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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Rescued Sausalito bookstore delivers on community engagement

HSFC_2019_11_19_Page32My November 19 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Sausalito is an easy target. All you have to do is stroll down Bridgeway Promenade any weekend afternoon and be engulfed in a stream of highly scented, unfortunately garbed, mimosa-swilling tourists shopping at the always-Christmas store or buying nautical-themed paperweights and you’ll have plenty of dissing material. Oh, I forgot the ice cream. Inexplicably, tourists always eat ginormous waffle ice cream cones, often at 10 in the morning.

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Kevin Wilson: Nothing to See Here

When I heard that the new novel, Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang) was about 10-year-old twins who spontaneously combust when agitated, I immediately thought “Nope, not for me.” Then I read the New York Times review by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a writer I admire for her humor and originality, and thought I’d give it a whirl … still without high expectations.

NothingToSeeHereI’m so glad I did, if only for the book’s protagonist, Lorraine, a down-on-her-luck Southern 20-something who’s been majorly screwed by life. It starts with her mother, a chain smoking, gambling, sleeping around with white trash (can I still say that?) horror, who sells her daughter out on more than one occasion. Then there’s her former prep school roommate, Madison, an ambitious, calculating daughter of privilege raised to marry a senator, which indeed she does. She throws Lillian under the bus (with Lillian’s mother’s complicity) in the early chapters, a situation that so enraged me I carried my indignation throughout the book.

The bulk of the novel involves Lillian coming to the mansion where Madison and the Senator live to take care of the combustible twins, the spawn of the Senator and his former wife, to hide them from public view and keep them from burning down the house while he’s going through confirmation hearings for Secretary of State. Sounds wild, no?

Indeed, it’s a helluva plot but, against all odds, Wilson makes it work. And Lillian is a helluva character. She’s depressed and not giving a shit about living in her mother’s attic and working a dead-end job when the novel begins. By its close she’s evolved into a totally different, more responsible and resourceful person with a strong moral compass.

This book has a deceptive complexity … because the plot is so, well, turbulent, it seems, on the surface, that’s the whole deal. But it’s about way more than the story line, touching on friendship, deception, hypocrisy, abandonment, and describing some very flawed people. It’s also about opening yourself up to love both others and yourself. Wilson not only pulls it off, he makes us think hard about what makes a family. And he makes us laugh. Pretty remarkable stuff.

Why poetry? Learning to get it, with an assist from Jane Hirshfield

HSFC_2019_11_05-E6My November 5 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I suck at poetry. I’m just no good at appreciating it. And I’ve always felt that’s a shameful character defect, especially for a voracious reader such as myself. So I recently set out on a self-designed poetry appreciation course. Naturally, I started with books to tell me how to fix the problem. And there are some excellent ones.

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Bernadine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other

I had never heard of Bernadine Evaristo until I learned she shared the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood.  Boy am I glad I took notice.

41081373._SY475_Evaristo’s new novel Girl, Woman, Other is a multi-voiced work, featuring twelve loosely and tightly connected Black British women—from Amma, a lesbian playwright whose story opens the book and who serves as the nucleus to the other voices, to a 93-year-old woman living on a farm in Northern England. There’s also a jaded public school teacher, an investment banker, a house cleaner, and a non-binary social influencer.

All of the characters have authentic voices, all of their stories have wider societal and cultural resonance. It’s a searing portrait of contemporary Britain as well as the legacy of Britain’s colonial history in Africa and the Caribbean.

Most of you know me as liking fairly traditional, linear narrative. But the structure of this book, moving quickly from one character to another in a style that falls somewhere between prose and poetry, totally worked for me. I was able to move seamlessly between the stories and follow the natural cadence of the novel.

At times I got a bit lost as to the connections between the women, but I generally picked up the thread again. And in a way it didn’t matter. What did matter is all these women ARE connected by virtue of being something of “the other” in British society—certainly in race but also in sexuality, education, and class.

I’m finding myself drawn to these stories lately, to immigrants and people who are marginalized by race, poverty, physical differences, lack of education, etc. I guess it’s the times. Stories of privileged people feel slight and frivolous.

So do read Bernadine Evaristo’s new book. It’ll take you somewhere else, to a place I feel it’s really important for all of us to go.