Friday, March 31, 2017

Poetry "Speaks Truth to Power" in These Troubled Times

The Sunday, March 12, 2017 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle’s book section announces that it has just begun a new weekly feature, “State Lines: California Poetry.“ Every Sunday, it will publish a poem by a California writer, or a poem about California. The announcement goes on to note that “the appearance of poetry in public forums is more important than ever before. When language – even the language of verified truth and scientific fact – is attacked by the institutions we rely on for safety and prosperity, poetry plays a vital role. Not only does poetry offer us comfort and moral nourishment, but it speaks truth to power” (p. 35). Amen to that. As the article points out, publishing poetry in newspapers used to be more common in the distant past; I welcome this small move toward wider exposure of poetry. And while I am on the subject, I thank the general interest magazines that do publish poetry regularly, most notably The New Yorker, but also The Atlantic and The Nation, among others. The inaugural poem in this new San Francisco Chronicle feature is “Almost Livin’ Almost Dyin’: For all the Dead,” by Juan Felipe Herrera, the current U.S. poet laureate and former California poet laureate. The poem is “a breathless, breakneck poem” that “teeters, like life itself, between mourning and praise”(p. 35). It references many of the issues of today, including racism and the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"Footnotes from the World's Greatest Bookstores," by Bob Eckstein

A package arrived in the mail, and when opened, turned out to contain a beautiful book full of photos of bookstores. What bounty! My friend F. had seen it and thought it would be perfect for me, and she was right. The book is “Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores: True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers” (Clarkston Potter Publishers, 2016) by Bob Eckstein, with a foreword by Garrison Keillor, a bookstore owner himself. In his introduction, Eckstein tells us that he chose the bookstores “based on recommendations, word of mouth, social history, and contributions to the locale,” and then gathered stories from the shops. He started with a list of 150 bookstores from all over the world, and eventually narrowed the list to 75. He praises bookstores not only for the great gifts of the books themselves, but also for bookstores' roles as “a hangout, a place of solace, a community center, and a venue for cultural entertainment.” He concludes his introduction by saying that the book “is intended to be a celebration of independent bookstores everywhere and for all those who love books.” The format of the book gives each bookstore a two-page spread. On the left side is the name of the bookstore, its location, how long it has been (or was, if now closed) open, and a brief description. On the right side is a charming illustration in color (all illustrations are by Eckstein), capturing the look and feel and personality of the store, along with a hand-lettered sentence or two related to that bookstore. Some of the sentences are quotations from the bookstore owners, others are quotes from customers, and others are interesting facts or comments about the store. The book is handsomely produced, nine inches wide and seven inches high, with a sturdy hard cover and thick, coated pages that display the illustrations at their best. The bookstores are located in such widespread spots as Portugal, Scotland, and India; however, most of them are in the United States, with a very large contingent from New York City, where the author/illustrator lives. Of course I immediately looked to see if any of my own favorite bookstores were listed, and sure enough I found a few, including, right here in the San Francisco Bay Area, City Lights in North Beach and Moe’s Books in Berkeley. Favorites in other places I have traveled include The Golden Notebook (in Woodstock, New York) which I visited just two years ago on a short trip to the Hudson Valley; Rizzoli Bookstore (in New York City) (those art books!); the Strand Bookstore (in New York City), which I fell in love with when my late dear friend and fellow book-lover C., then a resident of New York City, took me there many, many years ago; Shakespeare and Company (in Paris), to which just about every literature-struck young person visiting Europe makes a pilgrimage, and which I vividly remember these decades after my first visit there; Powell’s Books (in Portland, Oregon); and Elliott Bay Book Company (in Seattle). Leafing through this book and enjoying the illustrations and comments, I am reminded of a dream I have occasionally had of planning a trip based on visits to some of the best, most interesting, most historical, and/or most quirky bookstores I know of. Maybe I will really do it one of these days or years! Meanwhile, I almost always seek out bookstores wherever I happen to travel.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

RIP Paula Fox

I am sad to write another “RIP” post, but it is important to me to stop and take note of writer’s lives and deaths, and to pay tribute to the work they did and the art that they have left to the world. Paula Fox was the author of several novels, two memoirs, and more than 20 books for children and young people. Her most famous book for adults was “Desperate Characters” (1970), a devastating novel about the end of a marriage. Her children’s books won many recognitions, including the very prestigious Newbery Medal. In 2013, she received the Paris Review’s Hadada Award for lifetime achievement. Fox had a difficult life, starting with being born unwanted and shuttled around to various relatives and friends during her childhood, and continuing with a couple of unsuccessful marriages and a mugging that left her with brain damage that it took years to overcome, among other misfortunes. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that her work, as the New York Times obituary (3/3/17) put it, “illuminated lives filled with loss, dislocation, and abandonment.” I remember being fascinated, in a sad and depressed way, by “Desperate Characters,” which I read at an impressionable age, but also being struck by her sharp observations, her depictions of the minute details of her characters’ lives and surroundings. Even her children’s books did not shy away from difficult and painful topics, as Fox believed that “we do them [children] no service by trying to sugarcoat dark truths.” Fox died on March 1, 2017, in Brooklyn, at the age of 93.

Monday, March 13, 2017

On Jane Austen's "Sanditon"

Regular readers of this blog will likely remember that I am a dedicated, devoted reader and admirer of Jane Austen’s fiction (along with millions of other readers, I know!). I have read and re-read (and listened and re-listened to, on tape and CD) her novels multiple times over the years; I have read some of her juvenilia (most notably “Love and Freindship” (sic); I have read other authors’ sequels and prequels of her novels; I have read many books about her, both biographies and literary criticism; I have taught her work several times in college Women’s Literature classes; and I made a pilgrimage to her beloved Chawton (where she lived and wrote for the last eight years of her life) and to Winchester Cathedral (where she was buried) about ten years ago. The novels I have read the fewest times are the unfinished ones: “Lady Susan (more or less unfinished); “The Watsons,” and “Sanditon.” These three have in general been rated as definitely worth reading but not at the same level as the six full-length novels. The current issue of The New Yorker (March 13, 2017) contains a fascinating essay by Anthony Lane in which he examines “Sanditon” in the context of its being written as Austen knew she was dying. Lane describes the novel as follows: “Although -- or precisely because – ‘Sanditon’ was composed by a dying woman, the result is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness” (p. 77). He writes of her trademark puncturing of human pretensions, in this case largely about hypochondriacs; she writes, for just one example of her sharp and wonderfully worded appraisals, of “competing invalids.” But besides her depicting human frailties in her usual humorous but pointed way, in this book there is a different context: her own failing health as she was writing it. Lane calls “Sanditon” “a mortality tale,” and goes on to say that “Austen knew as well as anybody that, in the long run, hypochondriacs aren’t wrong. They’re just early. We will all die…. That certainty haunts the book, sharpens the pitch of its comedy, and sets it apart from her earlier works.” Lane’s reflections on “Sanditon” give me a new way to look at this unfinished novel, and I now feel the need to read it again. Parenthetically: Lane also reminds us that this summer will be the bicentenary of Austen’s death, on July 18th, 1817, at the age of 41. I look forward to the writings and events that will ensue.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

"All the News I Need," by Joan Frank

Joan Frank, a Northern California author whose work I like very much (see, for example, my posts of 7/11/10, 4/9/12, and 1/5/13) has published a new novel that focuses on aging and death, but especially aging. “All the News I Need” (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, is as thoughtful and understanding of human nature as I have found all of Frank’s work to be. Her two main characters are a rather prickly and snarky Fran, a fairly recent widow, and a shy gay man, Oliver, who has also suffered a major loss a few years before the story starts. Both are lonely, and almost by chance (Oliver was friends with Fran’s late husband), are each other’s best and almost only friends. But there are still issues between them, and although they care about each other, they don’t always understand or communicate very well with each other. Neither of them works, and they are both casting about for how to fill their time. Both feel old and left behind. On a whim, followed by detailed, almost obsessive preparation, they decide to take a trip to Europe together, a trip that is less than successful, although it has its moments. One thing I like about the novel is its setting (except for the Europe trip) in the San Francisco Bay area, and all the familiar details about the area. The main thing I don’t like – or rather that has me puzzled – is that these characters are cast as old, over the hill, yet it turns out that Oliver is only 62 and Fran 58. I understand very well that there are difficulties and issues with getting older, even in one’s 50s and 60s. But since neither of them has major health or financial problems, it seems strange to focus on their not-so-old ages as a period of decline and loss that leaves them feeling so bereft, so at sea. I don’t mean to question that the characters feel old and lonely, and as I said, they have both suffered losses, but the strong sense of, and focus on, aging seems a little exaggerated in their cases. Having said all this, I will say that the two characters, their histories, and their relationship are all beautifully and insightfully depicted. Although the story is a bit on the bleak side, it did draw me in.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Books for Living," by William Schwalbe

I have posted recently on two books about books and reading, one of which I liked very much (posted on1/5/17) and the other which I found disappointing (posted on 2/15/17). I have now read a third such book. (Just as I sometimes read several books in a row by one author, I sometimes read several books in a row or in close proximity on a certain theme). This third book, “Books for Living” (Knopf, 2017), by Will Schwalbe, is a collection of 28 short essays on a variety of subjects, mostly on specific books but sometimes on other book-related topics. The essays on specific books are not reviews, let alone academic “literary criticism,” but meditations on the books and on how Schwalbe connects to and/or learns from them. The title of each chapter lists the book in question and then a brief subtitle; examples include “Stuart Little: Searching,” “Giovanni’s Room: Connecting,” “David Copperfield: Remembering,” and “1984: Disconnecting.” The range of books on which Schwalbe focuses is eclectic: old and new, famous and not famous, literary and less so, excellent and not-so-excellent-but-met-a-need-at-one-point, novels and memoirs, books he read as a child and books he has read more recently (he is now “fifty-something”). In addition to those already mentioned, the books include, to give just a flavor of his choices: “The Importance of Living,” “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “The Little Prince,” “Song of Solomon,” “Rebecca,” and “Death Be Not Proud.” The author’s voice is modest, conversational, questioning, musing. To provide a better idea of his focus and tone, let me quote a few sentences from the introduction. “What follows are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions.” And: “’What are you reading?’ isn’t a simple question when asked with genuine curiosity; it’s really a way of asking, ‘Who are you now and who are you becoming?’” I found the low-key but sincere tone of these short meditations on books to be engaging, thought-provoking, and enjoyable.
Site Meter