Isabel Allende on the future of feminism: “We have to do it joyfully”

My February 23, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Isabel Allende was in her 20s, working at a women’s magazine in Chile, when the second wave of feminism hit. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” were among the most significant books in that era (roughly from the 1960s to the 1980s) that galvanized women to redefine their role in society and the struggle against gender inequities.

more …

Two very different tales of the Haight, more than 50 years apart

My February 9, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

San Francisco is primed for idyllic love stories, with Technicolor visuals (sparkling bay, impossible hills), heady aromas (fresh-ground coffee wafting out of North Beach cafes, cracked crab at the wharf) and iconic sounds of foghorns and cable car bells. ¶ But we all know the city has a darker side, and all the natural beauty and sensation is no guarantee of living happily ever after.

more …

When writers spin mundane subjects into literary gold

My January 26, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

“What’s it about?” ¶ That’s the question I’m most often asked after recommending a book. There seems to be a widespread feeling that an intriguing topic will undoubtedly make a great read. ¶ So often, however, a tantalizing subject gets submerged in a swamp of bad writing. Conversely, a book about something in which I profess myself profoundly disinterested becomes a favorite when the writing elevates it.

more …

Choosing to discover more books by authors of color

My January 12, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I made a decision in January to read more writers of color this year. It was motivated by the big dustup over Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt, a controversy centered on whether a white writer had the right to write a story of Mexican refugees fleeing a violent drug cartel. While I came down on the side of an author to write outside the realm of her own experience—I just appreciate good writing—I also recognized that the publishing industry has a pathetic record when it comes to giving voice to non-white writers.

more …

Oddball literary protagonists make normalcy fascinating

My December 15, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I’ve always been a sucker for oddballs. Especially when it comes to literature. Misfits, outcasts, characters who operate outside of societal norms — they make the most interesting protagonists. ¶ Unconventional characters often act as a mirror to the world around them, reflecting all the human aspirations and foibles therein.

more …

Environmental book focuses on joy of nature rather than dire prognoses

My December 1, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Indulge me for a moment. I know our natural world is going to hell in a handbasket. But reading dire prognoses and apocalyptic scenarios doesn’t rally me to action. Rather, it makes me want to hide my head under the blankets. ¶ What really works is remembering why I love nature, the strong, sensory emotions brought on by a fiery red maple tree or rushing mountain stream. Watching my local woodpecker drill a telephone pole.

more …

Do’s and don’ts of negative literary criticism

My November 3, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I’m trying to write a novel. I know, I know. Me and everyone else. I’m telling you for a reason. As I come to understand how really, really difficult it is to write good fiction, it’s making me think hard about literary criticism. ¶ I’ve reviewed books in the past, on radio and for newspapers. I still send mini-reviews to a list of friends and family when I read something I really like.

more …

Graham Swift, “Here We Are”

I forgot how much I love Graham Swift. His new novel Here We Are reminded me of his genius at creating a richly imagined world in a short novel (he also wrote Mothering Sunday), this one just 144 pages.

The main characters are a trio of performers in a variety show in Brighton in 1959: Jack, the smooth-talking compere (or emcee) of the show; Ronnie (aka The Great Pablo), the show’s magician; and Evie, the leggy magician’s assistant.

They’re captured at a moment in time, post-War, just before television dulled the public appetite for such live entertainment. Ronnie is the novel’s true center. As a child he was evacuated from a bleak homelife in London to a dream-come-true, loving family in a (to him) posh house in Oxford. There he learned the magician’s art from his new “father,” a skill that sets the course of his life.

The story, told from Evie’s point of view, is of a love triangle, but really about abandonment and attachment, guilt and love, and, over all, the power, mystery and illusive quality of life.

I’m not sure how Graham accomplishes a book of such resonant power in so few pages. Maybe we should just chalk it up to magic.