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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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 (, 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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