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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These books prove that mundane occupations can make for fascinating reading

My July 13, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I remember, years ago, hearing a well-known novelist being questioned about why she never described the work her characters did in any detail. “I’ve never had a job other than writing,” she replied. “I don’t know what people do at work.” ¶ Such a privileged existence, I thought. Never having to work as a waiter, an office temp, a salesperson or teacher to support her writing. No wonder her novels seemed a bit vacuous.

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More than settings, cities are characters in skilled writers’ hands

My June 15, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

It is often said the city in which a book is placed is its own character. ¶ James Joyce once claimed that if Dublin “suddenly disappeared from the Earth, it could be reconstructed from my book.” He’s speaking, of course, of “Ulysses,” which chronicles the wanderings of Leopold Bloom throughout that city.

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Support your local bookstore — before it disappears

My June 1, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

One of the happiest things about being fully vaccinated is I can once again go into a bookstore without heart-thumping anxiety and accompanying angry glares at people who get too close. ¶ Recently, I made a pilgrimage to my old San Francisco neighborhood to buy produce on Clement Street, see what the new owners have done to the front yard of my old house, and to visit Elaine at the Corner Laundry. But mostly I went back to hang out at Green Apple Books.

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The ugly truth about sex and the French intelligentsia

My May 18, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I remember as a teenager thinking the French had a very enlightened attitude about sex. Their open acceptance of mistresses and the overtly sexual content of advertisements lining the walls of the Paris Metro were the height of sophistication to my young, impressionable self. ¶ That was then. Over the years, what’s become clear to me is that French women were often victimized by what’s come to be seen as an often misogynist patriarchy, where undisguised sexism, and even pedophilia and rape, masqueraded as liberated anti-puritanism.

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A well-worn copy of ‘Coney Island’ presented new possibilities

From the April 21, 2021 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle:

As a sheltered and privileged teenager growing up in a predominantly Jewish suburb of New York City, I was drawn to danger in the form of bad boys. Preferably older-than-appropriate, non-Jewish guys who smoked pot and drank beer. Dennis was perfect. He had a perpetual slight sneer on his distinctly Irish face that seemed to indicate contempt for our leafy suburb and everything it represented.

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Returning virtually in May, Bay Area Book Festival remains a lit lover’s paradise

My April 20, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Seven years ago, Cherilyn Parsons announced her intention to start a Bay Area book festival modeled after the Los Angeles Times’ event, the largest of its kind in the country and arguably the most prestigious. ¶ Although she had worked for four years as director of development and strategic initiatives at Berkeley’s highly regarded Center for Investigative Reporting, Parsons was viewed by some in the local literary community as a Southern California interloper


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Minor characters give new takes on classic stories

My April 6, 2021 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

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.


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