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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Looking back at a hidden chapter in Brooklyn’s proud literary history

My October 20, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

It’s hard to believe that Brooklyn was once Manhattan’s ugly stepsister, an embarrassment, especially for creative types who wanted nothing more than to make what author, editor and Brooklynite Norman Podhoretz called “one of the longest journeys in the world”: going from his native borough across the river to the literary elite in Manhattan.

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Writer friends share personal joys and professional pains

My October 6, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

There’s an (unwritten) rule that writers often choose other writers as friends. ¶ It makes perfect sense: Who better to bounce off ideas or share the excruciating experience of writer’s block? ¶ There are many examples of famous author friendships, none perhaps more documented than the bond between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the 2001 biography “Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship,” author Scott Donaldson describes how Fitzgerald helped the young Hemingway, acting as his agent and advocate and performing some crucial editing on ”The Sun Also Rises.” Alas, Hemingway repaid Fitzgerald by belittling him to mutual friends and creating a snide, condescending portrait of him in Hemingway’s memoir ”A Moveable Feast.” Ernest equals “bad friend.”

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Readers offer superb book recommendations

My September 22, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I’m so lucky to write this column, not only because I get to read and write and think about books, my lifeblood. I also get amazing feedback from you, my readers, and often learn about books I might never have read and encounter books I haven’t thought about in many years. ¶ A recent column about Irish writers brought a number of letters with recommendations, fond memories of trips to Ireland and vivid reminiscences of experiences in San Francisco’s fine Irish pubs, one of which ended in a wedding!

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Natasha Trethewey, “Memorial Drive”

I’m fully aware that some people turn away from emotionally harrowing true stories, ones that involve heartbreak and pain and grief. Sometimes that’s me. But other times, I’m drawn to these stories.

Shrinks think sad stories offer readers an outsider’s perspective which can help combat one’s own unresolved trauma. Or that painful stories offer catharsis, an emotional release that allows us to purge our buried feelings and increase our awareness. And there’s speculation that the emotional connection triggered by tragedies allows us to more fully appreciate the close relationships in our lives.

I thought about all of this during and especially after reading Natasha Trethewey’s equally riveting and excruciating Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir about the murder of her mother by her former stepfather.

I’m no expert on psychology. I do know I couldn’t put Tretheway’s book down even though at times I felt like closing my eyes to ward off what I knew was coming next. And afterwards the book resonated with me and opened me up to compassion that went far beyond the details of the story itself. I don’t mean to get dramatic here (well, ok, maybe I do) but it seemed to say something about the inherent tragedy of the human condition. Or maybe I’m just completely whacked out on COVID-mania, fire, and whatever my anxious mind tells me lies in store. All I know is it hurt so good.

We know from page one that Trethewey’s mother is killed by her ex-husband. The buildup of detail toward the murder itself is agonizing. But it’s also beautiful as Tretheway, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former US Poet Laureate, brings her exquisite poet’s eye to the metaphor-laden prose with which she tells the story.

Trethewey was born,the child of miscegenration, an interracial marriage still illegal in Mississippi, on April 26, 1966, the 100th anniversary of Mississippi’s celebration of Confederate Memorial Day, “a holiday glorifying the old South, the Lost Cause, and white supremacy.” There’s no way to separate her family’s story from the racism that shaped the place of her birth.

Her mother dies when she is a college student of 19 and her mother is just 40. She’s led by police officers from her college dorm to the site of the murder and followed by TV cameras. It’s no wonder that for 30 years she tries to distance herself from the trauma of the murder and the events leading up to it.

In unraveling this traumatic event that shaped her personally and artistically, Trethewey addresses her younger self, both acknowledging what she knew about her stepfather’s violent behavior and the threat he posed and granting herself retroactive compassion and absolution.

There’s also a detail here, about the outrageous and inexcusable negligence on the part of a police officer that directly led to Gwen Turnbough’s death. The fact that Trethewey doesn’t obsess over this particular, rather mentions it almost in passing, gives the event even more power.

I was drawn to Memorial Drive in part out of curiosity about Trethewey’s resiliency. How was it possible to not only survive the brutal murder of one’s mother, but go on to be an artist of the highest order, drawing beauty from pain?

I think of the ways many of us (me included!) use difficult childhood memories as an excuse for bad behavior and my only response is embarrassment. Imagine suffering the worst tragedy imaginable, the early and brutal death of one’s mother, and going on to create works of beauty and lasting impact. That’s beyond admirable. Here’s to Natasha Trethewey for writing a book that’s both intensely personal and speaks eloquently to our troubled time.