Graham Swift, “Here We Are”

I forgot how much I love Graham Swift. His new novel Here We Are reminded me of his genius at creating a richly imagined world in a short novel (he also wrote Mothering Sunday), this one just 144 pages.

The main characters are a trio of performers in a variety show in Brighton in 1959: Jack, the smooth-talking compere (or emcee) of the show; Ronnie (aka The Great Pablo), the show’s magician; and Evie, the leggy magician’s assistant.

They’re captured at a moment in time, post-War, just before television dulled the public appetite for such live entertainment. Ronnie is the novel’s true center. As a child he was evacuated from a bleak homelife in London to a dream-come-true, loving family in a (to him) posh house in Oxford. There he learned the magician’s art from his new “father,” a skill that sets the course of his life.

The story, told from Evie’s point of view, is of a love triangle, but really about abandonment and attachment, guilt and love, and, over all, the power, mystery and illusive quality of life.

I’m not sure how Graham accomplishes a book of such resonant power in so few pages. Maybe we should just chalk it up to magic.

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.

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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.”

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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!

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Natasha Trethewey, “Memorial Drive”

I’m fully aware that some people turn away from emotionally harrowing true stories, ones that involve heartbreak and pain and grief. Sometimes that’s me. But other times, I’m drawn to these stories.

Shrinks think sad stories offer readers an outsider’s perspective which can help combat one’s own unresolved trauma. Or that painful stories offer catharsis, an emotional release that allows us to purge our buried feelings and increase our awareness. And there’s speculation that the emotional connection triggered by tragedies allows us to more fully appreciate the close relationships in our lives.

I thought about all of this during and especially after reading Natasha Trethewey’s equally riveting and excruciating Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir about the murder of her mother by her former stepfather.

I’m no expert on psychology. I do know I couldn’t put Tretheway’s book down even though at times I felt like closing my eyes to ward off what I knew was coming next. And afterwards the book resonated with me and opened me up to compassion that went far beyond the details of the story itself. I don’t mean to get dramatic here (well, ok, maybe I do) but it seemed to say something about the inherent tragedy of the human condition. Or maybe I’m just completely whacked out on COVID-mania, fire, and whatever my anxious mind tells me lies in store. All I know is it hurt so good.

We know from page one that Trethewey’s mother is killed by her ex-husband. The buildup of detail toward the murder itself is agonizing. But it’s also beautiful as Tretheway, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former US Poet Laureate, brings her exquisite poet’s eye to the metaphor-laden prose with which she tells the story.

Trethewey was born,the child of miscegenration, an interracial marriage still illegal in Mississippi, on April 26, 1966, the 100th anniversary of Mississippi’s celebration of Confederate Memorial Day, “a holiday glorifying the old South, the Lost Cause, and white supremacy.” There’s no way to separate her family’s story from the racism that shaped the place of her birth.

Her mother dies when she is a college student of 19 and her mother is just 40. She’s led by police officers from her college dorm to the site of the murder and followed by TV cameras. It’s no wonder that for 30 years she tries to distance herself from the trauma of the murder and the events leading up to it.

In unraveling this traumatic event that shaped her personally and artistically, Trethewey addresses her younger self, both acknowledging what she knew about her stepfather’s violent behavior and the threat he posed and granting herself retroactive compassion and absolution.

There’s also a detail here, about the outrageous and inexcusable negligence on the part of a police officer that directly led to Gwen Turnbough’s death. The fact that Trethewey doesn’t obsess over this particular, rather mentions it almost in passing, gives the event even more power.

I was drawn to Memorial Drive in part out of curiosity about Trethewey’s resiliency. How was it possible to not only survive the brutal murder of one’s mother, but go on to be an artist of the highest order, drawing beauty from pain?

I think of the ways many of us (me included!) use difficult childhood memories as an excuse for bad behavior and my only response is embarrassment. Imagine suffering the worst tragedy imaginable, the early and brutal death of one’s mother, and going on to create works of beauty and lasting impact. That’s beyond admirable. Here’s to Natasha Trethewey for writing a book that’s both intensely personal and speaks eloquently to our troubled time.


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.

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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.

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Debra Jo Immergut & Emma Donoghue

It’s been such a jangly time. My inability to focus is only heightened by the pandemic, so when I read some good fiction I feel compelled to share. Here are a couple of recent books I liked.

YouAgainDebra Jo Immergut’s You Again tells of Abagail, a middle-aged woman who runs into a younger version of herself in New York city. Not someone like her younger self, but her actual younger self. Abigail now is in a long marriage, the mother of two, with a soul-killing corporate job. Her double is an artist, as she once was, and is involved with the same dangerous man.

Immergut is skilled at describing the artist’s thought process, especially when she explores color: I like to imagine the top of my head open, and the colors pouring in from some higher plane, some great source. Not God, not the sky. Instead, it’s the bright storm of energy that clangs and sloshes over and around every existing thing….”

The book is also a mystery with a neurological and psychological underpinning as experts try to unravel the explanation for Abigail’s experience.

Throw in some radical antifa activity, the evolution of a long marriage, Manhattan’s changing landscape, and the process of extinguishing and then re-lighting one’s creative spark and you’ve got a the material for a very satisfying read.

The concept itself is fascinating. What kind of warnings would you give your younger self? And, scarier still, what might your younger self tell you if they could see you today?

Pull-libroI listened to the audiobook version (on of Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of The Stars, a novel set in Ireland during the influenza epidemic of 1918 in the maternity fever ward of a severely understaffed hospital.

The main character Julia, a 29-year-old nurse/midwife, rushes from crisis to crisis, attempting to treat her patients’ fever and bring their babies safely into the world, aided by a young volunteer who’s the product of one of Ireland’s notoriously neglectful and abusive orphanages. If you read Room, you know Donoghue does wonders with the intensity of confined spaces.

This book is all about women, their bodies (in excruciating detail), their lack of any semblance of power in Ireland, at home or in society—“She doesn’t love him unless she gives him 12 is a well-known saying about what Irish women are said to owe their husbands—and their magnificent strength.

Just at the point in the book where I was beginning to tire of Julia’s self-sacrificing heroics, the book took an unexpected turn and became bigger than its story, encompassing a searing critique of the Catholic church, the overall injustices of Irish society, and the redemptive power of love,

The book’s afternote gives some historical background on the events it describes making it even more resonant. I was especially interested to learn about one of its real-life characters, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who had a role in Sinn Fein’s 1916 uprising and was wanted by the Dublin police. I want to know more about her.

As you won’t be surprised to find, Little Brown rushed this book out in only four months considering the plot’s parallels with the current pandemic, face masks, incompetent government and all. It would be easy to be cynical about that but thank god it was worth it. Donoghue really has something to say.

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.

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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.

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