In praise of a new generation of Indian women writing

My September 20, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Many years ago, after a steady diet of novels describing American life (like those of the Johns, Cheever and Updike, et al.), I was thrilled to discover novels about India. E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” and Paul Scott’s “The Raj Quartet” were among my favorites. ¶ I came to realize, of course, that both novels were about the British raj in India—Forster and Scott were both English—and written from a decidedly non-Indian point of view.

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Savoring books and ice cream in the Big Apple

My September 6, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I grew up in a suburb north of New York City. ¶ As little girls, my sisters and I would put on our party dresses, frilly socks and patent leather shoes, white gloves buttoned at the wrist, and go with our mother into the city for a play and ice cream sundaes at Schraftt’s. ¶ White gloves. Sounds like another century … which it was.

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A history of the blurb, every author’s best friend

My August 23, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Blurb is such a wonderful word. ¶ It conjures up exactly what it is: a belch of praise for a book, generally found on the dust jacket, to lure the reader to purchase it. I must admit to reading blurbs when deciding whether to buy a book, but I am swayed only by plaudits from publications I trust or authors I greatly admire.

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Destination literature: great books for and about travel

My August 9, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

On a recent trip to San Diego, I was horrified to find myself on the plane with nothing to read. I had mistakenly placed my book in my suitcase, which was stowed overhead, and I feared retrieving it. It was heavy enough that I’d enlisted a burly young man to help me hoist it. ¶ Although I don’t like reading on a Kindle, I’d loaded it up the night before the flight, just in case, but naturally had left it at home. I’d read the New York Times and finished the crossword (which I always slip into my purse when flying) before leaving for the airport, and cut things too close to have time to visit the excellent Compass Books at the airport.

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Great fiction can bring history, issues more vividly to life

My July 26, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Sometimes, when I profess my preference for reading fiction, I get a reaction that indicates I must be a lightweight, like some sort of Victorian woman on a fainting couch. The truth is it’s often fiction that brings me an awareness of political history and cultural issues I hadn’t truly understood. ¶ The most recent example of this is “True Biz” by Sara Novic. While many applauded “CODA” winning the best picture Oscar, to me the movie was slightly sentimental. For a more realistic and political view of the deaf community, I highly recommend “True Biz.”

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Unreliable narrators, imaginative authors make for compelling reading

My July 12, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Recently, watching the 2020 remake of “Rebecca” (a film not nearly as good as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 original) on Netflix, I started musing on the idea of unreliable narrators. The young woman who narrates the story misunderstands everything about the world around her. ¶ The idea of unreliable narrators wasn’t new even in 1938, when Daphne Du Maurier wrote the novel on which the films were based. Back in 1847, Emily Brontë introduced us to Nelly, the biased, gossipy and ultimately villainous servant girl, on whose story Mr. Lockwood depends for narrating “Wuthering Heights.”


Hernan Diaz

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Inside San Quentin State Prison, a place where minds can be free

My June 28, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Dennis Jefferson is a great reader. His taste is wide-ranging and eclectic. Among the recent books he’s enjoyed are Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Klara and the Sun,” and “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” by Walter Mosley. ¶ Jefferson is also an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, where he was sent after being convicted of killing his wife.

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Books should be more than a backdrop, but if you must decorate …

My June 14, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

The age of Zoom, the videoconferencing tool, has made most of its users newly conscious of how their working space looks. Many choose to display some tasteful pottery, maybe fresh flowers and often a few artfully arranged books. ¶ I admit to tastefully arranging magazines on my coffee table when I have company. The practice of arranging books to enhance your public image, however, has ratcheted up to a whole new level.

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New books honor California’s American Indians more than ceremonial recognition

My May 31, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Many of us have been at events in recent days where the person at the podium thanks the Native Americans on whose land the site of the event now stands. It’s clear this is done with good intentions – as a sign of recognition and respect – but the practice often rings a bit hollow to me. ¶ Graeme Wood, writing in the Atlantic, puts the issue more bluntly: “A land acknowledgment is what you give when you have no intention of giving land. It is like a receipt provided by a highway robber, noting all the jewels and gold coins he has stolen.”

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Why our literary prizes have lost their luster

My May 17, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Remember when watching the Oscars was a big deal? ¶ We’d gather around the TV with great anticipation, watch the stars make their red-carpet entrance and sit through a couple of endless musical numbers and sonorous self-congratulations from the Academy, eagerly awaiting the Oscar winners and their sometimes entertaining speeches. Who (at least among those alive in 1973) can forget Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather in his stead to turn down his best actor award? ¶ For me, the same might be said for major literary prizes. I used to wait with great anticipation to find out who got the Pulitzer (just announced last week), the Nobel, the Booker and France’s Prix Goncourt.

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