Sunday, January 31, 2016

San Francisco Chronicle's book blog: Bookmarks

Although I have seen mention of the San Francisco Chronicle’s book blog, titled Bookmarks, almost every week in the Sunday book section, I have never actually checked it out until now. I like the topics there; they are a mixture of San Francisco Bay Area topics and national ones. The most recent post tells the sad story of the closing of Black Oak books in Berkeley, after 33 years. The post points out that even though independent bookstores are now, after a steep decline, holding their own, there are still closures, especially because such bookstores often operate on a very narrow profit margin. If you are interested, and especially if you live in the SF Bay Area, check it out at

Blog "Follower" Issues

Google has informed me that it no longer supports “followers” who follow from non-Google sources. If you are one of those who got “cut” as a follower in the past few days (I don’t know if you got any notice of this or not), you can either rejoin through Google, or just continue to read the blog as before, and even comment if you like, without “following.” And you can always contact me directly at with questions or comments. Let me take this opportunity to say thanks very much to all of you who read the blog, either as official "followers" or not, and either regularly or occasionally.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Library and Bookstore Conversations

I love the random conversations that occasionally spontaneously arise in bookstores or libraries. Just the other day, a man at the self-service checkout machine next to mine at my local library (sometimes I use the self-service if the librarians at the front desk are busy) looked over at the books I was checking out, and enthusiastically exclaimed, “Oh, you are going to read ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’! I just came from a reading by the editor of that book, Stephen Emerson, who is a friend of mine. You are going to love the book!” We exchanged a few more sentences, and I left the library feeling that small but enjoyable glow of connection around shared book conversations, long or brief as they may be. Over the years I have had several of these brief, spontaneous conversations with other patrons of the library, other customers in bookstores, and with librarians and booksellers. There is always that same spark of connection. The topics don’t have to be profound; once a woman next to me at the bookshelves in a bookstore and I started laughing at the same time, because we were both in that familiar, identical, and parallel crouch with our heads turned sideways, reading the titles of books on the lower shelves. We had a chuckle and a brief conversation about this common bookstore posture, just one of those little experiences shared by frequent bookstore habitu├ęs. These brief book-and-reading-related conversations definitely brighten a booklover’s day!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"What Belongs to You," by Garth Greenwell

Lori Ostlund, author of the recent, wonderful, and very well-received novel “After the Parade” (see my post of 10/19/15), a few weeks ago recommended Garth Greenwell’s new novel, “What Belongs To You” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) (my first 2016 title!). Since I value and trust Ostlund’s recommendations, I got and read the book. It is the story of an American man who seems to be in late youth or early middle age teaching English in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is gay, and the main focus of the novel is his meeting with and ongoing relationship with Mitko, a young hustler. Although the nameless main character and narrator pays Mitko for sex, they develop a further connection that is hard to define. There is lust, a kind of indefinable love, and a sort of friendship, yet there is still and always a transactional nature to their meetings and their complicated intertwined lives over a couple of years. There is an element of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” story. Although those two stories, and the main characters, and the degree and type of connection between them, are all different, there is a common element of an older man from another country longing for and mesmerized by, even obsessed by, a beautiful younger man (boy, in the case of Mann's story) in the country he is visiting. Greenwell demonstrates how hard it is to categorize relationships. He also reminds us of how our heads and our hearts and our libidos sometimes lead in very different directions, and reconciling them is nearly impossible. All of this takes place in the beautiful but also sad and crumbling country of Bulgaria, where most of the young people feel they need to leave the country in order to have a life. The character of Mitko is an original, both very physical and transparent and yet mysterious and unpredictable as well. Despite his charismatic and gregarious personality, he doesn’t seem to find a way to settle into life; he drinks far too much, and is often semi-homeless, impoverished, and disconnected. Greenwell writes beautifully and evocatively about identity, sexuality, being an outsider in a country far from one’s own, and wondering what one is doing and where one is heading in life. I can’t say I “liked” the book, but I found it quite compelling.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

No Books for Ten Whole Days!

I just realized I haven’t read any books, or parts of books, in the ten days since I returned from my trip to Italy. As I mentioned in my last post, I read several books during the trip. But since I have returned, because of a little jet lag, plus getting ready for the new semester beginning next week, I haven’t had time to read more than the newspaper and a couple of magazines. For me (a book addict, as you know -- not something I am necessarily proud of, but just a fact of my life), this is a long stretch of time without books! And I can feel it: it feels as if something important is missing. But although I know the next couple of weeks will be busy as well, I do have four books on hold and waiting for me at my local library, which I will pick up today, and I know I won’t be able to resist reading a bit here and there.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Gathering Reading Material for a Trip

As usual when planning for a trip, one of my very important preparations involves choosing what to bring to read. As I have mentioned here before, it is a delicate balancing act to make sure I have enough to read, and yet not so much that my bags will be completely weighed down. And no, I still haven’t converted to e-readers. Also, I prefer a certain type of reading material for trips: good writing, but not too demanding. This is especially important for long plane flights, such as the ones I took on the trip to Italy from which I have just returned. So I usually take several paperback novels, along with a selection of magazines and newspapers. Then as I read each book or periodical, I jettison it along the way, to make room for more reading material if needed, or if I am at the end of my trip, to make my bags lighter. When I am at my destination(s), in order to “top up” my reading material, I watch out for bookstores that sell books in English, and I usually find them. It is fun to browse bookstores in other countries, and of course I always feel at home in bookstores. A bonus, in Europe, is that I sometimes find books that have not been published in the United States, or at least not to my knowledge. During my 12-day Italy trip, I read six novels, one short story collection, several magazines, and newspapers in English (usually the New York Times International) as often as I could find them. Among the books, most were enjoyable but not memorable, which was fine; they served the purpose I chose them for. The exceptions, the two that were at a higher literary level and more memorable, were the esteemed writer Elizabeth Spencer’s 1967 novel, “No Place for an Angel,” and the also esteemed writer Rose Tremain’s “The American Lover and Other Stories.” The former had the added attraction of being partly set in Italy. But my favorite reading on the trip was the latter, the Tremain collection, one which I definitely recommend. Oh, and Italy was, of course, amazing!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Sous Chef," by Michael Gibney

I like going to restaurants, including trying new restaurants and trying those with different cuisines and influences, and I am fortunate to live in one of the best restaurant cities in the United States, San Francisco. Of course I love trying different restaurants during my travels as well. (It so happens that I am in Italy as I post this, and an hour ago I had an amazing risotto dish, one of several good meals I have had here.) I also enjoy learning about and reading about restaurants and chefs, so I have read several restaurant-related books over the years. Three examples about which I have posted here are memoirs: “Blood, Bones, & Butter,” by Gabrielle Hamilton (4/26/11); “Restaurant Man,” by Joe Bastinich (5/12/12); and “Yes, Chef,” by Marcus Samuelsson (7/21/12). I also posted a list of favorite restaurant-world-related books on 2/4/10. I very recently read a book I gave myself for Christmas (I also gave a copy to my son-in-law): “Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line,” by Michael Gibney. Gibney, a longtime chef, brings the world of a fine-dining restaurant’s kitchen alive by describing a typical day there in great, vivid detail. The book is based on his knowledge of and experience in several restaurants rather than one particular one, although focusing on one particular (unnamed) “Modern American” restaurant in the West Village in Manhattan. Many of the characters are either composites or given pseudonyms, understandably so. The book is not a tell-all, in the sense of revealing secrets or scary details, as was, for example, Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential.” But there are plenty of very intriguing and revealing portraits and details to keep the reader interested. I would not put this book among the very best of restaurant books I have read; the very best ones are in fact about more than restaurants, encompassing the wider world of food, and the lives and aspirations of the chefs and other workers. Or they are just plain better written. But this book is reasonably well written, definitely worth reading, and the format Gibney has chosen (a day in the life…) is an effective one.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Reading a Mystery after a Long Break: "A Banquet of Consequences," by Elizabeth George

As I have mentioned here before, I have read a lot of mysteries in my life, starting from the beloved Nancy Drews of my childhood, proceeding to Agatha Christies, and onward. I tend to read mysteries in phases; for a while I read many of them, and then for a year or two or more, I don’t read any at all. I have been in quite a long phase -- several years -- of not reading them, although a couple of years ago I did read the latest Maisie Dobbs (by Jacqueline Winspear). This is all prologue to saying that I recently read Elizabeth George’s latest, “A Banquet of Consequences” (Viking, 2015). After reading a review or two, I just suddenly had the urge to read it, and I read all 574 pages on two days, one of which was a day in which I was sick and stayed in bed all day. Talk about binge-reading! This is “a Lynley novel” (as stated on the title page), as are most of George’s novels, so readers have become very familiar with -- and fond of -- him and his story. Lynley is an aristocratic (but in a low-key way), thoughtful detective with Scotland Yard, and over the years I have been fascinated by him as a character and by his complicated relationships with the women in his life, his friends, and his colleagues. Of course, as readers of this blog probably know, I have a very big soft spot for (almost) all things British, accents and all, and I do prefer English mysteries and main characters. In the early years, Lynley was part of a complex foursome of friends/lovers with shifting relationships, and that tended to be very melodramatic and intense, almost too much so, but nonetheless gripping. George’s writing continues to be intense, but has smoothed out a bit over the years. In the last novel, a tragic event happened in Lynley’s life, and he is still recovering in this current novel. An interesting set of interactions always happens between the patrician Lynley and his colleague Barbara Havers, who is from a working class background and defiantly unwilling to play the traditional female role, which becomes a real issue in this current novel. Havers’ boss, also a woman, puts Havers on a short leash until she shapes up (in her work -- because she tends to be a maverick rather than a rule-follower) but also in her dress and presentation). Lynley and Havers are very close (not in a romantic way) and their relationship is fascinating. Oh, yes, this is a murder mystery, so I should mention the mystery itself! The mystery involves a very dysfunctional family and the family members’ relationships with each other and with outsiders. This novel, like many of George’s, has a definite psychological aspect. Although the author is good at the usual murder mystery tropes – dropping hints but not too many, spinning out the suspense, etc. – and although her mysteries are always satisfying, to me the personalities and the characters are the most interesting parts of her novels. And I love that she is maximalist rather than minimalist, thus the length of her novels. So am I back to reading mysteries, or was this a one-time aberration from my current years-long “no mysteries” phase? I’m not sure, but I will of course post about it here, either way!

Friday, January 1, 2016

"M Train," by Patti Smith

I wrote here on 2/17/15 about how fascinated I was with singer/poet/writer/artist Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids.” When I saw she had published a new memoir/essay collection, “M Train” (Knopf, 2015), I hesitated to read it, thinking it could not possibly live up to the first memoir. I also read that it was less linear, less explicitly memoiristic, more impressionistic, all of which could be good things, but also could go very wrong. But I did plunge in to “M Train,” and it was all of the things I just mentioned. At times it felt slightly meandering, but in a good way. “Just Kids” was about Smith’s youth in New York City, her early career as a musician and writer, and her relationship with her fellow artist and soulmate, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. “M Train” is about her later life, including her years in Michigan with her husband, the musician Fred Sonic Smith, who unfortunately died suddenly and too young. Most of the book focuses on her current life back in New York City, with many forays into the past. She writes of various journeys, actually pilgrimages, that she has made to places where her admired writers and artists lived and/or died. These iconic figures include Jean Genet, Haruki Murakami, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Sylvia Plath, and Frida Kahlo. The journeys become important ceremonial occasions in her life, and also inspiration for her writing and photography. Throughout the book, Smith shares her dreams, her reading experiences, her love of coffee and cafes, her feelings about getting older (she was 68 at the time the book was published in October), her attraction to Rockaway Beach and her buying a ramshackle house there, which soon after was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy but is now being rebuilt, and much more. I so appreciate the seeming openness of her writing. Most of all, the writing is highly poetic, and captures both the author’s creativity and her feelings. The sometimes impressionistic aspect reminds us of how we all think and dream, not always linearly and certainly not always logically. And it reminds us of the importance of the life of the mind and the artistic life. Of course Smith portrays this condition much better and more poetically and effectively than we readers could do, but all of us can live better and more transcendent lives if we spend more time on thinking, dreaming, writing, and paying tribute to the writers and artists who have influenced us. This book includes about 50 photographs, almost all by Patti Smith herself.
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