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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There’s room in the literary-magazine galaxy for the Drift’s youthful energy

My May 3, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Have you ever noticed how as you get older, everyone gets younger? I first noticed this when professional baseball players started looking like they were in grammar school. Then doctors, cops, professors. How did this happen? ¶ I was reminded of this when I saw news of the Drift (thedriftmag.com), heralded as “A bold literary journal” in the New York Times Sunday Styles section recently.

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In praise of a small press with big impact

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

The next time you feel cynical about a celebrity biography topping the best-seller list, pick up a book published by Seven Stories Press. I promise you it won’t be more of the same. ¶ A fiercely independent publishing house, Seven Stories is known for its provocative, first-rate books on human rights, social and economic justice, and media, as well as American fiction, literature in translation and poetry collections.

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The path to enlightenment can sometimes lead to dire circumstances

My April 19, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

In his early 30s, Shetler quit his job at a tech startup and set out on a global quest, inspired by many other adventurers and writers, including Joseph Campbell, the professor of comparative mythology and religion whose best-known work is “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” (1949), in which he discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero. ¶ In 2016, Shetler vanished while on a trip through India’s remote Parvati Valley, a place renowned for its natural beauty but also for dangerous terrain where dozens have disappeared. There, he had spent weeks studying under the guidance of an Indian holy man, living and meditating in a cave.

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Capturing psychedelic experiences on the page can trip up even great writers

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

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” ¶ I’ve always loved that quote, which has been attributed to Frank Zappa, Martin Mull and Elvis Costello, to name a few. The gist, according to those who agree, is that music criticism is absurd, a pointless enterprise. ¶ The same could be said of writing about a psychedelic experience. How does one describe an intense interior experience? Can it be done?

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Confessions of an occasional science fiction fan

My April 5, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Why did it take so long for Hervé Le Tellier’s “The Anomaly,” a novel published in France in the summer of 2020, to get to the U.S.? Maybe it took time to get a translator. The book is a publishing sensation in France, selling more copies there than any book since Marguerite Duras’ 1984 “The Lover.” ¶ It’s no wonder it’s all the rage. In a way, “The Anomaly” is the perfect pandemic book, questioning our very existence, albeit in a highly entertaining way. But there’s also a philosophical gravity to the questions it poses. It’s by no means a book I felt guilty about enjoying.

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A Putin primer: Books can offer a sobering look into his mind and soul

My March 29, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

When it comes to geopolitical affairs, I readily admit my ignorance. At best, I attempt to keep up an awareness, especially when it comes to humanitarian crises around the globe. But my knowledge is shallow as a puddle. ¶ The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, however, is a situation that demands more understanding. Several readers have asked me to suggest books that might enlighten them about the outrage taking place there.

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Literary late bloomers show you’re never too old to write

My March 22, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I never knew Anna Mary Robertson Moses’ given name. I only knew her as Grandma Moses, and I loved her because she began painting at the age of 78 and her depictions of rural New England’s countryside made her an art world superstar. ¶ There’s something about a late bloomer that encourages those of us with a creative bent. Even if we haven’t reached our artistic goal by midlife or later, when a Grandma Moses bursts onto the scene, it gives us hope that success still may be ahead of us. It sure beats thinking we’ve missed the boat.

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Bernstein memoir brings back dreams of being Brenda Starr

My March 15, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

In 1972, Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci published an interview with Henry Kissinger, the architect of Richard Nixon’s foreign policy, in which Kissinger described himself as “the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse.” Kissinger later described that interview, which reportedly displeased his boss, as “the most disastrous decision” of his career. It put Fallaci on the map as one of the world’s most respected political journalists.

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Great writing often arises from pain and grief

My March 8, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I’ve long thought much great writing comes out of pain, especially when it comes to memoir. ¶ Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which The Guardian called a “classic of mourning,” is her account of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, which included caring for her daughter who had been hospitalized for pneumonia, followed by septic shock. “Darkness Visible,” William Styron’s haunting account of his descent into clinical depression, is another piece of brilliant writing informed by pain. Styron himself believed his creativity was fueled by his depression.

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