“Jane Eyre.” “To Kill A Mockingbird.” “The Catcher in the Rye.” “Catch-22.” “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” “Things Fall Apart.” “The Bluest Eye.” “Lord of the Flies.” ¶ Hazard a guess about what all these novels have in common. ¶ It’s probably a surprise to learn that all are debut novels. And despite the fact there is no shortage of stellar evidence, debut novels have an image problem.
The city of San Francisco has long been a favorite subject for writers, especially those who come from somewhere else and find a home here. In both fiction and nonfiction, the city is an alluring subject, with its spectacular beauty and vibrant history. Writers can find ample material in the Gold Rush and Barbary Coast, Beat culture, the Summer of Love, gay culture and today’s tech-dominated landscape.
I was one of those weirdos who was perversely addicted to the media frenzy a dozen years ago surrounding Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Of course I acknowledged the enormity of the tragic consequences for many of Madoff’s investors. Nevertheless, I gobbled up every detail about the scandal, right down to stories about his wife, Ruth, whose exclusive Manhattan hair salon, florist and favorite Italian restaurant declared her persona non grata.
Anything with the word “comfort” attached to it is hot these days. Even food snobs are returning to the happy nostalgia of the Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and Kraft macaroni and cheese of their childhoods.
When I was in college a million years ago, it was the beginning of the countercultural exhortation to “throw out all the dead white men” in the Western literary canon. As one who leaped at every opportunity to rebel, I took the suggestion to heart and read all the African (Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, et al.) and Latin American (Marquez, Borges, Jorges Amado) literature I could get my hands on and eschewed Dickens, Tolstoy, Proust and the like. I even avoided Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. Despite the fact that they weren’t men, they were both white and dead.
These are trying times. We’re sheltering in place, and many of us have big swaths of time on our hands. ¶ For me, tuning into the daily news cycle is out of the question. You’d think I’d have no problem burrowing into a book—my most pleasurable pastime is being on the couch with a great read. But I find myself unable to focus. I’m jittery and distracted.
If you’re thinking about writing a memoir because you had a traumatic experience with childbirth or you’ve rebounded from a heartbreaking divorce, do us all a favor and please don’t. The fact that something painful happened to you doesn’t make it interesting to other people. ¶ Furthermore if you’re a reality television star, particularly anyone named Kardashian (or related), spare us. Enough.
As Bay Area residents, we tend to be a bit chauvinistic. We’re adept at casting aspersions on Los Angeles, tossing off snide comments about the city’s traffic, cult of celebrity, even the lack of a serious cultural life. ¶ Anyone who has spent time in L.A. during the past decade knows that’s nonsense — not the nightmare freeways and showbiz parts, but the disses about culture. I know I risk my Bay Area residency privilege by saying this, but the contemporary art and theater scenes down south rival and often surpass anything we have here.
I had lunch recently with Uruguayan American writer Carolina de Robertis to talk about her excellent new novel, “Cantoras.” I found myself, instead, totally immersed in a conversation about literary translation. The writer of three previous novels and the collection “Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times,” de Robertis, who lives in Oakland, is also an award-winning translator of Latin American and Spanish literature.
I love to walk. It never fails to lift my spirits to get outside and put one foot in front of the other, whatever the season, urban or rural, early morning or evening, alone or with friends. Walking holds a special place in literature, both in novels where the characters themselves stroll, saunter, amble and drift, and in nonfiction books wherein some of our best writers muse about, theorize on and analyze the art of walking.