Quieting your mind in an anxious time

HSFC_2020_03_24_Page26My March 24, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

These are trying times. We’re sheltering in place, and many of us have big swaths of time on our hands. ¶ For me, tuning into the daily news cycle is out of the question. You’d think I’d have no problem burrowing into a book—my most pleasurable pastime is being on the couch with a great read. But I find myself unable to focus. I’m jittery and distracted.

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Read this before you start writing your memoir

HSFC_2020_03_10_Page34My March 10, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

If you’re thinking about writing a memoir because you had a traumatic experience with childbirth or you’ve rebounded from a heartbreaking divorce, do us all a favor and please don’t. The fact that something painful happened to you doesn’t make it interesting to other people. ¶ Furthermore if you’re a reality television star, particularly anyone named Kardashian (or related), spare us. Enough.

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Believe it, San Francisco: LA is a pretty good city for book lovers

HSFC_2020_02_25_Page32My February 25, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

As Bay Area residents, we tend to be a bit chauvinistic. We’re adept at casting aspersions on Los Angeles, tossing off snide comments about the city’s traffic, cult of celebrity, even the lack of a serious cultural life. ¶ Anyone who has spent time in L.A. during the past decade knows that’s nonsense — not the nightmare freeways and showbiz parts, but the disses about culture. I know I risk my Bay Area residency privilege by saying this, but the contemporary art and theater scenes down south rival and often surpass anything we have here.

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Original or translated? Great literature takes both forms

HSFC_2020_02_11_Page32My February 11, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I had lunch recently with Uruguayan American writer Carolina de Robertis to talk about her excellent new novel, “Cantoras.”  I found myself, instead, totally immersed in a conversation about literary translation. The writer of three previous novels and the collection “Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times,” de Robertis, who lives in Oakland, is also an award-winning translator of Latin American and Spanish literature.

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Books by walkers: a literary stroll

HSFC_2020_01_28_Page32My January 28, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I love to walk. It never fails to lift my spirits to get outside and put one foot in front of the other, whatever the season, urban or rural, early morning or evening, alone or with friends. Walking holds a special place in literature, both in novels where the characters themselves stroll, saunter, amble and drift, and in nonfiction books wherein some of our best writers muse about, theorize on and analyze the art of walking.

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Telling the stories behind a major issue of our day: immigration

HSFC_2020_01_14_Page30My January 14, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

In our highly charged political world it seems everyone has a pet cause. It may be climate change, gun control or health care. Mine is immigration. In his first month in office, President Trump issued the first executive orders on immigration suspending visas, expanding the use of detention, limiting access to asylum, authorizing more aggressive ICE enforcement, banning Syrian refugees — the list goes on. Since then things have gone from bad to worse.

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The writer as glamorous drunk? That myth is long gone.

HSFC_2019_12_31_Page28My December 31 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

The other day, while listening to a podcast from “Selected Shorts,” the public radio program where actors read short fiction before a live audience, I caught Leonard Nimoy reading Raymond Carver’s dazzling, heartbreaking story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The four characters sit around a kitchen table drinking endless glasses of gin and talking about love. And a lot more.

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Patrick Radden Keefe & Emma Straub

During the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was so much cultural (drugs, music, etc.) and political (Vietnam) noise in my life, in addition to all the interpersonal relationships that make up one’s coming of age, I was only dimly aware of what was going on in the rest of the world. So while I certainly knew of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, I was more than a bit hazy on the specifics. And, in fact, the struggle between the mostly Catholic republicans of Northern Ireland who sought reunification with the Republic of Ireland and the mix of Protestant paramilitaries, police, and British army forces is confusing, often defying simple categorization.

Keefe-SayNothingPatrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing takes us deep inside the bitter and deadly conflict, largely through the personalities of those involved in the struggle, chief among them IRA terrorists Dolours Price and Gerry Adams. They’re both larger-than-life characters and, as we learn late in the book, involved in the scene with which the book opens, the terrifying abduction of 38-year-old Jean McConville, the mother of ten, from her Belfast home.

We follow Price, a tragic, glamorous figure and notorious hunger striker who married British actor Stephen Rea, and Adams, who became an MP, president of Sinn Fein and, famously denied any involvement with the IRA, and numerous other IRA members through the early years of the movement, in and out of prison, and to their often tragic ends. Excepting Adams re: the tragic end … in case you don’t know already know, it involves rubber ducks.

I came out of this book with a lot more information about the Troubles and mostly about what a lying bastard Gerry Adams is. Also, when I think the whole Brexit mess, I’m much better informed about the deep divisions still within Ireland.

Keefe’s book is a masterful blend of research, suspense and mystery, yet another book that jolted me out of my cosseted world of fiction in the past year.


Straub-AllAdultsOn the other hand, when fiction is really good, it contains insight into the human condition and there’s no need to argue the value f that. Emma Straub’s new novel All Adults Here is a welcome reminder of the value of well-crafted, perceptive storytelling.

The novel centers on a widowed woman and her three adult children. While she’s done her best to parent them, she’s made her share of mistakes. Throughout the course of the book both she and her children come to terms with her imperfect love and move through their feelings of rejection and disappointment to become a healthier, more loving family.

This is stuff that could be sappy or trite in the hands of a less skillful writer. Straub creates interesting, complicated characters and makes us care about them. She also compassionately describes the world of teenage outsiders and we root for them to succeed.

There’s a heartening optimism in this book that tells us no matter how badly we screw up, there’s a chance at redemption. I really like that.

Book lover’s movie fantasies play in the theater of the mind

HSFC_2019_12_17_Page30My December 17 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I love movies almost as much as I love books. Sitting in the dark, surrounded by strangers, with a bag of popcorn on my lap and lost in a story on the big screen, I’m in heaven. It’s right up there with curling up on a comfy couch with a soft fleece and a great novel.

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The young adult book genre has become a literary juggernaut

HSFC_2019_12_03_Page30qMy December 3 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

The publishing industry classifies readers between the ages of 12 and 18 as “young adult,” or YA. When I was on the young end of that spectrum, one of my favorite books, I’m somewhat chagrined to admit, was “Seventeenth Summer,” a teenage romance written in 1942 (about 12 years before I discovered it) by Maureen Daly, herself a teenager at the time.

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