Noe Valley Voice July-August 2001

Hot Tips for Summer Reading

By Steve Steinberg

Summertime, and the reading is easy. Time to pick up a good book to pass away those languid vacation days under the warm sun (or freezing fog if you choose to stay in San Francisco).

To help you make your selections, the Voice has asked some of Noe Valley's local booksellers, writers, and residents what they're reading this summer. Here are their recommendations:

Tracy Wynne, co-owner of Cover to Cover at 24th and Church streets, says her first choice this year is Seabiscuit: An American Legend, a nonfiction work by Laura Hillenbrand. The book tells the story of one of horseracing's all-time greats, Seabiscuit, a thoroughbred who rose to fame in the late 1930s. Seabiscuit also chronicles the development of the California racing industry and the team that led Seabiscuit to victory. Wynne says that although she knows nothing about horses or horse racing (never been to the track) and doesn't approve of gambling, she still found the book to be "incredibly engaging.... I couldn't put it down."

Wynne also likes English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. Winner of the Whitbread Prize, the novel is a black comedy set in 19th-century Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia. The plot centers on a group of so-called scientists, whose racist and imperialistic tendencies contribute to the demise of the native population within the span of a single lifetime.

Wynne calls the story "grim but hilarious, a good seafaring plot with compelling characters."

Finally, Wynne likes American Gods by Neil Gaiman. A high-quality science-fiction fantasy, darkly humored, the book brings the gods of the old world -- like the Scandinavian Thor -- to the American landscape, where they will do combat with modern technology in one great climactic battle. The gods, who were brought here via the belief system of this country's immigrants, have transformed themselves into ordinary people and will remain that way until the moment of apocalypse. Wynne says Gaiman writes "stunningly about metaphorical characters," and "really makes you think about what you're reading."

Another set of recommendations comes from Phoenix Books at 24th and Vicksburg streets.

Managers Suzanne Ross and Kerry McLaughlin like Sarah by J.T. Leroy. Leroy, a San Francisco writer, tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who is frequently mistaken for a girl. The boy's mom is also a prostitute. Ross says Sarah, just released in paperback, seems like it should be gritty, but is really "fantastic and ironical and sweet story."

Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley, by David Browne, is another Phoenix pick. The book chronicles the two folksingers, who were father and son. Tim Buckley had his heyday in the 1960s and '70s, while Jeff came into his own in the '90s. Tragically, both men died at the age of 29, Tim from drugs and Jeff from drowning. The two spent only one week together during the course of their brief lives. Ross calls Dream Brother "reverent and beautiful, poignant."

Ross particularly likes Recollections of My Life as a Woman, by Noe Valley writer and poet Diane di Prima. In Recollections, di Prima tells of her experiences as part of the New York Beat scene of the 1950s and '60s. Ross says di Prima "pushed the envelope" for women and fought the sexist traditions that even the Beat movement was not immune from.

By the way, both Phoenix Books and Cover to Cover report brisk sales this season in books on tape, in addition to their regular hardcovers and paperbacks. The audios have a lot of appeal for those going on driving vacations, notes Ross. Some customers, she says, even want their tapes unabridged. Books on tape are not for people who don't like to read, but rather, says Ross, "they're for people who can't get enough reading."

Up the street at the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, 24th and Douglass, store manager Gary McDonald likes to say that "mystery reading is summer reading all year-round." Still, McDonald can manage a few juicy titles for your summer reading palate.

Purple Cane Road is a thriller by James Lee Burke featuring his Dave Robicheaux character, righting wrongs in the Louisiana bayou. (Actor Alec Baldwin portrayed Robicheaux in Heaven's Prisoners, the film adaptation of another one of Burke's books, a few years back.)

In Purple Cane Road, Robicheaux, an ex­police officer and sometime deputy sheriff, is investigating the 20-year-old murder of his mother. McDonald thinks this book is one of Burke's best. "It's just a wonderfully engrossing book."

The main character in Run, by Douglas E. Winter, could be your average nice guy next door, except he happens to also be a gun runner. When a deal goes bad, everyone tries to get him, and he's got to stay one step ahead in this action thriller. "Once it starts, it doesn't stop," says McDonald.

McDonald also recommends L.A. Requiem, by Robert Crais. It's part of another private-eye series, this one featuring gumshoe Elvis Cole. In this yarn, Cole investigates the murder of his partner's lover and tries to clear him after he becomes a suspect. "Dark, hard-edged, and wonderfully written" is how McDonald describes this book.

Some of the writers of Noe Valley's growing literary colony also have suggestions for a good summer read.

Alan Deutschman, author of The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, says that after you read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation you will think twice about eating a Big Mac. The book details the impact the fast-food industry has had on our culture. It also describes the horrible dangers to our health to be found in the slaughterhouses that process the meat for places like MacDonald's and Burger King, and in the chemical plants that make the artificial flavors we have come to crave. Deutschman calls Fast Food Nation "a fascinating piece of reporting."

On the lighter side, Deutschman recommends An Italian Affair, a travelogue and memoir by San Francisco writer Laura Fraser. In her recent book, Fraser recalls how she took a trip to Italy in the 1990s, as a form of solace after being abandoned by her husband. There she met a married Frenchman, with whom she embarked on an affair. The book, says Deutschman, has "sex, romance, travel, and wide-ranging escapism. It's quite light, but it's an enjoyable read."

Speaking of European travel, local mystery writer Cara Black, author of Murder in the Marais, says not to miss The Insider's Guide to Paris by British author Kate Muir. The Insider's Guide, says Black, is not your usual guidebook. "It's really funny and witty, full of off-the-beaten-path places to visit." Read it, says Black, and you'll immediately say to yourself, "I have to go there now."

Black also has high praise for the British murder mystery A Little Death by Laura Wilson. Set in 1950s' London, the book opens with the murder of a woman, her brother, and a housekeeper. The plot thickens when we find that the dead woman was a suspect 30 years ago in the murder of her husband. Black calls A Little Death "the best book I've read in a long time.... It was really exceptional. It almost felt like the real thing."

Voice columnist Janis Cooke Newman, who recently authored a book about adoption (The Russian Word for Snow), recommends the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. "It's about comic books and magic and Houdini and the Holocaust. There isn't a single line in its 600-plus pages that sounds like anything you've ever read before," says Newman. "He really deserved the Pulitzer for this one."

Another book suggestion comes from Ramon Sender, who manages the office at the Noe Valley Ministry on Sanchez Street. Sender is the son of the noted Spanish novelist of the same name and the author of A Death in Zamora, which describes his family's tragic involvement in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. This summer Sender is looking forward to reading Watermelon Nights by novelist Greg Sarris. Sarris, who is half Jewish and half Pomo Indian, tells the story of three generations of Pomo Indians, their lives connected through flashbacks. Sender says he admires Sarris for his advocacy of Indian rights.

Alvarado School parent Sandra Halladey, who is a director of the advocacy group Parents for Public Schools, really likes Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year, by Esmé Raji Codell. The book is a humorous account of a Chicago teacher's first experience in the classroom. It's both "inspirational and uplifting," says Halladey.

After reading Educating Esme, she says, you'll enjoy reading One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children, by David Elliot Cohen. Cohen, a Marin County author, gives a factual account, written as a series of e-mails, of how he sold everything and took off with his wife and three kids for a year of travel and adventure, journeying to such places as Zimbabwe, Laos, Costa Rica, and France.

Halladey calls the book "hilarious," and says it "makes you want to pack up all your stuff, sell your Noe Valley home, and take off around the world with your kids."

Our last recommendation comes from San Francisco clothier and Noe Valley resident Wilkes Bashford, who said he's reading Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure, by Don and Petie Kladstrup.

The book, says Bashford, examines the incredible lengths the French went to during World War II to keep their wine cellars out of Nazi hands. The French -- who venerate wine almost as much as art -- would go so far as to construct vine-covered artificial walls, made to look ancient. Wine and War, notes Bashford, also depicts the general suffering the French endured during the brutal Nazi occupation. "It's a fascinating book," says Bashford, "beautifully written."