Here’s How to Keep a Book Club Together for Decades (It Involves Wine)

Datebook-E6-4June19My June 4 column for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Datebook—complete with a list of all 258 books my club has read.)

My book club started during the Reagan administration. The original members all worked at KPIX television in San Francisco, and somehow we discovered we all had a passion for good literature, serious stuff as opposed to best-sellers. We also discovered we’d all come of age during a time when the classics had been set aside in most higher education literature classes and replaced by what was alleged to be more relevant material. We had a hunger for reading what we’d missed—Tolstoy, Henry James, Jane Austen and the like—so that became our focus. And we’d read fiction exclusively.

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Lori Gottlieb & Laila Lalami

A book about a therapist who writes about her patients and her own therapy? Are you kidding me? As one who’s had a fair amount of her own experience with therapy (you’re shocked, right?), why would I want to read about anyone else’s?

Gottlieb_MaybeBecause, it turns out, Lori Gottlieb’s book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is entertaining (especially if you’re something of a voyeur, like me), well-written, and, most importantly, has that quality I look for in every book I read: it tells us something about the human condition.

An aside: I generally steer clear of any book that feels even the slightest bit self-helpy. For whatever reason I feel that my own issues are far too complex, interesting and, well, special to benefit from advice doled out by the author of a book intended for the masses. Gottlieb’s book, without proclaiming itself self-help, sneakily causes us to examine our own behavior as we read about her own emotional trials and tribulations as well as those of her patients.

Here’s a section I underlined that felt illuminating: “therapy is about understanding the self that you are. Part of getting to know yourself is to unknow—to let go of the limiting stories you’ve told yourself about who you are so that you aren’t trapped by them, so you can live your life and not the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life.” Hmmmmmmm.

By the way, Lori Gottlieb is funny, self-deprecating, and almost uncomfortably honest. She’s also a little bit nuts, which makes her relatable. Her portraits of her patients, admittedly composites, ring true and we root for them on their journey to self-discovery. We root for her too, although I was pleased she didn’t solve all her issues and ride off into the sunset with a man on a white horse by the end of the book.

A note on Gottlieb’s own therapist, whom she calls Wendell in the book. She presents him as extremely skilled and compassionate, pretty much the dream shrink. He even dances with her when she’s ready – you’ll have to read the book to understand this. I’m a little miffed my shrink never danced with me. I many have to take it up with her.

Lalami_OtherIn March I finally visited Joshua Tree National Park to see the desert in bloom, a trip I’d been meaning to do for years. Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans caught my eye because it takes place in Joshua Tree and I was curious to see how the Mojave figured into the novel.

The book revolves around an unresolved murder, a hit and run involving a Moroccan immigrant. His daughter, who has left the desert behind for the life of a struggling composer in Oakland, returns home, becomes involved in solving the mystery of her father’s death, and falls in love with an old classmate.

This novel is much more than a police procedural. It’s about life in contemporary America post 9-11 for a Muslim family who, no matter how many American flags they fly at their business are still vilified. It’s also about the ugly racism experienced by a black female police detective, the justified paranoia of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, the PTSD of Iraqi war veterans, and the failed American dream of the white middle class. And almost every character is harboring secrets.

It’s not a pretty picture: the personal and the political are on a collision course in the small community in which the novel takes place. On my visit to Joshua Tree I had the definite sense there are many different slices of America living in close proximity in the small towns that line Highway 29: families from the 29 Palms Marine Corps base, old hippies running funky health food stores, artists who’ve flown LA, drawn by the beauty of the desert and cheap real estate, motorcycle freaks, and stoners on the lam from who knows what. It’s the perfect place to set a novel and Lalami makes the most of it.

Elizabeth Gilbert

I wish Elizabeth Gilbert had never written Eat, Pray, Love. Because despite what you thought of that memoir—whether you loved it as a celebration of female strength and self-discovery or loathed it as the self-indulgent journey of a spoiled brat (I’ve actually heard her accused of single-handedly ruining Bali)—it will forevermore be attached to her name. She’s actually one hell of a writer with a multi-faceted accomplished body of work.

Go back and read The Last American Man, written two years before Eat, Pray, etc., the true story of Eustace Conway, who at 17 left suburbia and went back to nature in the Appalachian mountains. A complex, tortured individual, Conway becomes a missionary for the idea of leaving the materialistic world behind, a man Gilbert describes as “a cross between Davy Crockett and Henry David Thoreau.” It’s a fascinating, sensitively rendered portrait.

Or The Signature of All Things. The fictional story of world renowned 19th-century botanist Alma Whitaker, the novel takes us around the world at a pivotal moment in science. You’ll never look at moss the same way again.

Gilbert_cityNow comes City of Girls, Gilbert’s new, highly entertaining romp of a book that stars Vivian Morris, Vassar dropout and aimless rich girl who arrives in New York City in 1940 and falls happily into her black sheep aunt’s world, which centers on a struggling theatre company. Vivian takes to the life of showgirls and night clubs (lots of booze and cigarettes) and promiscuous sex like the proverbial duck to water. And it’s all great, spirited fun until her scandalous behavior almost lands her in Walter Winchell’s column in a most unflattering way.

This is a novel replete with richly drawn characters—among them the aforementioned aunt, her globe-trotting, stare-fucking glamorous scoundrel of an ex-husband, an elegant British stage actress, the highly individualistic teenage daughter of a Jewish schmatte family, and a playboy from Hell’s Kitchen who’s highly skilled in the art of lovemaking

Gilbert is very funny. The hilarious scene where Vivian loses her virginity is especially refreshing in an age where so much young sex is portrayed as negative and traumatic. It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I read the introductory author’s note, wherein Gilbert announces her intention to write a book “about promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their sexual desires.” Mission accomplished.

Not only is her fast-moving plot highly engaging, she also writes clever song lyrics and authentic-sounding theatre reviews from actual critics of the day. City of Girls is a tonic for our dark, often depressing, highly serious age. It sometimes seems everything we do these days, what we eat, how we speak, how we comport ourselves in the world, is judged from some impeccable moral bench. Whatever happened to fun?

The word that kept coming to mind as I read this book is madcap. But it’s deeper than that and Gilbert closes the novel with a totally unexpected, unconventional and moving love story. It’s a tiny bit schmaltzy but by that point I didn’t care. I’d fallen in love with Vivian and her world. She’s a character I wanted to keep hanging out with even after the book came to an end.

Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s new book Normal People is ridiculously good. So good that it ruined me for a time. Everything I picked up afterwards seemed fake and hollow by comparison.

Rooney tells the story of two people who connect in a deep way in high school and circle around each other as friends and lovers through college and beyond.

Rooney_normalConnor and Marianne seem ill-suited at first: he’s a popular athlete with a hidden smart side, she’s a bookish loner. I’m not going to take away from your pleasure in finding out how their personalities morph over time (I hate when reviewers tell us too much plot), but let’s just say they change and evolve.

Who cares, right? You will because the way Sally Rooney writes about her characters’ outer and especially inner lives has a perceptive quality and authenticity that’s startling. She has an uncanny ability to describe how they see themselves and how others see them and how those worlds are sometimes in stark contrast to one another.

Rooney, a writer from the west of Ireland, takes on timeless subjects like class and money and the ways our families can wound us in a way that seems fresh and original.

Here’s Connor, poor his whole life, who comes into some scholarship money, on his first trip around Europe: “It’s like something he assumed was just a painted backdrop all his life has revealed itself to be real: foreign cities are real, and famous artworks, and underground railway systems, and remains of the Berlin Wall. That’s money, the substance that makes the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it.”

On attending a reading by a writer visiting his college: “Connell couldn’t think of any reason why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant. They were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.” Ouch. As one who’s spent a big part of my professional life setting up literary events, it pains me to admit there’s more than a grain of truth in that.

And later on the same topic: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they like to read about.” Double ouch.

The initially quiet brutality of Marianne’s family life is ever more harrowing because of the subtle way Rooney describes it. It creeps up on us. There’s nothing really quotable here; it’s more a sense of dread that permeates the novel.

The fact that we root for these characters to end up together and truly find the comfort they both deserve in one another—and we care about them enough to feel they do deserve it—speaks to Rooney’s strength as a writer. If you read this book—and you should—make sure that whatever you read next is really really good.

Meet Barbara Lane, The Chronicle’s new book columnist.

SFC_20190423_E6My April 23 debut colum for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Datebook:

Last year I sold the house I’d lived in for 25 years and moved to a smaller place. Much smaller. My major concern wasn’t the fact that I went from 2½ bathrooms to one and that curious guests might be inclined to peruse my medicine cabinet, or that having a dinner party for more than four people meant praying for good weather so we could do it on the deck. Rather, it was all about the books.

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Trent Dalton, Sadie Jones & Sara Collins

As I’ve mentioned before, being in the bookstore world gets me invitations to parties where I get to mingle with other bookish sorts, eat and drink, and best of all meet authors in a cozy setting. Recently, HarperCollins hosted a soiree at Piperade (a longtime favorite San Francisco restaurant) with three of the writers topping their spring/summer list: Trent Dalton, Sadie Jones, and Sara Collins.

Dalton_boyThis was one of those “I’ve died and gone to heaven” evenings. I’ll restrain myself from gushing about the food. If you haven’t been to Piperade for ages or never been, drop everything and go now. Often in San Francisco the new flavor-of-the-month places get all the attention; Basque chef/owner Piperade has been steadily turning out some of the best food in the city for almost 20 years. He’s earned his accolades.

The three authors were a stellar bunch: Trent Dalton is an exuberant Aussie journalist with a background that provided such rich material for his debut novel that Sara Collins said she almost wishes her father had been a heroin addict, as Dalton’s was, to give her such enviable stuff with which to work. I haven’t read his Boy Swallows Universe yet but it’s racking up awards all over the place and it’s at the top of my list.

Jones_snakesIt was almost impossible to focus on Sadie Jones’s novel as she’s so stunning it’s distracting. The Snakes, her fourth novel, is a highly intelligent thriller about the corrosiveness of money, family cruelty, high minded principles, and deceit. I liked it a lot and intend to go back and read her earlier work.

The prize for me was Sara Collins, whose first novel is The Confessions of Frannie Langton. She introduced herself by saying she didn’t get down to writing her first novel until after she had raised five children and worked as a lawyer for 17 years. Wow. After doing that I’d just want to take a very long nap.

Collins_confessionsCollins is of Jamaican descent and Frannie’s story begins on a sugar planation in Jamaica where she’s a slave. Actually the novel starts as Frannie sits in jail in 19th-century London awaiting trial for a brutal double murder, and works its way back to Frannie’s coming of age. This is a Gothic tale that brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. It’s a story of race and class and oppression. It’s also the story of horrific work done in the name of science, in this case Frannie’s debauched master’s attempt to prove the inferiority of the African race.

What stood out for me was hearing Collins and even more so reading the book is how much she loves her main character. Frannie is smart; her first master’s wife teaches her to read and the book is chock full of references to the likes of Voltaire and Milton, which she shares with her opium-eating mistress and lover the tragic Marguerite. I came to love Frannie too for her inherent feminism, strength, humor and sheer aliveness during the course of this intriguing, compulsively readable books. Watch for it: it comes out in late May and I think it’s gonna be big.

In other news, I have a new column for the San Francisco Chronicle. On books! Imagine that. It debuts April 23 in the Datebook section and will run every other week. I’ll send you all links and you’re free to opt out if you wish. Better yet, subscribe to the Chronicle, digitally or get the real paper one. I, for one, don’t want newspapers to go away and the only way to ensure they stay around is to subscribe. And yes, it’s now in my own self-interest.

Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro doesn’t know who she is. And that’s rather remarkable as she’s written five memoirs (and an equal number of novels).

Let me back up. Shapiro is the daughter of a man who comes from a long line of devout Jews. Her paternal grandfather was a pillar of modern Orthodoxy. Except, as she found out as the result of a cotton swab DNA test, done as something of a lark, the man she always believed to be her biological father isn’t really. She was conceived when her father’s sperm was mixed with that of an anonymous donor. And that shocking revelation calls into question her entire identity and is the basis of her latest book, Inheritance.

Shapiro_inheritanceAs a blonde, blue-eyed child, Shapiro always felt herself to be an outsider, in both appearance and something else mysterious and ineffable. She attended Jewish day school, spoke perfect Hebrew, and adhered to the family faith. An indelible childhood memory is when a family friend (who would later turn out to be Jared Kushner’s grandmother) tells the young Dani: “We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”

That feeling of non-belonging persists throughout her life, following her through early adulthood as chronicled in her first memoir Slow Motion. She describes herself as a self-destructive, hard-drinking coke-snorting college dropout, living with her best friend’s stepfather. The wakeup call comes when her parents are critically injured in a car crash and the responsibility of caring for them falls to her.

As Shapiro pulls herself together, loses and re-finds her faith, marries (with all the complexities that institution demands, described in her memoir Hourglass), and suffers though her infant son’s life-threatening illness, she continues to chronicle her life.

So it is we find her, in her fifties, hit with the sudden and jolting news about her paternity. She and her husband Michael (who in this book appears nothing less than an always supportive, ideal gem of a husband … where’d she find him?) do some quick and skillful detective work and learn the identity of her biological father. She tracks him down looking for answers, also persistently seeking out relatives and friends of the family to learn what they knew of her paternity and to share the pain and anguish of her discovery. She consults rabbis for answers from Jewish tradition.

The bulk of the book is about the meaning of her discovery. And she takes it hard: all of the assumptions she’d made about her ancestry, who she is, are no longer true. The very photographs lining the walls of her home don’t seem to belong to her anymore. Or she doesn’t belong to them.

She questions how and why her parents sought out the fertility clinic that resulted in her conception and mostly why they kept it a secret from everyone, even, it seems, deceiving themselves to a degree. She also delves into the emotional and moral implications of anonymous sperm donation (specifically sperm mixing) and resulting issues of privacy.

Dani Shapiro is a deep, skillful writer and her introspective journey carried me a long way, Until it became too much. If she invests so much in biology, what are we to make of her mother, who she repeatedly describes as narcissistic and borderline? Shared DNA doesn’t necessarily mean connection.

Despite his depression and suffering at the hands of her selfish and demanding mother, the father who raised her is beloved and loving; he gives her so much during her life as well as a rich legacy she passes on to her son. I couldn’t help but feel compassion for him on many levels. I also felt for the newly-found bio dad, a man who donated sperm over 50 years earlier as a medical student, now a grandfather with a big and loving family. His world and that of his wife, who didn’t even know him at the time of the donation, is rocked when he’s contacted by Shapiro.

This is a very personal book and I recognize the very form of memoir demands a healthy dose of ego. Your response to it will depend on your appetite for navel-gazing.

Ah Emma Bovary, I remember you well. My book club (32 years old and still going strong) is reading the gorgeous Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary.

Davis_bovary_BKI first read MB in my twenties, when I had more sympathy for poor Emma, a to-me-at-that-time sensitive artistic soul trapped in marriage to a clumsy boor of a country doctor. (Shallow or what?) In my ’40s, I found Emma spoiled and contemptible, having little pity for her. And here I am now, having had my Medicare birthday, feeling pity and compassion for both Emma and Charles and having a better appreciation for the emptiness at the root of Emma’s discontent and better appreciating Flaubert’s scorn for the bourgeoisie. If the true test of a classic is a novel that withstands the test of time, this one’s the real McCoy.

On my night table: Diana Athill’s memoir Somewhere Towards the End and Valerie Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. Stay tuned.

Daniel Mason, Lucia Berlin & Madeline Miller

I lost track of Daniel Mason after The Piano Tuner, his first novel published in 2003. As you probably know, Mason is one of those extraordinary doctor/writers (think Ethan Canin, Abraham Verghese, Khaled Hosseini, and, to go back a bit further, Anton Chekov). When I’m feeling especially unimpressed with what I’ve accomplished in my life, these guys make me a little bit cranky. It’s not enough to get through medical school and save lives … no, they have to go on to write beautiful prose.

But I digress. Daniel Mason is today a professor of psychiatry at Stanford. And that makes sense because his gorgeous new novel The Winter Soldier makes clear he’s very interested in seeing inside the brain.

Mason_soldierThe novel, set during World War I, is the story of Lucius, the son of a prominent Viennese-Polish family who disappoints his parents by choosing the medical profession. Hoping he can distinguish himself in battle (his father is lost in memories of his own war days), his mother helps arrange for him to be sent deep into the Carpathian Mountains to serve in a freezing, remote, makeshift field hospital. 

It’s there he meets and ultimately falls in love with Sister Margarete, a marvelous, strong character who essentially teaches him how to be a doctor. Before arriving at the hospital, his medical training had been largely academic and theoretical: “He has touched four patients in addition to the old man he has liberated from ear wax.” He not only learns how to treat the men’s physical wounds, but yearns to understand how to tend to the mental injuries that go much deeper.

I listened to The Winter Soldier on audible, then was compelled to buy the book as I wanted to be able to linger over Mason’s language, the way he marries the deprivation and horror of war with the beauty of the natural world:

It was Margarete who taught them how to gather, who showed the city men from Budapest and Krakow and Vienna how to identify goosefoot and club-rush, to select saddle fungus and pig’s ear mushrooms from the tree trunks, horsetail cones from the river, sweet calamus shoots, and tender bracken stems to roast. On the green open slopes, they picked potherbs: sorrel and saltbrush, dandelion, lungwort, goosefoot, swine thistle…. To make soups of birch buds. Butter out of bitch sap. Bread from the toots of quack grass, sweet snacks from the mallow seed and roots of cocksfoot and polypody.

At the heart of this novel is a love story, told with tenderness and compassion. Lucius and Margarete are separated after the war and Mason is masterful at creating anticipation and suspense over when and how they will be reunited. The Winter Soldier will hold you in its thrall.

Lucia Berlin, Lucia Berlin. Even her name has a rough, sexy musicality. It’s hard to talk about her without being an accomplished writer oneself because only the lushest, descriptive prose can do justice to her stories

In 2015, 11 years after Berlin’s death, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published A Manual for Cleaning Women, a story collection, which became a literary sensation.

The stories reflected Berlin’s big, messy, unconventional life: she was married three times—to a work-obsessed sculptor, an uncommunicative jazz pianist and a charming drug addict—and had four sons before the age of 30. She lived for periods of time in Texas, Chile, New Mexico and New York, and did every kind of job from house cleaner to university professor. She had periods of extreme wealth and times of harsh poverty. And always, always rivers of alcohol.

Berlin_eveningHer new collection Evening in Paradise is another wonder. These stories are filled with drunkenness and debauchery and moments of transcendental beauty. There’s jazz and poetry and painting and abuse and incest and betrayal and murder and somehow it all works together to make a kind of crazy art.

In the opening story, two young girls in a border town get drawn into shilling for a con game:

We took a bus to the Plaza, transferred to a Mesa bus to Kern place. Rich people … landscaping, chimes on the doors.… Texan Junior League, tanned, Bermuda shorts, lipstick and June Allyson pageboys. I don’t think they’d ever seen children like us, children dressed in their mothers’ old crepe blouses.

Another takes place in Puerto Vallarta in the sixties during the filming of The Night of the Iguana. Liz and Dick and Sue Lyons and Ava Gardner and John Huston mix with the local gigolos and hustlers. Most of the story takes place in Hernan’s bar:

Mexican lawyers and bankers were trying out their English on the the blond ingenue, Sue Lyons. Ruby and Alma, two American divorcees, were flirting with cameramen. Both women were very wealthy, owned houses on cliffs above the water. They kept on thinking they’d find romance at the Oceano bar. Usually they met married men on fishing trips or, now, newsmen or cameramen. No man that would ever want to stay around.

And here’s the opening of “Daughters,” a story about a woman who works in a dialysis center on the bus on her way to work:

The courage of my own convictions? I can’t even hold a perception for longer than five minutes. Just like the radio in a pickup truck I’ll be barreling along … Waylon Jennings, Stevie Wonder … hit a cattle guard and bang it’s a preacher from Clint, Texas. Your laff is trash. Laugh? Life? From one day to the next the 40 bus alters. Some days there will be people on it from Chaucer, Damon Runyon. A Brueghel feast. I feel close to them all, at one with them. We are a vivid tapestry of riders, then there is an epidemic of Gilles de la Tourette syndrome and we’re all victims trapped in a steamy capsule forever.

Damn! That woman can write!

My vague memories of The Odyssey bring forth Scylla and Charybdis and Penelope and the suitors. I have much less recollection of Circe, the goddess sorceress who turns rapacious sailors into pigs, waylays Odysseus on her island for a year, has a steamy love affair with him, and bears him a son.

Miller_circeMadeline Miller brings Circe to life in her new novel. She emerges as a complex character. Unloved by her parents, shunned by her siblings, she is banished to a solitary life on an island where she hones her witchcraft, using herbs and spells for protection for herself and her son.

Through the pages of this tale march the A-list of Greek mythology: Helios, Prometheus, Daedalus and Icarus, Medea and Jason, the Minotaur, and Circe’s nemesis Athena. Using Circe as the narrator, Miller brings them all to life and even stories we know or half-remember are revitalized.

This is a feminist Circe who in the course of the novel emerges as a fully-realized, powerful goddess, freed from the expectations of her family and the male-dominated world around her. At the same time she is a mother consumed by love for her son; some of the most poignant passages in the book describe the shattering strength of that love.

Madeline Miller’s Circe is something of a reflection on immortality as well as an examination of what it means to be mortal. It’s a welcome take on one of Greek mythology’s most reviled women.