Live Zoom interviews

This Saturday, June 6 at 4 pm PST, I’ll interview Julia Alvarez, whose latest novel is Afterlife, for Copperfield’s Books. You can get a free ticket at

Next Tuesday, June 9 at 7:30 pm PST I’ll interview Word for Word cv-founder and artistic director Susan Harloe and filmmaker and producer Peter L. Stein for my monthly program at The Marsh. See free Zoom instructions at The subject is what makes a book great for adaptation to film, theater, TV, etc.

Julia Alvarez & Brit Bennet

It’s been a bit of a challenge to get absorbed in a novel these days. The news is too loud and devastating. It takes a great storytellerand a compelling tale to get my interest and keep it.  The two novels below held my interest and gave me a necessary break from the tragic news cycle.

I absolutely adored Julia Alavarez’s new book Afterlife. In her first book for adults in 15 years, Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies) tells the story of the recently widowed Antonia Vega, a Dominican-American like Alvarez herself. 

Retired from her career as a college professor and novelist, Vega is ready to settle happily into retirement with her husband when he’s killed by a sudden aneurysm. She is forced to enter into the “disorienting transition of old age” on her own. Here she is on the grief of widowhood: “The landscape of grief is not very inviting. Visitors don’t want to linger.” 

She also becomes involved, somewhat against her will, with an undocumented Mexican man who’s doing farm work for her Vermont neighbor, Mario, when he enlists her to help bring his fiancé to Vermont. As an immigrant herself Antonia has always been something of a “reluctant activist” and her personal involvement with Mario tests her and challenges some of her assumptions.

If you have sisters, you’ll love this novel as Alvarez spends lots of time on Vega’s relationship with her three sisters, all strong individuals with distinct points of view who don’t hesitate to mix it up and call each other out, often with hilarious irreverence, at every opportunity.  The deep love at the root of their relationship is evident as is their ability to push each other’s buttons like crazy.

This is not a simple novel.  Alvarez wrestles with complex moral decisions and the obligations and responsibilities of privilege. Just because Antonia is Latina, Alvarez tells us. “she’s not necessarily Mother Teresa.”

I was also taken with Brit Bennet’s new novel The Vanishing Half.  The twin sisters at the heart of the novel are extremely light-skinned blacks who live in a Louisiana town defined by its light-skinned population. 

The girls run away to New Orleans to escape the conventions of their small, stifling town, and their lives take very different paths.  One suffers marriage to an abusive man and returns home with her very dark-skinned child in tow.  The other disappears from her family entirely to pass as a white woman.

This is a compulsively readable book.  You can’t wait to find out what happens. Bennett, who also wrote The Mothers, has superb control of her material and keeps things humming along,

But there’s also real depth here.  Through her main characters and their off-spring, Bennett explores issues of race, gender, and identity.  How are we shaped by our past?  To what extent can we put it behind us?  And how far can we bend the definition of family? 

Despite the respite I found in both books, we can’t really keep the world at bay. Alvarez’s treatment of the lives of undocumented people in this country and Bennett’s exploration of skin color bring in the world outside. More and more we can’t, nor should we want to, shut it out.

For novelists, the first time is often the best

My June 2, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

“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.

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San Francisco: the eternal book subject

SFC_2020_05_19_Page28My May 19, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

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.

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The perverse allure of reading fiction about money, from Fitzgerald to Wolfe

SFC-2020-05-05My May 5, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

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.

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Rereading the classics in the midst of the new coronavirus

SFC-4_Apr_2020v2My April 7, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

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.

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Quieting your mind in an anxious time

SFC-24_Mar_2020My March 24, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

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.

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Read this before you start writing your memoir

HSFC_2020_03_10_Page34My March 10, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

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.

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