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.

more …

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.

more …

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.

more …

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.”

more …

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!

more …

Everything has critics, even Little Free Libraries

My September 8, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

On my neighborhood walks, I’m always happy to come upon a Little Free Library to see what books are gone and what’s been added since the last time I looked. Some of these neighborhood nooks were stocked with toilet paper and wipes in March, when such things were in short supply. Others have apples and plums from backyard harvests at their base. ¶ The books, of course, are a mixed bag. Spiritual selections like “Meditations From a Course in Miracles” and “The Heart of the Shaman” sit cheek by jowl with the latest John Grisham and James Patterson. Literary fiction from Ian McEwan snuggles up next to all manner of self-help and political screeds. Sometimes, I’m lucky to spot something hilariously bizarre like “How to Poo on a Date: The Lovers’ Guide to Toilet Etiquette.” Really.

more …

Short stories aren’t just palate cleansers—they’re the main course

My August 25, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

For many years, I used short stories as a sort of sorbet after reading a novel. Refreshing, palate-cleansing, a diversion before returning to the clearly more elevated business of long narratives. ¶ But recently when out for a walk, I tuned in to NPR’s “Selected Shorts” podcast for my daily dose of lit. Nothing serious, mind you, just a light piece of entertainment to keep me company.

more …

Why the Irish have all the literary luck

SFChron-20200811My August 11, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I know it’s extremely dicey these days to attribute a general characteristic to any group of people by nationality or otherwise. I’m doing it anyway by saying the Irish are such damn good writers. ¶ Not all of them, I know. But when I’m bowled over by the graceful, lyrical nature of a piece of prose, more often than not there’s an Irish writer behind it.

more …

When a voracious reader decides she’d rather watch a movie

SFC_Jul28My July 28, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

How had it come to this? In February, I was en route home from Costa Rica on a 7 a.m. flight, focused on the tiny screen embedded in the seat back in front of me, watching “Joker,” a movie I’d never choose at under 30,000 feet. ¶ I blame it on my most recent breakup with the Kindle. We’ve had a rather bumpy relationship from the start.

more …