Hooray for ‘hybrid’ books: mixing genres to tell better tales

My November 15, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

You know how it goes when someone whose literary taste you highly respect raves about a book and you go right out and get it and it sits on your coffee table for a couple of months and then migrates to that table in the corner and then goes God knows where and about a year later you come upon it and dip in and are instantly enthralled and wonder who recommended it in the first place and did they tell you how crazy good it is?

more …

Good books can be dangerous, and that’s not a bad thing

My November 1, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I remember my horrified reaction the first time I read Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” which depicts a future America where books are outlawed and “firemen” burn any that are found. Burning books? Impossible! ¶ Yet here we are in a world where books are banned from schools and libraries, often due to content about sexual activity and gender identity.

more …

When climate change is far more than fiction

My October 18, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Maria and now Ian — no longer just names, these monikers bring to mind devastating hurricanes. Disasters often referred to as “biblical,” a reference from Genesis: The flood followed rain that lasted 40 days and 40 nights. ¶ There is, of course, far more recent literature that describes the havoc that tsunamis, hurricanes and the ensuing floods wreak. The subject of “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala is the 2004 tsunami that killed nearly 230,000 people. Deraniyagala lost her mother, father, husband and two young sons.

more …

Literature that looks through an outsider’s point of view

My October 4, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

In Leila Slimani’s 2020 novel, “The Country of Others,” Mathilde, a 19-year-old woman born in Alsace, France, meets Amine, a handsome Moroccan soldier, when his regiment is stationed in her village during World War II. She follows him back to Rabat, then to an isolated plot of land purchased by his father in the hope of turning it into a flourishing farm.

more …

In praise of a new generation of Indian women writing

My September 20, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Many years ago, after a steady diet of novels describing American life (like those of the Johns, Cheever and Updike, et al.), I was thrilled to discover novels about India. E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” and Paul Scott’s “The Raj Quartet” were among my favorites. ¶ I came to realize, of course, that both novels were about the British raj in India—Forster and Scott were both English—and written from a decidedly non-Indian point of view.

more …

Savoring books and ice cream in the Big Apple

My September 6, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I grew up in a suburb north of New York City. ¶ As little girls, my sisters and I would put on our party dresses, frilly socks and patent leather shoes, white gloves buttoned at the wrist, and go with our mother into the city for a play and ice cream sundaes at Schraftt’s. ¶ White gloves. Sounds like another century … which it was.

more …

A history of the blurb, every author’s best friend

My August 23, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Blurb is such a wonderful word. ¶ It conjures up exactly what it is: a belch of praise for a book, generally found on the dust jacket, to lure the reader to purchase it. I must admit to reading blurbs when deciding whether to buy a book, but I am swayed only by plaudits from publications I trust or authors I greatly admire.

more …

Destination literature: great books for and about travel

My August 9, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

On a recent trip to San Diego, I was horrified to find myself on the plane with nothing to read. I had mistakenly placed my book in my suitcase, which was stowed overhead, and I feared retrieving it. It was heavy enough that I’d enlisted a burly young man to help me hoist it. ¶ Although I don’t like reading on a Kindle, I’d loaded it up the night before the flight, just in case, but naturally had left it at home. I’d read the New York Times and finished the crossword (which I always slip into my purse when flying) before leaving for the airport, and cut things too close to have time to visit the excellent Compass Books at the airport.

more …

Great fiction can bring history, issues more vividly to life

My July 26, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Sometimes, when I profess my preference for reading fiction, I get a reaction that indicates I must be a lightweight, like some sort of Victorian woman on a fainting couch. The truth is it’s often fiction that brings me an awareness of political history and cultural issues I hadn’t truly understood. ¶ The most recent example of this is “True Biz” by Sara Novic. While many applauded “CODA” winning the best picture Oscar, to me the movie was slightly sentimental. For a more realistic and political view of the deaf community, I highly recommend “True Biz.”

more …

Unreliable narrators, imaginative authors make for compelling reading

My July 12, 2022 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Recently, watching the 2020 remake of “Rebecca” (a film not nearly as good as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 original) on Netflix, I started musing on the idea of unreliable narrators. The young woman who narrates the story misunderstands everything about the world around her. ¶ The idea of unreliable narrators wasn’t new even in 1938, when Daphne Du Maurier wrote the novel on which the films were based. Back in 1847, Emily Brontë introduced us to Nelly, the biased, gossipy and ultimately villainous servant girl, on whose story Mr. Lockwood depends for narrating “Wuthering Heights.”


Hernan Diaz

more …