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Denis Johnson, a writer who showed us a way through the wreckage

Fri, 26 May 2017 20:28:56 UT

Gigantic ferns leaned over us. [...] that was, after all, the literary world of the man who wrote the story collection “Jesus’ Son” — the landscape left to us after we got kicked out of Eden and had to make our way through the wreckage we had made. [...] yet there was often a sense in his writing that Johnson, who died May 25 at 67, could feel the grace and light shining through that wreckage and that he wanted to show us a way through to that grace and light. Ours was a relationship based on the correspondence of two writers — a patient master and a fumbling apprentice. Somehow I figured out that DJ lived up there, and so I fired off an email to him through his agent, fully expecting to receive no response. [...] for a long long time — several months — that’s exactly what happened (or didn’t happen). [...] an email appeared from “DJ” apologizing for the delay — due, as it turned out, from having contracted some kind of terrifying illness when in the Congo researching the book that would become “The Laughing Monsters,” and then offering to help however he could. [...] yet he gave me what time I asked for, patiently answering questions about Idaho and his own research for his Vietnam War novel “Tree of Smoke” (which won the National Book Award in 2007), and being, in general, exactly the guy you’d hope he would be: kind, patient, responsive, polite, wonderful. Ah, and another memory: this of reading “Train Dreams” out loud, in its entirety, to Pam Houston as Pam drove us over the spine of the Rockies one dark summer night.

‘Wild Ride,’ by Adam Lashinsky

Thu, 25 May 2017 20:34:32 UT

Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination, and it’s not just the millions of us who with a swipe of our smartphone beckon one of his independent contractors to whisk us to work or play. Lashinsky invests Kalanick with social significance — emblematic of a cultural moment as the nerdy but dudely exemplar of San Francisco’s “‘brogrammer’ culture” and “embodi(ment)” of a new breed of hybrid enterprise comprising “bits and atoms.” In Uber, Kalanick forged a company in his own image; neither asking permission nor seeking forgiveness in its remorseless expansionism, never shrinking from a fight, offering its rivals no quarter. [...] it was Kalanick who created Uber as we know it; a talismanic leader lionized for his audacity and aggression, and now vilified for many of the same qualities amid revelations of skulduggery — notably “Greyball,” a device to keep regulators at bay for which Uber is currently under federal investigation — and a macho “always be closing” workplace culture described in the New York Times as “Hobbesian,” said to have abetted alleged sexual harassment and bullying. [...] Lashinsky, the executive editor of Fortune, delves behind the slick app and “frictionless” customer experience into the moving parts of what Kalanick has dubbed Uber’s “perpetual-motion machine” — specifically, those independent contractors on whose micro-remunerated labor the company is built. Aside from the truly part time, those who are looking for an interesting diversion or to make some spending money, most have come to the same conclusion I did: driving for Uber is a tough way to make a living. [...] human drivers seem set to be a strictly intermediate phase in Uber’s development. Like Google, Lyft, Tesla and other rivals, the company is aggressively investing in autonomous vehicles. At one stroke in 2014, it poached 60 scientists from Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center (donating $5.5 million as a salve to the host institution for pillaging its ranks). More relevant though is the breadth and narrowness of Uber’s vision — expansive (last fall, the company issued a white paper on its efforts to develop a flying car — Uber Elevate) yet reductive; boiling down everything in its path to a “hackable problem,” locked into an endless quest to maximize utility and, inviting that bad behavior seen in its corporate headquarters, fixated on its own growth.

‘Palmyra: An Irreplaceable Treasure,’ by Paul Veyne

Thu, 25 May 2017 20:08:17 UT

In a long view of Palmyra, Syria — the once-great trading waypoint between East and West — its recent vandalization by Islamic State fighters is the work of malignant punks. Palmyra can archivally trace its origins back 7,000 years, and Veyne, a French archaeologist and historian, artfully covers that serious slice of historical ground. Why Palmyra? [...] writes Veyne, “it is located on the shortest path between the Mediterranean and the blue waters of the Euphrates,” and “Palmyrenes were technicians of the desert.” A rare place, then: a merchant republic, a city-state even, where Greeks, Romans, Persians, Egyptians, Jews and many another mingled while it remained a distinctively Palmyrene well of culture, a place granted unusual political latitude during the long Roman occupation — we’ll give Aurelian a pass — for its atmosphere of accord and creation of wealth. Veyne surveys the city’s art and architecture, its class composition, the fire and folly of Queen Zenobia, its entire evolution. [...] “far from ending in universal uniformity, every patchwork culture, with its diversity, opens the way to inventiveness,” and a thorn in the side of all mean-minded asininity.

Literary guide

Thu, 25 May 2017 20:04:04 UT

Literary guide Chris Haft If These Walls Could Talk: San Francisco Giants: Stories From the San Francisco Giants Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box. 2 p.m. Books Inc., 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F. (415) 776-1111. Athenian Readings Athenian High School students read. 7 p.m. Octopus Literary Salon, 2101 Webster St., Oakland. 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 7 p.m. Green Apple Books 506 Clement St., S.F. (415) 387-2272. Martha Grover “The End of My Career.” Cornelia Nixon “The Use of Fame.” 7:30 p.m. Mrs. Dalloway’s, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley. Why We Think We’re Getting Good Health Care — And Why We’re Usually Wrong. Commonwealth Club, 555 Post St., S.F. (415) 597-6705. Krisine Poggioli, Carolyn Eidson “Walking San Francisco’s 49 Mile Scenic Drive.” St. Philip’s Catholic Church, 725 Diamond St., S.F. 7:30 p.m. Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 Ninth Ave., S.F. (415) 742-5833. Marcie Anderson “Are We There Yet?” 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 7 p.m. Books Inc., 1491 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Salutations Letter reading. 7:30 p.m. Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 Ninth Ave., S.F. (415) 742-5833. Sarah Lavender Smith “The Trail Runner's Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultra.” 7 p.m. A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland. 7 p.m. Books Inc., 74 Town & Country Village, Palo Alto. 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Domingo Readings Roz Vogelman, Bruce Fessenden, Barbara McBane and Jody Savage read and discuss their work. 7 p.m. Octopus Literary Salon, 2101 Webster St., Oakland. The Coloring and Activity Book! 6 p.m. Books Inc., 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F. (415) 776-1111. Commonwealth Club, 555 Post St., S.F. (415) 597-6705. 7 p.m. Copperfield’s Books, 1330 Lincoln St., Calistoga. Mark Lukach “My Lovely Wire in the Psych Ward.” 7:30 p.m. Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 Ninth Ave., S.F. (415) 742-5833. 1 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 7:30 p.m. Mrs. Dalloway’s, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley. David Brin “The Insistence of Vision.” 6 p.m. Borderlands Books, 866 Valencia St., S.F. Matt Callahan, Joel Selvin The Explosion of Deferred Dreams: Musical Renaissance and Social Revolution in San Francisco, 1965-1975. 7 p.m. Copperfield’s Books, 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma. 6 p.m. Books Inc., 1375 Burlingame Ave., Burlingame. 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Juliana Delgado Lopera “Cuentamelo!” 12:30 p.m. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. (415) 655-7800. Rhino Poetry Magazine Reading Series Peter Kline, Brittany Perham, Roy Mash and Cintia Santana are featured. Adobe Books, 3130 24th St., S.F. (415) 864-3936. San Francisco Grotto Writers “3 Minute Reads.” 7 p.m. Copperfield’s Books, 775 Village Ct., Santa Rosa. Courtney Maum, Melissa Cistaro “Touch.”

Roundup of new children’s books

Thu, 25 May 2017 20:00:01 UT

Being an Absolutely Accurate Autobiographical Account of My Follies, Fortune & Fate Both history and mystery, this robust novel begins in an English sea town in 1724. (His lovely sister has already left.) One dark November morn, he awakens after a horrific storm to find his house in ruins and his father gone. Colorful rogues, highwaymen and rotten magistrates populate the Dickensian plot, punctuated with clever cliffhangers, endless close calls and bits of wisdom. Here a Newbery Medalist again delivers a page-turner, steeped in provocative moral questions. First in a series. Stream Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” and pore over this glorious natural history. Gorgeous paintings go into the inner gorge and high above the massive cliffs, moving back and forth from a distant geologic past to today. [...] there are special features, for example, cutouts to foster a sense of discovery and a final gatefold to capture the wide grandeur of stunning landscape. A small African American boy declares his intent: “I’m jumping off the diving board today.” Dad is there to offer encouragement as Jabari watches, waits, climbs up, backs down, stretches, climbs up again, braves the board, curls his toes and goes “splash.” Pale mixed-media art shows an inviting urban pool where dilemma looms: Dad is patient and attentive, even with his toddler daughter in hand, guiding Jabari from tentative to triumphant and reminding us all just why we celebrate Father’s Day. For the armchair kind, try this study of two top rivals and their beneficial relationship. The snappy narrative introduces opposites — the All-American Chris Evert, “calm and collected,” versus the Czech Martina Navratilova, “all emotion, all the time.” Together, they break down barriers for women in tennis and symbolize the geopolitics of the Cold War. Almost caricatures, close-up portraits capture big personalities — fierce competitors on the court and friends off, at least most of the time. (Beats the toilet burial.) The search begins in a boy’s bedroom and spreads to his Cape Cod town, the beach and over the sea. [...] the ghostly goldfish finds a ghostly lighthouse keeper. (Check out book titles, the weather vane and a fishing pier.) With mildly macabre glee, a San Francisco husband-and-wife team offers the end-all in deadpan humor. A California author chronicles Lin’s life and works, and a debut illustrator employs digital art for visual support. Much needed are diverse books that highlight the contributions of Chinese Americans to this country.

‘Since We Fell,’ by Dennis Lehane

Thu, 25 May 2017 19:51:52 UT

‘Since We Fell,’ by Dennis Lehane Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River,” “Shutter Island” and “Gone, Baby, Gone”) has a magnificent way of tunneling into his characters’ psyches to reveal their wounds, and no matter how raw or brutal, his characters’ pain always seems to achieve a kind of symphonic grace. Abandoned by her dad when she was 5, she grows up desperate to know why he left, and who he is, and how she can find him, sure he’s the missing piece that will make her complete. Rachel sets out on a search to find her dad, making us think, of course, that this is the narrative drive for the novel, that it’s going to be a deep psychological study that takes its time investigating Rachel’s crippling longing to fit in, to belong, to not be abandoned. Halfway through the novel, Rachel’s desperate search for her father shifts gears, and suddenly the whole tone and tension of the book goes into delicious overdrive. Since We Fell

‘Bleaker House,’ by Nell Stevens

Thu, 25 May 2017 19:44:23 UT

Nell Stevens, looking for a place to write her novel, travels to the Falkland Islands, the collection of minuscule, frigid landmasses just north of Antarctica. At one point, she finds that the number of calories she can eat a day during her stay (limited by the capacity of the small plane taking her to the islands) is exceeded by the number of words she needs to write. [...] more than physical discomfort, she’s searching for a state of mind: “If I can break my habit of being distracted, maybe I’ll also break my habit of writing novels that don’t work,” she writes. Internet access is spotty; the lettuce at the market arrives wilted. Stevens traverses Bleaker Island, her final destination, mainly on foot, exploring the coastline’s slimy caves and observing a fish-scented colony of gentoo penguins. Because most of the action is turbulent self-analysis, the book can feel airless and confined at times, locked in by the vast ocean surrounding the island and Stevens’ own mind.

Tambor isn’t just ‘Anybody’ — he’s an author, too

Mon, 22 May 2017 23:34:33 UT

Emmy Award-winning actor Jeffrey Tambor (“Transparent,” “Arrested Development”) says San Francisco played a big part in his education. Tambor has written a terrific memoir called “Are You Anybody?,” published by Crown Archetype, richly detailing his early life in the Bay Area and his career. [...] most of all, the book is an engaging collection of essays about life, about learning from mistakes as well as successes, and about never giving up, either in your personal life or your professional life.

Two new books about the Giants: ‘Lefty O’Doul’ and ‘Home Team’

Fri, 19 May 2017 04:49:44 UT

Die-hard fans might find a happy distraction, however, in two impressive new books about San Francisco baseball. Pitching for the Boston Red Sox in 1923, he gave up 16 runs in three innings, setting a major-league record for most runs allowed in a single appearance (though only three of the runs were earned). If he had not bounced back in 1928 as an outfielder, he probably wouldn’t be the subject of a superb biography by Pacific Coast League historian Dennis Snelling. In seven outstanding seasons, O’Doul won two batting titles and compiled a batting average of .349 (the highest of any player not in the Baseball Hall of Fame). After leaving the bigs, he became the most successful manager in the PCL, mostly with the San Francisco Seals, a great batting instructor (batting guru to Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and other stars), and, in Snelling’s words, “A San Francisco icon who created one of San Francisco’s enduring landmarks with his Geary Street restaurant.” Lefty’s greatest contribution to baseball, however, may be his role in establishing the game in Japan, paving the way for Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka. Giants fans have witnessed the team’s spectacular success in this century — four World Series appearances in the past 15 seasons, three World Series victories in the past seven — but they may not be aware of the franchise’s often rocky past. In “Home Team,” Robert F. Garratt, an English professor at the University of Puget Sound and baseball historian for SABR, chronicles the Giants’ struggle to establish themselves in the Bay Area that knew the DiMaggio brothers long before it knew Willie Mays. The plan to ‘make it new’ grew from a local pride that rejected New York claims of grandeur and sophistication, as well as the implied reproach of California coming from East Coast journalists still smarting from the loss of its fabled National League teams. The skepticism of some Bay Area fans even extended to the greatest player in the game, Mays, who, wrote one journalistic wag, was “playing in the shadow of two Italians from North Beach this season.” The Giants’ home their first year was the former home of the PCL’s San Francisco Seals, Seals Stadium, then they moved to Candlestick Park — or Candlestink, a reference to “the wafting strains of garbage smells coming from county landfill across nearby Bayshore Freeway” — the most vilified ballpark in the country. The Stoneham era lasted 40 years until 1976, but despite a thrilling 1962 pennant race in which the Giants overcame the hated Dodgers before losing to the Yankees in a seven-game World Series, the Giants came upon hard times, suffering declining attendance and very nearly leaving San Francisco (twice, in fact).

‘Marlena,’ by Julie Buntin

Wed, 17 May 2017 22:30:10 UT

On the one hand, Buntin’s careful attention to place (wild, beautiful, meth-riven northern Michigan) and class (the working vs. the non-working poor) marks her as a realist in the David Means or Stuart Dybek mode. Jimmy has put off a college scholarship to work at a plastics factory, and Cat recognizes her family’s economic precarity: “We lived in fear of emergencies — an errant tree limb, one of Mom’s seasonal clients skipping their ski trip north, a rattle in the car’s engine, a toothache or slipped disc.” Though “Marlena” isn’t explicitly political, Buntin, herself raised in northern Michigan, is a sensitive observer of such territory, where jobs are hard to come by but drugs and alcohol aren’t, where food stamps both help and humiliate. For Cat’s family, much is at stake, psychologically and practically, in living in a “ranch-style modular” instead of a trailer; in being hard-up instead of “full-blown poor.” Marlena’s world is shadowed by meth — her father is an addict and her boyfriend cooks — and she spends her time caring for her younger brother, skipping school and scoring Oxy. Marlena projects an “air of intensity cut with indifference”; she is smart, sexy, adventurous and self-destructive. Occasionally, Buntin’s writing can be lyrical in a bad sense, with sentences sounding good but collapsing upon closer inspection. Take this description of a summer day: “It was the sucked-dry, ragged end of August, the air soupy and buzzing with insects even at ten in the morning.” More generally, though, this lyricism is precise and revelatory, capable of great beauty (“What a luxury, the endless velvet of teenaged sleep”) and, when called for, great ugliness.

‘A Really Big Lunch,’ by Jim Harrison

Wed, 17 May 2017 22:22:55 UT

A warning to certain of your left-leaning, spit-dribbling, eco-freak readers: I kill much of what I eat; ducks, quail, deer, grouse, woodcock, trout, salmon, bluegills, the lowly carp (Hunanese hot and crispy carp). Harrison went on to fantasize about Meryl Streep, brag about the hundreds of hot sauces he’s sampled, decree that no one is allowed to use cocaine before a meal he cooks (“Afterward, OK.”), and print a recipe for Caribbean stew that ends with instructions to “Spoon off excess fat or suck it off with a straw.” Harrison was an elegant stylist who was celebrated in France but sometimes dismissed as a regional writer by the American literary establishment. The pieces in “A Really Big Lunch” are a little more digressive and self-congratulatory — Harrison name-drops meals shared with Orson Welles, Federico Fellini and Jack Nicholson — and are stuffed with the opinions he tossed off with glee. Harrison loved to play the naughty overeater, the bad boy who ate “a slew of 50 baby pig noses,” and swore he’d never do it again. When he described a squirrel burrito as being similar to “a really extravagantly premature baby,” I had to push away for a few days. The title piece in “A Really Big Lunch” is an account of a 37-course dinner that Harrison attended in Burgundy. “Is there an interior logic to overeating, or does gluttony, like sex, wander around in a messy void, utterly resistant to our attempts to make sense of it?” Harrison wrote before the big event. Jeff Baker, a former book editor and movie critic for the Oregonian, lives in Portland.

Recommended reading, May 21

Wed, 17 May 2017 22:18:37 UT

Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs Selected Prose, 2000-2016 Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 299 pages; $30 With his pellucid style, Kleinzahler is exceptionally good at tracking not only his often adamant thoughts and abundant enthusiasms — including Richmond District Chinese food, shooting baskets on a Corona Heights court, and the short stories of Lucia Berlin — but at registering the felt life of the world and people around him. Orbit; 624 pages; $28 A playful and engrossing book, Robinson’s novel posits a rise in sea levels that turns Lower Manhattan into a landscape of canals between skyscrapers. Lepucki’s novel has all the trappings of a frothy page-turner, but there are quiet moments, too. By Édouard Louis; translated from the French by Michael Lucey Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 192 pages; $23 Louis’ bruising autobiographical novel tells of a young, yearning soul and his challenges of growing up gay in rural France.

A Mission District childhood full of the elders’ stories

Wed, 17 May 2017 17:36:26 UT

At night we’d all be in bed, and it was just talking, with my grandmother talking all the time, just telling stories, and my uncle telling stories, and that’s how I went to sleep — just listening to stories. Recently, it’s been about the homeless, and it’s been about immigrant communities, and it’s been about the struggles as a teacher in San Francisco who’s been here all his life, doing a job that isn’t supported by this new tech economy. A special education teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District for more than 20 years, Zelaya graduated from UC Berkeley and received his MFA from San Francisco State, where he met Darren de Léon and Paul S. Flores; the three founded the poetry performance troupe Los Delicados, which in 2000 released the album “Word Descarga.” “When I got into college and was still writing,” Zelaya said, and learning a little more about myself and about my place, at that point it became about documenting what we live through; it became about validating those experiences in San Francisco, that were just as important as the Beats, or any other literary movement, or anybody else. The Mission is just as important as Sea Cliff, or Pacific Heights or City Hall; these are real people living real lives, and I wanted to tell the story so folks could understand our world. The Marin Poetry Center celebrates outgoing Poet Laureate Prartho Sereno and welcomes the county’s new poet laureate, Rebecca Foust, with a Champagne-and-cake reception followed by the MPC’s regular third Thursday event, featuring poet/musicians Brian Laidlaw and Ken Waldman (6 p.m. Thursday, Falkirk Cultural Center, 1408 Mission Ave., San Rafael, free). Granta presents Lauren Groff (“Fates and Furies”), Esmé Weijun Wang (“The Collected Schizophrenias”) and Anthony Marra (“The Tsar of Love and Techno”), three of its featured authors in the recently released Best of Young American Novelists issue (7 p.m. Thursday, Diesel, A Bookstore, 5433 College Ave., Oakland, Free). Nomadic Press’ Uptown Fridays series this week features readings by Denise Benavides (“Split”) and Trey “Drow Flow” Amos, and music by Meaghan Owens 7 p.m. Friday, Nomadic Press:

Weekend Booking: Oakland Book Festival

Tue, 16 May 2017 17:30:33 UT

The Oakland Book Festival returns for its third year on Sunday, May 21, and the theme for this event — equality and inequality — couldn’t be more timely. Kicking it off will be Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University; her opening-night address, at 5 p.m. Saturday, May 20, at Oakland City Hall, is titled “It Is the Right of the People.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson opens up on the universe, and more

Sun, 14 May 2017 18:13:21 UT

There probably aren’t many astrophysicists who have to put on sunglasses when they walk down the street to keep from being mobbed by admirers. Of late, he has been unafraid to use his pull — he has more than 7 million followers on Twitter — to poke fun at the president, offering a series of “StarTalk” shows titled “Make America Smart Again.” On a recent visit to San Francisco, Tyson spoke to The Chronicle about his latest book, the concise and profound “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” (W.W. Norton; $18.95) — and how he avoided getting wedgies as a youngster. People had joked, “Oh, was the title ‘Astrophysics for Dummies’ already taken?” And, yes, it was taken. (Laughs.) But this is not “Astrophysics for Dummies” — it’s “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.” [...] I comb the universe and handpick those things that I think are the most striking, most mind-blowing, most intriguing, most mysterious, and then I establish a story arc for it. Panspermia is the idea that life would form in one place across space, could be another planet, and then by some mechanism or another, transfer from that place where it formed to another place. If Mars had liquid water and had the right temperatures for life and conditions, it is possible that life could have started on Mars before it would have ever possibly happened on Earth. [...] add to that that in the early solar system, there’s major impacts happening because the planets are still vacuuming up debris left over from the formation of the solar system. If there are microbes everywhere, and you have a rock that was steeped in microbes, you’d have stowaway bacteria in the nooks and crannies of the rocks. If any one of them had any resistive power to long stretches of time away from water, to being basically freeze-dried because of the temperatures that are out there and then landing on Earth, which later has water, which then reconstitutes this life that happened to survive, then life on Earth would have begun on Mars. [...] you can ask, are we all descendants of these stowaway bacteria? [...] if aliens are trying to talk to us through radio signals, and it’s really weak in the radio noise of space, the Chinese telescope will be the first to retrieve those signals, and so they’ll have the first conversation with the aliens. It turns out that rock has only a certain capacity to hold weight above it before it crumbles or before it changes its structural integrity. [...] it turns out Mount Everest is about as high a mountain as you’re going to get, given the amount of gravity that Earth has, and what gravity does for large objects is turns things into near-perfect spheres. If you were a cosmic giant and you came upon the Earth, and you take your finger and rub your finger across it, it would feel as smooth as a cue ball. [...] political would be, “I think we should fund this program three times as much as that other program because it’s more consistent with my conservative values or my liberal sensibilities.” [...] there was a day when we’d get sort of slammed into the lockers by the football quarterback and kind of socially abused. [...] this changed the power dynamic between the beautiful people who were, you know, homecoming king and queen, and the nerd set. [...] from that point onward there was a wealth redistribution to the point where now the patron saint of nerds is the richest person in the world, in the guise of Bill Gates. [...] you look at all the tech companies — that’s the geek culture that gave you your smartphone, that gave you Facebook, that gave you Twitter, that gave you all these things that are now shaping th[...]