Noe Valley Voice July-August 1997

Stories to Sail Away on This Summer

By Rayne Wolfe

I keep a list of books I want to read, ever ready for the day I can actually afford a vacation. Yes, that's me in the black bikini and Jackie O. sunglasses. My wet hair is twisted up into a pink towel turban, and I am lounging poolside, with a stack of more good books to choose from than the hotel bar has beer on tap. My dog, Daisy, is with me, and she has a good book, too. Only she's chewing hers. (Hey, this is my dream vacation -- get your own!)

To beef up this summer's list -- especially if Daisy and I end up on a blanket in Dolores Park -- I decided to chat up the booksellers and librarians in Noe Valley. I asked them to recommend books that were really really good and not just the latest mega-seller from the big publishing houses. I want the kind of stories you can drown in, the novels you would skip your favorite TV show to read, the books you won't loan -- even to your dearest friend. If they're in paperback, all the better.

Here's what I got (ha! -- now just try and find them):

Jim Carroll, of Carroll's Books at Church and 24th, couldn't say enough about one book he loves: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. He described it as a collection of exquisitely crafted short stories: "The topics are obscure. They are full of ironic twists. This author has a special fascination with ancient conundrums and the subject of time."

Borges is no slouch either. Seems he was the head librarian at the National Library of Buenos Aires (as was his father before him), taught Middle English, and maintained a circle of librarian friends throughout the world. "He uses obscure sources, things that might be impossible to check," unless you had a friend, say, shelving books in Oman.

This book is so fine, Carroll said, that when a copy recently came into his store, he "borrowed" it. (It must be pretty swell to swipe it from your own store.)

Ask Bruce Taylor at the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore (24th and Diamond) what he'd recommend for summer reading and make sure you're not in a rush, 'cause Taylor wants to share.

"Death at LaFenice by Donna Leon is one of a series of books set in Venice, Italy. If you've ever been there, it will make you plan to go back. If you've never been, you'll make plans to go," Taylor said with the sigh of a man who has no current vacation plans.

Another one of his can't-put-downs is a story set in San Francisco following the 1906 Earthquake. Dianne Day's Fire & Fog describes the city we all love as it rose from the ashes of near total destruction.

And for those readers who like to scare themselves, Bruce recommends Michael Connelly's The Concrete Blond. "It's about a serial killer -- I don't usually recommend serial-killer stories -- but this is a good one!"

Shelly Jackson of Phoenix Books & Records at 24th and Vicksburg told me about a book she wouldn't loan to her best friend, "not even family." It's Push by Safire, a performance poet who taught reading in Harlem in the 1980s.

What's Push about? "Well, it's really depressing," said Jackson. "It's about a 16-year-old illiterate girl. She's pregnant with a second child fathered by her father, and she's trying to learn to read.

"But it's good," she assured me.

Jackson wasn't the only person who mentioned this book during my survey. And she wouldn't let me hang up without promising to include The Color of Water by James McBride. "It's a memoir, a tribute really, written by a black man about his white mother." (This was fortunate, since Voice editor Sally Smith threatened to "graft" this book onto my list if no one mentioned it.)

Oh, and Jackson squeezed in another tip: "anything by Paul West!"

Being a Paul West fan myself, I'd recommend The Rat Man of Paris, a fictional story about one of France's great "noses," the men who create perfumes. Another Paul West favorite is Lord Byron's Doctor.

Next, I called Good Vibrations, on Valencia near 23rd Street, which sells books, too. (Go on, it'll give you an excuse to check out the store.) Good Vibrations' book buyer, Genanne Walsh, said her best bet for quality summer reading was The Gates of Paradise Anthology, edited by Alberto Manguel.

"I recommend this book because it has something for everyone," Walsh said. "It's literary without being pretentious. It's full of erotic, sexy, interesting stories by great writers." Like who, for instance? "Everything from John Cheever and Dorothy Allison to Alice Walker, whose story, `Porn,' describes the effects that pornography can have on a relationship."

When you've devoured that, she added, try the second Gates of Paradise Anthology, published in 1994. "There's a great story by Collette called `One Evening,' which tells the story of a secret affair and describes so well the lure of the forbidden." Okey-dokey.

Over at the Noe Valley Library on Jersey Street, head librarian Roberta Greifer insisted I lift my ban on best sellers, because the book she'd just read and is now recommending heartily is Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. It's about the ill-fated Mount Everest climbers.

"I wasn't too excited at first," admitted Greifer. "I figured I knew what it was about. And I'm afraid of heights! But I found the author's attempt at communion with nature to be noble. I found it riveting."

Carol Small, the Noe Valley children's librarian, suggested Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers. She described the novel, for ages 10 and up, as "a sad, but fascinating story of two boys in Harlem, their families, and the impact of friendship, guns, and gangs on their lives."

Last but not least, Jeff Doleman of Cover to Cover Booksellers on 24th Street discovered a book for those of us who do make it to the beach this summer.

Caught Inside by Daniel Duane is an account of the author's one-year hiatus in Santa Cruz, California, surfing. That's it. No lofty ambitions. No world-class competitions. Just surfing, watching out for sharks, and getting tanned to a nice coffee-bean color.

"He does some great descriptions of what it's like to surf," said Doleman. Doleman surfs, so he ought to know.