Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth.” I recommended the novel to a young friend and decided it had been so long since I’d read it, I’d best do a reread if I wanted to be prepared for any meaningful discussion. ¶ Poor Lily. Spoiler alert: so beautiful and so tragically doomed by New York’s high society in the late 19th century, and by the mere fact that she’s a woman. Talk about having no agency.
I have a big-time writer’s crush on Ann Patchett. Unabashed fangirl. Her 2001 novel, “Bel Canto,” is still right up there with my favorites of all time. But my adoration of Patchett is about more than her writing.
On a recent early morning, with the hills so green it made my teeth hurt, I motored out to Point Reyes to take a hike. My phone was running out of juice, so I couldn’t continue listening to my audiobook (“Black Buck” by Mateo Askaripour, which I highly recommend). So, I turned on the radio. ¶ What a stroke of luck. I stumbled onto KWMR “Homegrown Radio,” serving Point Reyes, Bolinas and the San Geronimo Valley.
Isabel Allende was in her 20s, working at a women’s magazine in Chile, when the second wave of feminism hit. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” were among the most significant books in that era (roughly from the 1960s to the 1980s) that galvanized women to redefine their role in society and the struggle against gender inequities.
San Francisco is primed for idyllic love stories, with Technicolor visuals (sparkling bay, impossible hills), heady aromas (fresh-ground coffee wafting out of North Beach cafes, cracked crab at the wharf) and iconic sounds of foghorns and cable car bells. ¶ But we all know the city has a darker side, and all the natural beauty and sensation is no guarantee of living happily ever after.
“What’s it about?” ¶ That’s the question I’m most often asked after recommending a book. There seems to be a widespread feeling that an intriguing topic will undoubtedly make a great read. ¶ So often, however, a tantalizing subject gets submerged in a swamp of bad writing. Conversely, a book about something in which I profess myself profoundly disinterested becomes a favorite when the writing elevates it.
I made a decision in January to read more writers of color this year. It was motivated by the big dustup over Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt, a controversy centered on whether a white writer had the right to write a story of Mexican refugees fleeing a violent drug cartel. While I came down on the side of an author to write outside the realm of her own experience—I just appreciate good writing—I also recognized that the publishing industry has a pathetic record when it comes to giving voice to non-white writers.
Here’s what I love about my dog, Bodie. He doesn’t worry about the Supreme Court, climate change or the point of life. He’s all about eating, sleeping and running (off-leash whenever possible). ¶ I realize I lost a number of you with my first sentence. And pre-COVID-19, I would have been among those who tuned out.
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.
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.