Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Resurgence of Independent Bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area

One of many reasons that I am so happy to live in the San Francisco Bay Area is its wealth of independent bookstores, book readings, and book events. There are also many authors living in the area. And despite the loss of independent bookstores (and even chain bookstores) in so many places (largely because of online booksellers), there is actually a resurgence of such stores in this area. A 10/27/14 article in the San Francisco Chronicle listed several new or expanded bookstores. New stores include Diesel in Larkspur (where I have shopped recently), Copperfield’s in San Rafael (I have shopped at the Healdsburg and Calistoga branches of this small local chain), and Mr. Mopps’ in Berkeley. A new branch of a beloved and revered longtime San Francisco bookstore (and one of my favorites), Green Apple, has recently opened across the Golden Gate Park from the original. And Laurel Bookstore has moved to a much larger and more central location in downtown Oakland. This is all wonderful news for the book scene in the Bay Area! I know that similar things are happening in a some other parts of the country, and I hope that this resurgence will continue elsewhere as well. And while I am writing about independent bookstores, I will conclude this post with my annual urging of readers, as we enter the holiday season, to support independent bookstores by buying holiday gifts there.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"An Unnecessary Woman," by Rabih Alameddine

There was a time in my twenties that I methodically read through large swathes of contemporary literature from various parts of the world, including the Middle East. Later on I taught classes in women’s literature, including one called “Contemporary Fiction by Nonwestern Women” that included several works by Middle Eastern writers. But it has been years since I have read much if anything in this broad category. Reading a couple of very positive reviews led me to Rabih Alameddine’s 2013 novel, “An Unnecessary Woman” (Grove Press), and I am so glad it did. This is an intense novel about a woman in her early seventies who has lived in Beirut her whole life. Aaliya Saleh is semi-estranged from her family, had an early, short, unsuccessful marriage, and has lived on her own in an apartment ever since. For a long time she worked in a bookstore, and she did have one very close friend, Hannah, but that friend died some years before the present time of the novel. Her salvation, through everything, including the terrible wars and destruction affecting Lebanon for so long, has been literature. She reads and reads and reads, both fiction and nonfiction. And she translates. She has chosen a new book every year for some years, and translated it into Arabic. Then she has put the translation away and begun a new one. A room in her apartment is full of these translations, which no one else has ever seen. She does not believe her translations are of interest to anyone else, and does not attempt to publish them. But they are her life’s work, her joy, her consolation. She loves and mourns the city of Beirut, and often walks through it. She does have interactions with a few people, including three other older women who live in her apartment building, but not often and not in any sustained way. There is not much plot, although some events of the past are gradually revealed throughout. And near the end of the novel there is an event that affects Aaliya strongly, in a negative way but ultimately, in a note of hope, in a positive way. It is not a critical plot point in the sense of a surprise twist, and if I gave it away here, it would not change your appreciation of the book if you read it, but still, I will respect the convention of not doing so. In any case, this thoughtful, beautifully written novel is very much focused on the main character rather than on plot. Aaliya is a world of her own. We learn about her appearance, her habits, her preferences, but most of all we learn about her deep engagement with literature, which is her obsession and her savior. It took me a little while to become engaged with the novel, but once I did, I found it deeply repaid my attention. In its own understated way, it is a truly masterful portrait and a riveting one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Love Me, Love My Taste in Books?

Do you want your spouse, significant other, family members, and friends to read and like the same books that you do? Will you be upset if they don’t? The New York Times Book Review (11/2/14) asked two of their regular “Bookends” columnists “Have you ever had a relationship end because of a book?” Zoe Heller answered by telling of a vacation with a long-ago boyfriend who, when seeing she was reading Sybille Bedford while he was reading Hunter Thompson, “was deeply troubled by our clashing literary tastes” and “kept worrying the subject…By the end of the vacation, we were at war. His view was that our failure to enjoy each other’s books was a sign of a more general and fatal incompatibility.” They soon “parted ways.” Heller feels that “the value of agreeing with one’s friends about books has always seemed to me overrated.” She goes on to say that “insisting that your loved one’s literary judgments be in harmony with your own suggests to me a rather dull and narcissistic notion of what constitutes intimacy” and concludes, after a story about a happier romance with a different man, “Love is not love which alters when a man fails to appreciate ‘Herzog.’” Anna Holmes, on her part, says that although different tastes in books don’t necessarily have to be a problem, “books…have strained some of my most important love affairs…I was drawn to men who displayed a tendency to chafe at the very idea that I might find sustenance or succor in anything other than them.” She also noted that in the case of one early live-in romance, she “refused to mingle my books with his, preferring to keep mine on a bookshelf in a room that he rarely entered,” which raises other questions as well. Of course, upon reading this column, I asked myself where I stood on this question. In general, I am drawn to others who love to read, and of course it is always a pleasure when one shares similar tastes in literature. I treasure certain friends partly because of the bond we have in our mutual love of books, and especially similar books. It is a great pleasure to be able to discuss books with them, to be part of book clubs, to go to bookstores and book readings together, and to give and lend books to them and vice versa. But for me, sharing similar tastes and habits regarding books and reading is not a requirement in a spouse, friends or family members. Going back to Zoe Heller’s response: “This surely is one of the great advantages of reading as a pursuit – that its pleasures do not rely on teammates or fellow enthusiasts, that the reader’s relationship with an author has no need of endorsement from third parties.”

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Nora Webster," by Colm Toibin

Very occasionally I almost resist writing here about a book I have just finished, because I am afraid there is no way I can do it justice. I ask myself if I can simply write “This book is wonderful, amazing, beautifully written…You MUST read it!” So I do say that now about “Nora Webster” (Scribner, 2014), by Colm Toibin. (My 11/9/14 post was about hearing him speak at a local bookstore.) When I finished and closed the book, I felt both moved and fortunate to have read it, and sad to have the experience come to an end. This is a novel powerful in its particularities of the everyday, and profound in its revelations of the mysteries and tides of life, death, and change. The way Toibin portrays Nora Webster is a marvel, a masterpiece, but always with restraint. She is a woman in a small town in Ireland in the late 1960s whose beloved husband Maurice has recently died; the novel covers the three years after his death. She has four children, each also portrayed with precision and perception, as are her sisters, aunts and uncles, co-workers, and friends. In addition to etching these individual portraits, the novel portrays a community, one that can be smothering and yet can be, and is, a dependable and loving source of strength and support. Although Nora is a strong woman, and more independent than is necessarily common during that time period, she is part of a traditional society and lives in a small town where everyone knows what everyone else is doing. During the course of the three years, she gradually learns how to live without her husband, and to find out what makes her happy. There are no radical changes, just what may seem to readers very small steps, but her process of growing into herself is tangible and exquisitely delineated. She gradually understands that she must – and can – make her own decisions. It is both a burden and a freedom. She does have the help of her extended family and her community, but finally she needs and wants to be in charge of her own life. She starts to work again. She fiercely defends her children when it is necessary but lets go and lets them become more independent when that is necessary. She starts to take singing lessons, reclaiming her beautiful voice that she seldom used after her marriage. She starts listening to and learning about classical music, buys a gramophone and more and more records, and derives great pleasure from them. She renovates her house and decorates it to her own taste. She buys new clothes. She comes to terms with some people in her life with whom there has been dissension. The impression is always of a woman who does things thoughtfully and at her own pace, but with passion and decisiveness when necessary. She has her times of weakness and sadness and pain, but overall she is able to handle those moments too. And she becomes happy in her new life. By the end of the novel, she is able to give away her husband’s clothes, symbolic of her moving on. She will always love him, but she has learned to continue with and enjoy her life. As I reread this summary, it sounds much more schematic than the progress of the novel actually feels, and I hope I do not do the book a disservice with this perhaps too-neat portrayal. Toibin is a writer of great subtlety, and no mere summary can convey the feeling of this beautiful and perceptive novel. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"The Palace of Illusions," by Kim Addonizio

Hmmm. Lately I seem to have read -- without my planning it that way -- several short story collections that have an element of mystery, magic, the supernatural. San Francisco writer Kim Addonizio’s new story collection, “The Palace of Illusions” (Soft Skull Press, 2014), has an edginess partly derived from that sense of mystery, that presumption that anything can happen at any time. In the kind of fiction I am talking about, it is a fine line between things that happen because they are inevitable and things that happen that are supernatural. One story in this collection, “The Hag’s Journey,” is explicitly a fairy tale. Another, “Ever After,” is a modern day play on the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” story. Mostly Addonizio’s characters are outsiders, have had rough lives, but are still holding onto their illusions, even though those illusions are shattered again and again. These are characters who are strongly etched, and mostly sympathetic; the reader’s response is most often pity. The stories are generally about gritty situations, with carnivals, grim apartments, and storage units as obvious indicators of outsiderness. Another kind of outsiderness appears in “The Cancer Poems,” but this story is also one of the stories in this collection that amid sadness introduces a grace note, one that arises from human connection.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Listening to Colm Toibin

A few days ago I had the good fortune to hear the wonderful Irish writer Colm Toibin speak and read from his new novel, “Nora Webster,” at my favorite local independent bookstore, Book Passage in Corte Madera. I have read, admired, and enjoyed several of his novels and short story collections over the years, including “The Master,” “Mothers and Sons: Stories,” “Brooklyn” (which I posted about on 1/28/10), “The Empty Family: Stories" (my post: 1/28/11), and “Testament of Mary” (1/20/13). I was already planning to read “Nora Webster,” and hearing Toibin read passages from it made me even more eager to do so. His reading voice is beautiful and expressive but not over-the-top. Even better were his introductory and between-passages comments, and his answers to questions after the reading. His comments were thoughtful, humorous in a low-key way, gently self-deprecating in a wry, confiding way, and conversational. He shared stories about his childhood and youth, as well as his more recent life. He spoke about Ireland, especially the small towns, about Catholicism, about his family, and about why he wrote about Henry James (in “The Master”), among other topics. He treated each question with thought and respect. In other words, his persona was engaging and impressive. His audience was rapt and responsive. As people were leaving the event area of the bookstore, I heard one woman say “I just wanted him to go on and on!” and I agreed with her. It was a privilege and a pleasure to hear this great author speak. And if I sound like a bedazzled fan, I’m OK with that!

Friday, November 7, 2014

"Not That Kind of Girl," by Lena Dunham (Yes, That Lena Dunham)

Agewise, I am not the target audience for Lena Dunham’s television show, “Girls,” nor for her new book of very personal essays, “Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned’” (Random House, 2014). Yet I have occasionally watched and been intrigued by the show, and I have just finished reading the book. Dunham is known for being successful in her early twenties; she is also known for her willingness to be extremely self-revealing about her experiences and feelings, whether good, bad, or (often) embarrassing. She is still only in her late twenties, and some would call it presumptuous to write a quasi-memoir at such a young age, but her candidness and self-deprecation are disarming. On one level, the book is very personal, with topics including her dating life, sex life, work, creativity, health, body and body image, relationship with her parents, friendships, therapy, and much more. On another level, she is speaking for a certain subset of her generation, mostly privileged, urban young women who are educated, liberated, but still often confused, aimless, and lost. Some of the chapter headings provide an idea of the scope and focus of the book: “Take My Virginity.” “Girls and Jerks.” “Sex Scenes, Nude Scenes, and Publicly Sharing Your Body.” “Therapy & Me.” “Emails I Would Send If I Were One Ounce Crazier/Angrier/Braver.” The book is very readable, and besides the essays themselves, includes a number of catchy lists on topics such as “15 Things I’ve Learned from my Mother,” “10 reasons I [Heart] NY,” and “13 Things I’ve Learned Are not Okay to Say to Friends.” There is plenty of humor and whimsicality, but also pain. Although there is the occasional cringe-worthy passage, mostly Dunham’s writing is both engaging and endearing. And although I began by saying that agewise, I am not the target audience, there are many aspects of young women’s experiences that sound familiar even to a woman quite some years past the teens and twenties. I am sure it will be of interest to some men as well. Those who love “Girls” will love this book. Those who dislike “Girls” will probably dislike this book as well. But I think there are also other readerships: those who have mixed feelings about the show, or have never heard of it but are interested in the topics Dunham addresses. Even those who are not big fans of “Girls” may well find much to like in this book.
 
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