The right name makes a literary character complete — and memorable

My November 30, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Every aspiring writer knows how hard it is to name your characters. I can speak from experience that way too much time can be frittered away trying out and rejecting character names. For me, the best solution is using placeholder names, hoping that the perfect name will magically pop into place when I’m not thinking too hard about it.

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Closing the book — and then coming back to it

My November 16, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

As you might imagine, I have lots of conversations with people about what they’re reading and what they like and don’t like. What I hear hardly anything about, however, is people’s reading habits. ¶ I know people who once they open a book, that’s it — they’re committed until they turn the final page. Even if they don’t like it. Those people seem to feel the same way about movies: No matter how terrible the film, buying the ticket condemns them to staying in their seat.

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Up close, our heroes are not always what we imagine

My November 2, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

During my many years as a talk show producer I met countless celebrities. And it wasn’t always pretty. ¶ Famous people often tend to be just a wee bit self-involved, and the handlers who seem to accompany them everywhere, even to the restroom, protect them like offensive linemen, keeping the mere mortals away. ¶ My top disappointing encounter was with Mickey Mantle, who’d been the hero of my youth.

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Indigenous writers tell stories that honor, and upend, Native traditions

My October 19, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I recently read about the severe threat that climate change presents for Native Americans. Historically forced onto our country’s least desirable lands, many of the places they live are becoming uninhabitable due to rising temperatures, erosion and more frequent and intense storms. ¶ All of which brought to mind Louise Erdrich’s stunning, 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Night Watchman.” Set in the early 1950s, it deals with the threat of dislocation and withdrawal of government support for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

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Scenes from the life of a writer trying to write scenes

My October 5, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I met my friend Erin for lunch on Clement Street recently. As neither of us was ready yet, COVID-wise, to go inside to eat, we picked up sandwiches at Cafe Bunn Mi and sat down on a bench in front of the Richmond branch of the San Francisco Public Library. ¶ I have a long and happy history with that library. I lived a block away for 25 years, and my son grew up in the children’s section.

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A new Federal Writers Project should have a place in the infrastructure bill

My September 21, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

David Kipen is a book world sparkplug. ¶ Bay Area residents may remember him as The Chronicle’s book editor and critic from 1998 to 2005. From there, he went to the National Endowment for the Arts and was behind the Big Read, an initiative to promote reading via One City One Book programs all over the country. He returned to his native Los Angeles to found Libros Schmibros, a multicultural lending library in Boyle Heights, and to teach writing at UCLA.

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Let’s agree to separate the facts of writers’ lives from their fiction

My September 7, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Sally Rooney got famous really fast. ¶ Her first novel, “Conversation with Friends,” won 2017’s London Sunday Times Writer of the Year Award. “Normal People,” published the following year, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, became a bestseller in the U.S., and was adapted as a widely watched TV series. ¶ According to the New York Times, her name has become “an easy shorthand for a certain cultural sensibility, even to those who haven’t read a word she’s written.” The Times goes on to say that Rooney has been called “the first great Millennial novelist” and “Salinger for the Snapchat generation.”

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All the rage: Books that channel the powerful force of women’s anger

My August 24, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

It happened again the other day. I was approaching the point to merge onto the freeway, driving in the right lane clearly designated for that. A guy in a Tesla (natch) zoomed up beside me in the left lane, attempting to sneak in after having passed all the other courteous drivers.

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Tiptoeing through the minefield of artistic merit vs. cultural authenticity

My August 10, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I don’t want to talk about it. ¶ “You really should weigh in.” ¶ No way. It’s a minefield out there. And nobody cares what a white, heterosexual, privileged woman of a certain age has to say. ¶ “So you’re scared.” ¶ Well, maybe. I’m always afraid of making a mistake these days.

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New-wave Westerns rewrite the cliched narrative of the Old West

My July 27, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

The traditional Western novel was set in 19th century America and told the stories of cowboys, settlers and outlaws exploring the frontier and taming the Wild West. Think Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. ¶ Told as the triumph of “civilization” over “savagery,” these Westerns often whitewashed the U.S. expansion to the West, failing to mention the ugly realities of displacement and sometimes devastation of Indigenous peoples, the accompanying heavy environmental costs and the exploitation of the Chinese workers who built the railroads.

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