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Weekend booking: James Forman Jr.

Wed, 16 Aug 2017 02:45:15 UT

Crime and Punishment in Black America, believes that Donald Trump, in his words, “ran the most racist presidential campaign since the arch-segregationist George Wallace’s bid in 1968.” Forman, a Yale Law School professor and former public defender, will discuss his book with journalist Angie Coiro at Kepler’s Books and Magazines, and it’s hard to imagine that the president won’t come up in the conversation.



Mimi Pond’s graphic novel memoir at home in Oakland

Tue, 15 Aug 2017 00:16:46 UT

Mimi Pond is an incredible storyteller in any medium, most famously as a TV writer for “The Simpsons” as well as “Designing Women” and “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” [...] the greatest depths of melancholy, tragedy and humor are found in her quasi-memoir graphic novels, starting with “Over Easy” (2014) and now with “The Customer Is Always Wrong,” about an artist named Madge and a rogues’ gallery of restaurant customers wandering through Oakland in the 1970s. Pond is featured Thursday, Aug. 17, at the Starline Social Club, in a book event sponsored by Pegasus Books.



‘Warner Bros,’ by David Thomson

Fri, 11 Aug 2017 20:46:48 UT

[...] in the film historian’s long career, one reads more for his quirky opinions than for the films themselves — tricky ground for any writer to walk on. More than anything, “Warner Bros” allows the reader to bask in the glory of the hard-nosed movie studio that, in the words of Andrew Sarris, “walked mostly on the shady side of the street.” “Warner Bros” is released as part of Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series. (Earlier this year, it published film critic Molly Haskell’s stellar analysis of Steven Spielberg’s career.) Thomson is well aware of his strange assignment in writing about the brothers Warner in this context — especially Jack, the de facto head of Warners for most of its 40-year reign, whom Thomson bluntly calls “maybe the biggest scumbag ever to get into a Jewish Lives series.” Some of the best popular artists (think Charlie Chaplin, Josef von Sternberg or Alfred Hitchcock) were notorious megalomaniacs, men of ill repute. Maybe it’s exactly because Thomson spends less time on the brothers’ biographical personalities that his book works as an investigation into the American cultural psyche. The resolve of the marginalized — surviving, even when the odds are set overwhelmingly against them — is what goes into the working-class zip of early Warners, like the Busby Berkeley musicals or “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” (1932). Thomson is best in the early parts of the book, when he takes a look at how the Jewish and folk values the Warners stood for manifested themselves in their socially conscious films. Warners guided Americans’ moral values, sure — but more so their private pleasures, their private dreams out of an erotic Busby Berkeley showpiece or a fast and choppy car chase. Thomson is best when he waxes lyrical on movies he unapologetically loves: “Chain Gang,” “Heroes for Sale” (1933), “The Letter” (1940), “To Have and Have Not” (1944), “The Big Sleep” (1946). The best scenes from Warners films are shards we treasure in our frustratingly imperfect minds. Thomson’s book testifies to that obsessive pursuit — like Ethan Edwards pursuing Debbie in “The Searchers” (1956), another Warners picture — of trying to pin down a beautiful past that one knows is gone.



‘The Great Quake,’ by Henry Fountain

Fri, 11 Aug 2017 20:41:31 UT

Many of us remember the epic ground-shaking of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, and no matter how many teams of engineers tell us not to, we worry about being anywhere near the sinking Millennium Tower when the next big one hits. Fountain, a reporter and editor at the New York Times, focuses much of his narrative on George Plafker, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, who teased out lessons from the Good Friday quake to help establish fundamental concepts about the deep workings of the Earth. An unassuming technician who spent eight years of his childhood in a Brooklyn orphanage, Plafker is an everyman distinguished by curiosity and persistence. Fountain memorably evokes an era in which impoverished students happily crowded around their Svengali to hear tall geological tales while consuming beer, beans and bread at the Clam Broth House on Newark Avenue in Hoboken, N.J. The story of Plafker’s path to the Alaska quake is interspersed with a narrative explanation of how science has grappled with the shapes and placement of the continents and how they got that way. Wegener opined that the Earth was once comprised of a single supercontinent, a giant land mass he called Pangaea. [...] to the painstaking process by which science arrives at its certainties, an earthquake takes just a few minutes to reorder reality. Fountain sets the scene for an abrupt wake-up call, and his description of how it unfolds is gripping. Shock waves tore through pavement and buildings, and the land resembled a stormy sea. Frank Press, the head of the seismology lab at the California Institute of Technology, concluded that the quake was caused by a “dip-slip” fault, in which one block of crust moves past another vertically. Pressure mounts where the oceanic crust of the Earth slides under the continental crust, building friction until the strain becomes so great that there is a “sudden release of an enormous amount of stored up energy.”



‘Why Poetry’ and ‘Poetry Will Save Your Life’

Fri, 11 Aug 2017 20:09:10 UT

Most people avoid the genre unless they need a reading for a wedding or a funeral, and many are haunted by shameful school memories of trying to parse an impenetrable poem. Employing very different methods, acclaimed poets Matthew Zapruder and Jill Bialosky both share how poetry has shaped their lives and try to open our minds to its value. Because he came to poetry obliquely, Zapruder is the ideal narrator to debunk mistaken ideas about the art and claim that the ways we teach poetry are what prevent us from enjoying it. Poetry has an unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate,” he writes, “which also takes readers away from its true strangeness, and makes most of us feel (unnecessarily) as if we haven’t studied enough to read it. Especially in a time of crisis, Zapruder believes that imagination is crucial for our humanity and that poetry preserves “the possibility of mutual understanding.” Jill Bialosky attempts this understanding through the memoir form in “Poetry Will Save Your Life,” charting her personal history through her favorite poems. From a fourth-grade discovery of Robert Frost to a visit to her mother in the care home, Bialosky collects poems that seem to capture her life’s pivotal moments. Sharon Olds’ poem “The Sisters of Sexual Treasure” clarifies Bialosky’s own erotic awakening, a charged encounter in a blue Corvette. Sometimes these connections are insightful, as when Sylvia Plath’s “Poppies in October” articulates her mother’s depression: “In the late sixties there is no language to talk about this form of melancholy, where one can barely function or get out of bed.” Plath’s poems shed light on the miracle of new motherhood and distill meaning from the horror of her younger sister’s suicide. “Only the poets seem to provide insight into the mystery of this form of suffering,” Bialosky insists, and this statement, at least, rings true.



‘Made for Love,’ by Alissa Nutting

Thu, 10 Aug 2017 20:45:02 UT

If your literary tastes lean toward the realistic — family dramas, torrid romances, anything with an emotional journey — Alissa Nutting’s second novel, “Made for Love,” won’t be for you. [...] if wackadoo narratives with hints of adventure and characters with bizarre personality quirks are more your speed, this weird and meandering puzzle of a book might be just the ticket. The story has all the elements of absurdist fiction, some of which become immediately apparent as the book’s opening scene unfolds. [...] Dear Old Dad isn’t just wheeling around on his Rascal mobility scooter, chatting with the other white hairs when Hazel rolls up unannounced with a suitcase. [...] he’s making himself quite comfortable with his new life-size doll ... er ... “companion” he calls Diane (who is quite voluptuous and anatomically correct, if you know what I mean). Byron is the founder and CEO of Gogol Industries, a multimillion-dollar technology empire whose products are influencing and slowly becoming indispensable to every aspect of society. Really?! Why not name the fictional technology company Bapple? [...] she’s been bombarded with things like the GPS-activated nano chip implanted in her diamond ring and Byron’s ban on anything branded that isn’t Gogol because, according to him, other logos and trademarks are “visual energy drains.” Enter Jasper, a Jesus-like stud who earns his keep by wooing wealthy women and conning them out of their fortunes. [...] while we’re busy scratching our heads (or maybe trying to wrangle our attention spans back in line), Hazel’s situation grows ever more precarious. Can she evade the pernicious tentacles of Byron’s reach or will he be able to successfully manipulate her back to his lair using Gogol’s fancy gadgets and various attempts at blackmail? [...] she’s sure as your bottom not afraid to stretch the boundaries of what’s considered hot as far as sexual preferences are concerned.



Recommended reading, Aug. 13

Thu, 10 Aug 2017 20:44:29 UT

Perrotta’s latest, sublimely funny novel — about love, sex, disability, able-bodiedness and gender — also skewers how we navigate parenthood, morality, letting go and moving on. Watch Me Disappear Brown’s novel about a missing woman is addictive, and its Berkeley setting is delightfully authentic. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. Dear Cyborgs Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 166 pages; $14 paperback Lim’s science fiction volume is stuffed with more complex ideas than many books three times its size.



Literary guide

Thu, 10 Aug 2017 20:44:19 UT

3 p.m. Diesel, 5433 College Ave., Oakland. 7 p.m. Adobe Books 3130 24th St., S.F. (415) 864-3936. www.adobebooks.com. 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 7 p.m. Books Inc., 74 Town & Country Village, Palo Alto. 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Steven M. Druker “How the Health Risks of GMOs Have Been Underestimated and Misrepresented.” Commonwealth Club, 555 Post St., S.F. (415) 597-6705. www.commonwealthclub.org. Kevin Faulconer “The New California Republicans.” Commonwealth Club, 555 Post St., S.F. (415) 597-6705. www.commonwealthclub.org. Al Franken “Giant of the Senate.” Scott Kildall “Art Thinking + Technology: A Personal Journey of Expanding Space and Time.” 7 p.m. Kepler’s Books and Magazines, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. John Bateson “The Education of a Coroner.” 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Books Inc., 74 Town & Country Village, Palo Alto. Lyrics & Dirges Vernon Keeve III, Julie Thi Underhill, Julian Mithra, Arisa White, Joshua Escobar, Thea Matthews and Lark Omura are featured. 7:30 p.m. Pegasus Books Downtown, 2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs. 7 p.m. Diesel, 5433 College Ave., Oakland. Jaimal Yogis “Saltwater Buddha” and “All our Waves Are Water.” 6:30 p.m. Diesel, 2419 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur. Chiara Barzina “Things That Happened Before the Earthquake.” Joshua Davis From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs. 7:30 p.m. Kepler’s Books and Magazines, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. The Turbulent History of the San Francisco Giants. 7 p.m. Books Inc., 74 Town & Country Village, Palo Alto. Beth Greer “Good Health Starts In Your Home.” Commonwealth Club, 555 Post St., S.F. (415) 597-6705. www.commonwealthclub.org. Mimi Pond “The Customer Is Always Wrong.” 7 p.m. Starline Social Club, 2236 Martin Luther King Jr. 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Kaia Roman “The Joy Plan” 7 p.m. A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland. S.F. Grotto Writers 3 Minute Reads 6 p.m. Book Passage, One Ferry Building, S.F. (415) 835-1020. www.bookpassage.com. Alexis Fajardo “Kid Beowulf.” 4 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Laurie McAndish King “Your Crocodile Has Arrived.” 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 1 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera.



Life and loss in Yalie Kamara’s ‘When the Living Sing’

Wed, 9 Aug 2017 20:50:57 UT

“I’ve said this before, but I think my life has been a negotiation of liminal spaces,” Kamara says by phone. [...] I think that for a lot of first-generation American young people or adults, our nationality is a hyphen. [...] it’s — how do you live between those two things and make a home out of these seemingly disparate pieces? A finalist for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and a 2017 National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critics Fellow, Kamara often reckons with the notion of duality in her new chapbook, “When the Living Sing” (Ledge Mule Press; $12). Or, perhaps more interestingly, she leaves a question of whether it is, in fact, duality and not opposition, necessary harmony rather than contradiction. The stunning collection of poems and short prose often contains at once strength and anguish, joy and pain, myth and reality — much of which is inherently tied to the politics of blackness in America. In “Long Distance,” Kamara writes, “Let’s be clear — in America your Black Body is almost always ablaze, but swallowing tears can be the trick to contain the fire.” Yet these harsh truths are offset by an acknowledgment of splendor. How we survive or balance the two is unattached to race, Kamara says, and demands vulnerability and expression. “In true death, there is silence, and nothing happens anymore,” Kamara says. I think that in spite of all these losses, there is always a type of singing. Brandon Yu is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Poets Speak welcomes poet Devorah Major to the Museum of the African Diaspora, where she will read work that reflects on the current exhibition, “The Ease of Fiction.”



In miniature books, enthusiasts find intimacy and art

Tue, 8 Aug 2017 20:29:14 UT

In miniature books, enthusiasts find intimacy and art The manuscript came as a sort of bonus that a toy store owner sneaked in along with a first Holy Communion outfit her parents bought for her Shirley Temple doll back when she was 6 or 7. Brandt is pretty sure that’s where her collection began, back in the 1930s while she and her parents were living in France. “I don’t think there’s a subject you can mention that I don’t have a miniature book in,” Brandt says. A comprehensive list of the subjects included in her collection runs four pages long. [...] she’s the only member who has been at every single conclave since they began 35 years ago. The conferences, as described by Brandt and this year’s hosts, Dorothy Yule and Susan Hunt Yule (identical twin sisters who sometimes wear matching outfits, or what Susan likes to call “twin drag”), are almost what one might expect: group dinners and tours of rare-book collections; two auctions, one silent and one live; a book fair; and a contest for bookmakers. [...] on Friday, conference attendees are invited to join in one workshop in which “tiny pressed plants from around the Bay Area may be sketched, stenciled, stamped, and saved in this modular accordion book designed by the instructor.” On Saturday, Judith Serebrin will walk the group through the process of stitching together a 2-by-2¾-inch book with optional sewing on the cover and a calligraphy illustration on the frontispiece. [...] there are also publishers, writers, illustrators, book artists and “just plain old people who got interested in miniature books,” Brandt says. Yule, a former art director of The Chronicle, falls mostly into the “book artist” category, though she also writes them.




Gyasi wins book award for diversity

Sun, 6 Aug 2017 22:22:42 UT

NEW YORK — Debut novelist Yaa Gyasi and longtime author-activist Nancy Mercado are among this year’s winners of American Book Awards for contributions to diversity in American literature. Mercado, a key member of the Nuyorican literary movement, was given a lifetime achievement prize. The awards are presented by the Before Columbus Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1976 by author-activist Ishmael Reed and dedicated to promoting multiculturalism. Gyasi’s experience in the dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle became the genesis for “Homegoing,” her debut novel.



‘Watch Me Disappear,’ by Janelle Brown

Fri, 4 Aug 2017 18:47:05 UT

Every book cover was black, dripping with blood, every heroine an antifeminist throwback? Not only do they have agency, they are malicious and twisted, post-romantic and middle-aged, sick to death of children and patriarchy. The novel opens at an intimate family picnic at which Jonathan, wife Billie and daughter Olive are sitting on a windswept Northern California beach, radiant in their bliss. [...] Jonathan and Olive are devastated. Jonathan gave up his tech journalism job to write a book, Olive is a private school girl, preciously self-conscious of her privilege, angsty about climate change and homelessness. Olive begins having visions of her mother, who taunts her for being complacent and challenges her to find out what really happened. While this vision of Billie conjures the wrath of an ancient goddess, it is the solemn investigation of Jonathan and Olive that lends the book its terrible gravity. Like the Egyptian Ma’at, who weighs the human heart against a feather in judging who deserves passage to the afterlife, father and daughter inspect their missing woman and scrutinize everything she did in the last year of her life. Skimming money from the joint account for a private fund? Yet the characters are arresting, the Berkeley setting delightfully authentic, and, best of all, the propulsive investigation may make you want to go into hiding just to finish the book now.



New science fiction and fantasy books

Fri, 4 Aug 2017 18:29:37 UT

In their new book, “The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.,” Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland devise a premise that feels both familiar and fresh, mixing magic and science to pleasurable effect. When Melisande Stokes, an adjunct professor in Harvard’s Department of Ancient and Classical Linguistics, meets Tristan Lyons, she has no inkling that he is a military intelligence operative who will change not only her life but the very course of history. The texts hint that magic is real and was once practiced widely — up until 1851, to be exact, when all the world’s technologies were brought together for the Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park. In her journal, Melisande writes, “Tristan’s hypothesis therefore held that this coming together, this conscious concentration of technological advancement all in one point of space-time, had dampened magic to the point where it fizzled out for good.” All he needs is to build a device known as an Ontic Decoherence Cavity and find a practitioner of magic (i.e. a witch) to travel in it. Unfortunately, once they succeed, neither he nor Mel anticipate all the paradoxical complications attendant upon moving individuals through time and space, from being stranded in San Francisco during the Gold Rush to unleashing a band of marauding Vikings on a Walmart to causing disastrous tears in the fabric of reality. Stephenson has many sterling qualities — a playful sense of humor, a willingness to tackle big subjects with accuracy and rigor, a facility with thriller plots that contain well-hidden surprises. Gabe Hudson’s new novel is much like its title character and teen narrator — goofy, eager-to-please and a bit annoying. Hatched on Earth but now an inhabitant of the Planet Blegwethia, Gork, the Terrible, is a dragon unlike the ones featured in “Beowulf” and “The Hobbit.” “Gork” takes place on Crown Day, when each male member of the senior class at WarWings Academy must win the love of a female dragon and make her his Queen for EggHarvest. A former editor at large for McSweeney’s and the author of the story collection “Dear Mr. President,” Hudson seems to be taking cues from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” with perhaps a smattering of Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Campbell and Mark Twain thrown in for good measure. Anyone who has ever sat through a teenage rom-com can chart the arc of this narrative, but the fun is in the gonzo, sci-fi/fantasy details. Short in terms of word count, the slim volume by the author of “Fog & Car” and “The Strangers” is stuffed with more complex ideas than many books three times its size. “Dear Cyborgs” is structured as a series of sometimes nesting, sometimes interrupting monologues, the speakers of which aren’t always clearly identified. The shifting perspectives allow Lim to switch moods, subjects and topics abruptly, lending the book a sense of unsettling unpredictability. In the framing narrative, two Asian American teens — one named Vu, the other with his given name unspecified — bond over comic books in suburban Ohio. Late in the book, one member of the superhero posse talks about his participation in a riot in San Francisco’s Presidio, where Google buses were overturned and torched.



‘Too Much and Not the Mood,’ by Durga Chew-Bose

Thu, 3 Aug 2017 21:16:00 UT

The essay wends through tangents: how the heart never stops, infinity, wonder, life in miniature, the insignificance of the individual, writing, memory, versions of happiness, sisterhood, photography, “nook people,” ancestry and history. By its end, however, the essay proves to be an extended meditation on the unnameable, about emotions for which there are no convenient descriptions, no emoji, no obvious signs or symbols. The collection is composed of 14 essays of varying lengths, and many of the most insightful observations in it are about the difficulty of making language match up to lived reality. The most interesting pieces in the book consider language in conjunction with identity, sometimes the author’s Bengali Canadian identity, but more memorably the underexplored terrain of brownness as a racial identity. The author links small speech acts to larger ideas about how identity can affect one’s sense of belonging and social placement. The essay is a stunning examination of how intricately bound our names are with our identities, and how this might affect our sense of personal liberty. Later in the essay, she relates an incident in which a person approaches her to ask where she’s from, and before she can answer, her new friend asks, “Why would you ask her that?” In the moment, the author is taken aback by her friend’s response, a level of confrontation wholly unfamiliar to her. [...] the point for Chew-Bose is the effect of these tiny interactions on an individual psyche, and she mines the subterranean emotions beneath the surface of them with intimacy and beauty. [...] the collection is titled after the final line in an entry from Virginia Woolf’s “A Writer’s Diary” that states “too much and not the mood” — referring to how tired Woolf was of cramming into or cutting her writing to please other people. [...] like certain pieces in Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets” or Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” all of these essays offer a hiatus from a world that overvalues the logical, aggressive and extroverted.



Recommended reading, Aug. 6

Thu, 3 Aug 2017 21:15:43 UT

A Biography Jackson’s biography is an insightful study of an exceptional storyteller. [...] because midcentury America was often unwilling to acknowledge more than one prominent black voice at a time, Himes wasn’t as known as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin. Caesar’s Last Breath Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us Kean’s delightful book brims with fascinating tales of chemical history that will change the way you think about breathing. The Last Laugh By Lynn Freed Freed’s novel is a sexagenarian romp featuring four women who escape to a Greek island for a year. The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned With the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler Henderson is a skilled storyteller, and his account of six young refugees from the Third Reich may well move readers.