Why the Irish have all the literary luck

My August 11, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I know it’s extremely dicey these days to attribute a general characteristic to any group of people by nationality or otherwise. I’m doing it anyway by saying the Irish are such damn good writers. ¶ Not all of them, I know. But when I’m bowled over by the graceful, lyrical nature of a piece of prose, more often than not there’s an Irish writer behind it.

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When a voracious reader decides she’d rather watch a movie

SFC_Jul28My July 28, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

How had it come to this? In February, I was en route home from Costa Rica on a 7 a.m. flight, focused on the tiny screen embedded in the seat back in front of me, watching “Joker,” a movie I’d never choose at under 30,000 feet. ¶ I blame it on my most recent breakup with the Kindle. We’ve had a rather bumpy relationship from the start.

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Here’s what—and whom—you won’t get at a big-box book retailer

SFC_20200714My July 14, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

People who know me are aware I never miss an opportunity to stand on my soapbox and hold forth about the importance of independent bookstores. In every place I’ve ever lived, the local indie has become a second home to me. When I lived in San Francisco in the Richmond, I was at Green Apple Books so often, I found it natural to give, often unsolicited, book advice to people roaming the stacks.

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Jennifer Ryan: The Spies of Shilling Lane

Delightful is the only word for the audiobook version of Jennifer Ryan’s The Spies of Shilling Lane. If you’re looking for an antidote to these sad, scary days, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Set in London during the Blitz, the novel tells the story of Mrs. Braithewaite, a bossy, imperious woman who’s ousted from her role as leader of her village’s women’s auxiliary group. She heads to London to reveal a long-held secret to her daughter, only to get caught up in some dangerous business involving the MI5 (English Military Intelligence), Nazi-loving traitors, and dangerous thugs.

9781984886798_400She also meets the timid Mr. Norris who, against his will, is swept up in her escapades. The gradual affection between these complete opposites, who don’t learn each other’s first names until the final chapters of the book, is one of its many joys.

In addition to a suspenseful, twisting and turning plot, Ryan’s book has some wisdom about maternal love, friendship, and discovering what’s truly important. Sometimes it borders on schmaltzy but it’s the kind of schmaltz I adore.

The audiobook is read by the perfectly named Jane Entwistle whose plummy tones are spot on. Give yourself a treat and listen to this delicious book. It’s great fun and god knows we can use some more of that.

Need laughter? These books scratch that itch

SFC_2020June30My June 30, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I don’t know about you, but I really need to laugh. A big belly laugh, complete with gasping for breath and tears running down my face, would be nice. But I’d settle for a little chuckle. Even a slight upturn of the corners of my mouth. The last several months have been distinctly unfunny, to say the least.

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Steph Cha: Your House Will Pay

I love being knocked out by a writer I’ve never heard of. Such is the case with LA writer Stephanie Cha, whose Your House Will Pay is set in LA during the summer of 2019, when a police shooting involving a black teenager inflames racial unrest and protests erupt throughout the city.

9780062868855The book is based on a true story that takes place almost 30 years before it begins, when a Korean grocery store owner shot a Black teenager in the back of the head after accusing her of stealing. The crime was caught on video, and although the shooter was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, she never went to jail.

Cha tells the story of two families—one Black, the other Korean-American—whose lives collide as both are drawn into the cauldron of racial tension and violence. She describes each family with cultural sensitivity and skillfully builds suspense as she leads to the point where their stories intersect.

The author of a crime trilogy also set in LA, Cha clearly knows her territory. She says she began writing Your House Will Pay in 2014 right after Michael Brown’s murder, but it could have been written last week. It’s that prescient. It’s also filled with insight about the ripple effects of violence and social injustice.

Here’s a taste of Cha:

Los Angeles—this was supposed to be at the end of the frontier, land of sunshine, promised land, last stop for the immigrant, the refugee, the fugitive, the pioneer. It was Shawn’s home, where his mother and sister had lived and died. But he had left, and so had most of the people he knew, chased out, priced out, native children living in exile. And he saw the fear and rancor here in the ones who’d stayed. The city of good feeling, of tolerance and progress and loving thy neighbor was also a city that shunned and starved and killed its own. No wonder was it that it huffed and heaved, ready to blow, because the city was human, and humans could only take so much.

This is an important book, one that takes us behind the headlines and portrays real people, all of whom live as “others” in this country, dealing with racial injustice and profound loss. Cha’s timing is uncanny.


Live Zoom interviews

This Saturday, June 6 at 4 pm PST, I’ll interview Julia Alvarez, whose latest novel is Afterlife, for Copperfield’s Books. You can get a free ticket at copperfieldsbooks.com.

Next Tuesday, June 9 at 7:30 pm PST I’ll interview Word for Word cv-founder and artistic director Susan Harloe and filmmaker and producer Peter L. Stein for my monthly program at The Marsh. See free Zoom instructions at themarsh.org. The subject is what makes a book great for adaptation to film, theater, TV, etc.

Julia Alvarez & Brit Bennet

It’s been a bit of a challenge to get absorbed in a novel these days. The news is too loud and devastating. It takes a great storytellerand a compelling tale to get my interest and keep it.  The two novels below held my interest and gave me a necessary break from the tragic news cycle.

I absolutely adored Julia Alavarez’s new book Afterlife. In her first book for adults in 15 years, Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies) tells the story of the recently widowed Antonia Vega, a Dominican-American like Alvarez herself. 

Retired from her career as a college professor and novelist, Vega is ready to settle happily into retirement with her husband when he’s killed by a sudden aneurysm. She is forced to enter into the “disorienting transition of old age” on her own. Here she is on the grief of widowhood: “The landscape of grief is not very inviting. Visitors don’t want to linger.” 

She also becomes involved, somewhat against her will, with an undocumented Mexican man who’s doing farm work for her Vermont neighbor, Mario, when he enlists her to help bring his fiancé to Vermont. As an immigrant herself Antonia has always been something of a “reluctant activist” and her personal involvement with Mario tests her and challenges some of her assumptions.

If you have sisters, you’ll love this novel as Alvarez spends lots of time on Vega’s relationship with her three sisters, all strong individuals with distinct points of view who don’t hesitate to mix it up and call each other out, often with hilarious irreverence, at every opportunity.  The deep love at the root of their relationship is evident as is their ability to push each other’s buttons like crazy.

This is not a simple novel.  Alvarez wrestles with complex moral decisions and the obligations and responsibilities of privilege. Just because Antonia is Latina, Alvarez tells us. “she’s not necessarily Mother Teresa.”

I was also taken with Brit Bennet’s new novel The Vanishing Half.  The twin sisters at the heart of the novel are extremely light-skinned blacks who live in a Louisiana town defined by its light-skinned population. 

The girls run away to New Orleans to escape the conventions of their small, stifling town, and their lives take very different paths.  One suffers marriage to an abusive man and returns home with her very dark-skinned child in tow.  The other disappears from her family entirely to pass as a white woman.

This is a compulsively readable book.  You can’t wait to find out what happens. Bennett, who also wrote The Mothers, has superb control of her material and keeps things humming along,

But there’s also real depth here.  Through her main characters and their off-spring, Bennett explores issues of race, gender, and identity.  How are we shaped by our past?  To what extent can we put it behind us?  And how far can we bend the definition of family? 

Despite the respite I found in both books, we can’t really keep the world at bay. Alvarez’s treatment of the lives of undocumented people in this country and Bennett’s exploration of skin color bring in the world outside. More and more we can’t, nor should we want to, shut it out.

San Francisco: the eternal book subject

SFC_2020_05_19_Page28My May 19, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

The city of San Francisco has long been a favorite subject for writers, especially those who come from somewhere else and find a home here. In both fiction and nonfiction, the city is an alluring subject, with its spectacular beauty and vibrant history. Writers can find ample material in the Gold Rush and Barbary Coast, Beat culture, the Summer of Love, gay culture and today’s tech-dominated landscape.

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