood to buy produce on Clement Street, see what the new owners have done to the front yard of my old house, and to visit Elaine at the Corner Laundry. But mostly I went back to hang out at Green Apple Books.
I remember as a teenager thinking the French had a very enlightened attitude about sex. Their open acceptance of mistresses and the overtly sexual content of advertisements lining the walls of the Paris Metro were the height of sophistication to my young, impressionable self. ¶ That was then. Over the years, what’s become clear to me is that French women were often victimized by what’s come to be seen as an often misogynist patriarchy, where undisguised sexism, and even pedophilia and rape, masqueraded as liberated anti-puritanism.