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Recommended reading, July 23

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 19:28:08 UT

Goodbye, Vitamin In her first book, Khong has managed to create an Alzheimer’s novel that is heartbreaking but also funny, offering a fresh take on the disease and possible outcomes both for the person suffering from it and their caretakers. The Essex Serpent Perry’s second novel is a dazzling and intellectually nimble work of Gothic fiction. The Accomplished Guest Stories In her latest story collection, Beattie offers up some unvarnished truths about male depression. American Fire Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land By Monica Hesse “American Fire” is less a story about economics than how fire is like a love affair: sometimes it can rage out of control, but it inevitably gives way to dying embers.

'Tinder is the Night': Classic books reimagined for hipsters, courtesy of Twitter

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 19:12:17 UT

Egged on by late-night game show "Midnight," Twitter users reimagined literary classics with hipster titles, and the results were hilarious and revelatory.

‘Chasing the Harvest’ and ‘In the Fields of the North’

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 09:41:14 UT

[...] there have been a wealth of books about California farmworkers, from Steinbeck’s iconic “Grapes of Wrath” to Peter Matthiesen’s “Sal Si Puedes,” published at the height of the Delano grape strike, to Matthew Garcia’s recent “From the Jaws of Victory,” with revelations from an excavation of United Farm Workers archives. Though the crops they harvest yield $47 billion dollars annually, their average annual income is $14,000. Sanchez worked the onion fields and orange groves and is now an advocate with California Rural Legal Assistance living in Arvin, a whisper of a town south of Bakersfield where Steinbeck once did research. Roberto Valdez, a 48-year-old farmworker who lives in a trailer with his family in Thermal, in Riverside County, took cell phone videos in the scorching fields after his teenage son almost died from heatstroke. Valdez became an advocate for safe conditions, even testifying before the state Legislature: The hands that you see are the hands that harvest the lemons you use to make the lemonade you are now drinking. Valdez’s testimony and videos helped win the passage of regulations protecting workers from extreme heat. Rosario Pelayo, a 77-year-old great-grandmother of 21 from Calexico, proudly shows Thompson a photo that appeared in El Malcriado, the UFW newspaper, when she was arrested during the grape strike in 1974. Bacon’s comprehensive bilingual volume also includes oral histories, as well as analytical essays and hundreds of black-and-white photos. A former union organizer, Bacon is the author of “The Children of NAFTA and Illegal People,” and his photos have been exhibited in the U.S., Mexico and Europe. Avoiding both sensationalism and sentimentality, the photos reveal not only the workers’ desperate poverty, but also the dignity of their toil and their consuming effort to provide a better life for their children. Clusters of shacks outside city limits lack sewage, electricity and water treatment, forcing the residents to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking. Bacon’s photos are most captivating when he focuses on people’s faces and calloused hands as they prune vines, cut lettuce and sort strawberries. In accompanying captions, they remember precisely how many buckets of jalapenos, blueberries or tomatoes they picked, how much they weighed and how much they earned per bucket. Both Bacon and Thompson bring us one step closer to Bulosan’s masterful novel, providing not just an intimate, but an insider look, at the lives of California’s farmworkers.

‘Goodbye, Vitamin,’ by Rachel Khong

Sat, 15 Jul 2017 02:32:08 UT

In any good story, a character must change, and this disease often appears to bring about a total overhaul of the person suffering from it, as they lose their memories, which add up to create a sense of self, as well as their knowledge of the people surrounding them, even people they once loved. [...] yet in her first novel, “Goodbye, Vitamin,” San Francisco author Rachel Khong has managed to create an Alzheimer’s novel that is heartbreaking but also funny, offering a fresh take on the disease and possible outcomes both for the people suffering from it and their caretakers. Written in journal form, the novel begins: “Tonight a man found Dad’s pants in a tree that was lit with still-hanging Christmas lights.” [...] these flaws aside, he was also a brilliant and charismatic man and a devoted father, and it’s clear that Ruth adores him. [...] as Ruth settles back in at home, one of her father’s devoted former grad students convinces her to participate in a scheme whereby a bunch of students pretend to have enrolled in a class that he’s been enlisted to teach, a scheme intended to give him his dignity back (and allow them to keep learning from him). [...] the real charm of the novel isn’t the plot so much as the sparkling little details that pop up on every page, illuminating the dark material. At a party with friends from high school, Ruth chats with a former classmate who glorifies his status as a chef, and who is informed by someone else that he merely “pulled pin bones out of salmon” and had to wear a hairnet on his beard. In the late stages of this disease, he is at once mysterious and familiar, separate but dependent, maddening but frequently adorable too, in the strange and unexpected things he says and does.

‘But Seriously,’ by John McEnroe; ‘Ways of Grace,’ by James Blake

Sat, 15 Jul 2017 02:32:00 UT

Unlike athletes in team sports, who are often encumbered by organizational shackles, tennis players, also like writers, are focused heavily on their own sensibilities. Over a decade ago, two American tennis players, John McEnroe and James Blake, penned autobiographies that became best-sellers. While McEnroe’s 2002 autobiography, “You Cannot Be Serious,” was a soul-baring psychotherapy session, “But Seriously” is a cocktail lounge chat, full of tales from McEnroe’s 21st century life, be it as Manhattan resident, father of six, husband of singer Patty Smyth, son of two driven parents, art collector, musical dabbler, TV movie guest and, most significantly, that rarity, a tennis player with crossover cachet. A quarter-century past his active professional career, McEnroe has successfully commoditized the anger and artistry that made him one of the most charismatic champions in tennis history. “Like the Stones,” he says of the many senior tennis events he now plays, we’re on a nostalgia trip. The emeritus-like, world-weary sensibility of the Rolling Stones pervades this breezy book, from the literal friendships McEnroe has made with several members of the band to the figurative package McEnroe wraps himself in: tennis’ rock star, aging but still restless and intermittently up for a bristle with anyone from pushy fans to authority figures. Pondering Wimbledon’s traditions, McEnroe asks, why were some players who weren’t even British expected to bow to some minor members of the royal family? Yet for all his forays into art, music and apolitical dissent (McEnroe admits he didn’t vote until 2000), McEnroe has long been smart enough to know that tennis is his best launching pad. While the spirit of Rolling Stones member Keith Richards pervades McEnroe’s book, Blake’s inspiration is drawn from a cultural icon also born the same year (1943) as Richards: In the wake of such a disturbing set of events, Blake sought to “use my voice and my role as an athlete to make a difference, to turn this unfortunate incident into a catalyst for change.” Other men and women explored by Blake include Eritrean American distance runner Meb Keflezighi, gay NBA player Jason Collins and female jockey Julie Krone.

‘The Essex Serpent,’ by Sarah Perry

Sat, 15 Jul 2017 02:31:48 UT

“The Essex Serpent,” Sarah Perry’s second novel, is a dazzling and intellectually nimble work of Gothic fiction. By this I don’t mean that the novel trades in monstrous creatures and dreadful atmospherics, although it does. [...] its title refers to a legendary creature, “more dragon than serpent, as content on land as in water,” that was supposedly first sighted in 1669 in the boglands of Essex. In the narrative present of 1893, the serpent seems to have returned, and it may or may not be picking off the county’s human residents, along with the occasional sheep. All the stock elements of the Gothic novel are here: an abandoned building complete with a yarn-spinning beggar set up out front and “a pale fungus that resembled many fingerless hands” growing inside; an apocalypse-obsessed villager; a vicar’s wife suffering from consumption and prone to visions. Will “keeps odd books for a vicar,” including Marx and Darwin, while Cora tramps through the mud in search of fossils, discussing theology (she’s a skeptic) and evolution (she’s a believer) with equal skill. For Will, the rumored serpent — or, more precisely, the villagers’ fearful fascination with it — represents a betrayal of his own measured, decidedly modern faith. For Cora, the serpent represents a chance for scientific discovery: Some of the novel’s most charming passages stage conversations between Cora and Will about reason and religion that are both playful and deadly serious. A lesser novelist would debunk Will’s religious belief as mere superstition, or show up Cora’s materialist pretensions as ignoring the fundamental mystery of existence.

Recommended reading, July 16

Sat, 15 Jul 2017 02:31:29 UT

All Our Waves Are Water Stumbling Toward Enlightenment and the Perfect Ride Harper Wave; 248 pages; $25.99 Yogis’ 2009 memoir, “Saltwater Buddha,” chronicled his early years, when he embarked on a quest for epic surf and spiritual enlightenment. In “All Our Waves Are Water,” he picks up where he left off, this time covering the turbulent odyssey of his 20s. Brownrigg’s deeply thoughtful, absorbing novel is a sequel to “Pages for You” (2001), which made a significant splash as a kind of erotic bildungsroman. In this suspenseful novel, Meloy takes an ever-expanding cast of characters on a holiday adventure. Atlantic Monthly Press; 415 pages; $26 Part memoir, part biography, part military history, Carew’s first book is also a lovingly unconventional elegy for a generation.

‘The Accomplished Guest,’ by Ann Beattie

Sat, 15 Jul 2017 02:31:20 UT

The title of “The Indian Uprising” has little to do with the story of stymied ex-poet Maude, who spends an evening with her ailing former professor, Franklin, at a Mexican restaurant; their waiter invokes the idea of an “Indian uprising” in a joke. There isn’t, but the title can be read as a decoder ring of sorts to the content and intentional limitations of Beattie’s collection in an era of social and political peril. Barthelme’s canonical 1965 story swirls vertiginously with references to war, colonialism, genocide, and race and class inequality, juxtaposing these with the private woes of a moony, moneyed young man submerged in Prufrockian love affairs. In cribbing its title, Beattie seems to nod a moment to broader social themes before turning to more intimate, arguably more trivial matters: To their credit, her characters tend to be aware of the ease they’ve enjoyed until now, like the frail, wealthy widow Alva of “Lady Neptune.” Overwhelmed at a Christmas party, she imagines the crowd as an “enormous wave” that propelled everyone in her direction all at once, like so many grains of sand, toward where she sat. ... For one, Royal returns later with a Moldovan teen he met at a strip club and forces Reynolds to watch their sex games. The widowed narrator of “The Gypsy Chooses the Whatever Card” worries about both her world and sense of empathy contracting as she loses mobility and sees friends off to assisted living. The writer-narrator of “Anecdotes” plays enabler to her disorganized, habitually late professor friend Christine I washed my hair, and my dryer broke. When he drives upstate to his brother’s wedding, his glowering self-hatred flares into hostility and violence.

‘American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land’

Sat, 15 Jul 2017 02:31:05 UT

In firefighting jargon, they call it “fully involved”: when a burning building has become consumed by fire and smoke, making it impossible for responders to get inside. When a mysterious arsonist began setting fire to the abandoned buildings of Accomack County, Va., Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse became fully involved. A prime example of the “forgotten” America that has lately been amply recovered in the collective memory, the Eastern Shore is a finger of land that dangles from the southern edge of Maryland, across the Chesapeake Bay from the rest of the state to which it belongs. Some of the locals formed vigilante groups, camping out back of derelict barns and houses in hopes of catching the perpetrator in the act. [...] writes Hesse, all this inexplicable mayhem in a tired rural area seemed to signify “the beginning of the apocalypse and the world must be coming to an end.” Given the scorched earth of the current American landscape, the imagery of this story of serial arson in a depressed region could hardly be more symbolic. [...] she sticks to the facts of the case and the bewilderment of the local inhabitants, fire personnel and authority figures, all of whom were, to one extent or another, victims of the unusual crimes. Hesse notes her own lurid interest in the case indirectly, explaining how the national media eventually descended on Accomack County, drawn by “the sheer vastness of it — the almost comically large number of incidents taking place in a locale that brought with it a ready-made atmosphere.” Journalists and professional storytellers love strange tales in folksy settings, she writes: “there’s a reason that ‘Twin Peaks’ was set in a small Washington state logging community and not in New York.”

Recommendations from Orinda Books

Fri, 14 Jul 2017 01:35:38 UT

Recommendations of recent books from the staffs of a rotating list of Bay Area independent bookstores. Franken’s candor and wit make this insider’s view of modern-day politics both informative and entertaining. A sobering read that underscores the corrosive effect of big money in politics. Klein coherently lays out the historical and political context leading up to Trump’s election. A thoughtful and hopeful look at cultural and religious awareness, through the eyes of a delightful and smart girl. The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman, by Denis Theriault: A quirky, philosophical novel about a young postman who secretly steams open and reads letters before delivering them. In this Western set in the 1960s, Calvin Sidey, an aging cowboy and absentee parent is asked to stay with his teenage grandchildren when their parents are away. In this engaging romp, a young man arrives in Manhattan in 1746 with a $1,000 bank draft and a mysterious mission.

‘Henry David Thoreau: A Life,’ by Laura Dassow Walls

Thu, 13 Jul 2017 23:02:41 UT

Laura Dassow Walls’ new biography — timed to Thoreau’s July 12 bicentennial — is akin to one of those less common ambles, an attempt to present us with a man who was only tokenly about sitting in a small wood house on a rise over a pond. If you’ve been to Walden Pond, and covered the ground back into town, you probably know that Thoreau’s experiment of living in the wild wasn’t really much of a wild-based experiment at all. Like his fellow Concordian — and a sort of Yoda to Thoreau’s Luke — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau was rangy and protean, one of those writers you never know how to classify. A Thoreau biography feels like it is going to be serious, heavy, sententious, maybe, probably not fun but good for you: like unsweetened cranberry juice straight from the bog. [...] what do you know — Walls alleviates this problem by finding humor in some of Thoreau’s various situations, if not his actual words. Normally he’s cited as someone pure of heart, enmeshed with nature, solely, and all of that hippie-dippyness, but from his days at Harvard, Thoreau was trying to beat the bag out of everyone else in terms of how far he wished to go in life, the impact he wanted to have on people, the recognition he desired. Walls rightly calls it “Walden’s dark twin,” with its “rough chaos of the liminal zone,” and the stylized — but still natural — metaphor of the lighthouse keeper making sure that his domicile remains a temple of light rather than darkness. The opening of the book has one of the great horror set pieces in 19th century writing, with Thoreau describing the shipwreck of the St. John with all of the poetic intensity of Mr. Swales talking about buried bodies eroding out of the cliff of the Whitby graveyard in “Dracula.” The same phrase could double as an encapsulation for his life, and now this biography, a rectangle of radiance in your hands, with its own glow.

‘Shark Drunk,’ by Morten Strøksnes

Fri, 30 Jun 2017 05:29:27 UT

The photos are often grainy and fugitive, because the shark, being a Greenlander, likes it cold, in the shark’s case typically 4,000 feet under the water’s surface. The Greenland shark is the totemic protagonist of Norwegian journalist Morten Strøksnes’s prime, digressive — a brand of free association that knows when to rein in — entertainment, “Shark Drunk.” Partaking of the flesh in its pristine state results in a feeling supposedly similar to taking in an extreme amount of alcohol or hallucinogenic drugs. Icelanders consider the flesh a delicacy once properly prepared, which requires “repeated boiling, drying, or even burying the meat until it ferments.” The elemental Why? anyone should choose to monkey around with the Greenland shark is that its liver is a vast repository of oil, and whale oil was a big thing for a good long time: to light lamps, make soap, and as a cooking oil. [...] he doesn’t treat it like some gonzo bizarrerie, but as chromatic, investigative work, one in which you can laugh instead of feel nothing but grim. Aasjord, on the other hand, has longtime family ties to the area — for many natives of which the shark has, understandably, shamanic qualities — so even a momentary communing with the creature would be a numinous experience. Luckily, Aasjord had found the perfect bait right before the weather would bring the light air and calm seas needed to fish from a rubber dinghy in “the deep, salty black sea ... cold and indifferent, lacking all empathy” for a shark that weighs as much as a Studebaker: the rotting remains of a fairly recently slaughtered Scottish Highland bull, waiting for them patiently in the summer warmth of a nearby field. Heroically, they gather the remains in garbage bags, and it is Strøksnes’s job to chum; that is, to toss most of the bull remains into the water to arouse the shark’s olefactory interest. Most bioluminescence produced by various deep-sea species is blue, and blue light is the only color most of these species are capable of seeing. [...] the equally spooky sound of the sea’s underwater, “a deep humming that emanates from itself,” long sea swells creating trembles on the sea floor.

‘The Underworld,’ by Kevin Canty

Thu, 29 Jun 2017 22:43:33 UT

On a line-by-line level, his staccato sentences are simply drawn yet suffused with bitterness, sorrow, loneliness and unrealized desire. With that tragedy at its epicenter, Canty constructs a brittle, shattered world around the fallout. After finding out that she and her husband aren’t pregnant, she heads to a random roadside bar, half-heartedly flirts with the bartender, throws back a whiskey, and nearly drives to Seattle before turning around at the last minute to head home. Hard-edged and exhausted beyond her years, Ann is like many of the women in the novel’s depressed, working-class town — young wives whose husbands and fathers work all day in the mine and drink all night in the bars. Others are convenience store clerks. After the fire, of course, everything is different — when David’s brother is one of the dead, leaving his wife alone to mother their two babies. When David’s father, the mine’s safety chief who saw things no man should see, takes up permanent residence on a green vinyl recliner in his garage woodshop, a can of Rainier always in hand. [...] are the ingredients of life’s darkest hours, and though Canty delivers when describing the fire—including a few interwoven chapters detailing the nail-biting rescue of the two trapped survivors—where he really excels is getting to the heart of the hurt. When Lyle, one of the rescued miners, reunites with an old fling across the border in Kalispell after years of making do at whorehouses, or when David’s father discovers the small joy in refurbishing old blowtorches he picks up at yard sales, it’s just enough of tick toward the positive to remind us that life can go on after a tragedy. Without giving away too many spoilers, it’s safe to say that David and Ann find their way to each other toward the end of the book — and the scenes aren’t saccharine or unrealistic. [...] like much of Canty’s fiction, it’s an honest portrait of two lost souls trying to make sense of the hand they’ve been dealt, the choices they’ve made and have yet to make.

Literary guide

Thu, 29 Jun 2017 17:02:11 UT

Literary guide Al Franken, Matt Martin “Giant of the Senate.” Quiet Lightning Selected authors read and attendees receive free copy of Sparkle & Blink 87. 7 p.m. Adobe Books, 3130 24th St., S.F. (415) 864-3936. Mackenzi Lee, Anna-Marie McLemore “The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue.” 7 p.m. Kepler’s Books and Magazines, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Emil DeAndreis “Hard to Grip: A Memoir of Youth, Baseball, and Chronic Illness.” 7 p.m. Books Inc., 1490 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Chili & BBQ. 7 p.m. Borderlands Books, 866 Valencia St., S.F. Al Franken “Giant of the Senate.” Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Santa Clara University, Mayer Theatre, 500 El Camino Real Santa Clara. 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Shipwreck Literary erotic fan fiction on the theme of “The Great Gatsby.” Jaimal Yogis All Our Waves Are Water: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment and the Perfect Ride. Erin Byrne, Lindsey Crittenden, Colette Hannahan, Janis Cooke Newman, Jenna Scatena “The Best Women's Travel Writing Volume 11.” 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Jonathan Lewis “The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur.” 4 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 1 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera.

‘American War,’ by Omar El Akkad

Thu, 29 Jun 2017 16:59:49 UT

After a suicide bomber killed the American president, the so-called Free Southern State declared independence, precipitating five years of Union victories, followed by a lull in hostilities and then another period of guerrilla violence instigated by rebel secessionists. On the date of the planned Reunification Day Ceremony, a terrorist unleashed a biological agent that ultimately claimed 110 million lives and reshaped the geography of North America. Following that initial burst of exposition, El Akkad shifts the time frame to 2075 and the narrative focus to 6-year-old Sara T. “Sarat” Chestnut. The girl lives with her parents, older brother and twin sister in flooded St. James, La., a place of relative safety in a land torn apart by climate change and political turmoil. When Sarat’s father dies while seeking passage to the North, his absence only partly explains why, when it seems as if their home will be destroyed, Sarat’s mother is so willing to seek refuge aboard a bus headed to Camp Patience. Eventually she encounters a mysterious mentor who offers her the chance to hone her survival skills for a coming day of reckoning. Waterboarding, rendition, extreme interrogation, rising coastlines and domestic terrorism all play their part in the story. [...] El Akkad also takes care to delineate the joys that life can bring, whether it’s the simple pleasure of owning a pet turtle or raising strawberries in a carefully tended greenhouse or sharing a moment of intimacy with a beloved sibling. The theme of “American War” recalls the famous verse by W.H. Auden: “I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.” The notion of civil war doesn’t feel as far-fetched as it once did, and El Akkad ably addresses the issue with honesty, insight and compassion.