Noe Valley Voice July-August 2003

Books to Read This Summer

By Olivia Boler

Just because we don't have a real summer here in San Francisco--the kind where you lie on the beach watching the sun sink slowly into the sea--that doesn't mean we don't need summer beach books. We're good at fantasizing, aren't we?

So in late May (before Cover to Cover's closing announcement--see the front page), the Voice asked our neighborhood booksellers to give us their suggestions for quality "beach reading." We told them we didn't care whether the books were new or old, fiction or non. We just wanted books that could transport us far away from our wind-blown, goosebumped existence.

In addition to the bookstores, we also checked in with the Noe Valley Library on Jersey Street. (And this reporter couldn't resist tossing in one of her own favorite beach books as well.)

Fabulous Fiction

Sky Sithbunkerd, of Phoenix Books at the corner of 24th and Vicksburg streets, says her top pick in the fiction category would be The Magician's Assistant, by award-winning author Ann Patchett. This 1998 book, she says, has been overshadowed by Patchett's more recent novel Bel Canto, but it is so engrossing Sithbunkerd almost finished it in one sitting. The story begins at the magician's deathbed and takes you on an emotional journey through the lives of those he leaves behind. It also has a touching inanimate character, the magician's rabbit.

As her top choice, Noe Valley Librarian Roberta Greifer recommends Julia Glass' novel Three Junes, winner of the 2002 National Book Award. Shifting from settings in Greece, Scotland, Greenwich Village, and the Hamptons, Three Junes paints intimate portraits of a father and son, and a young widow who is pregnant, by viewing them during three summers in a 10-year span. "It's beautifully written and it really captivates you," Greifer says. "I found it hard to put down."

Another Greifer suggestion is Preston Falls by David Gates, which came out in paperback in 1999. It is the "dark and funny" story of an ex-hippie going through a midlife crisis while his marriage falls apart.

Eric Whittington, owner of Bird & Beckett Books in Glen Park, says his summer fiction pick is Bohumil Hrabal's I Served the King of England. This novel, originally published in 1948 in Hrabal's native Czechoslovakia, tells the comic story of a Czechoslovakian busboy who, during the Nazi occupation, rises through the ranks and becomes the owner of his own swanky hotel, only to lose his shirt once the Communists take over.

"It's a macrocosmic view of Czech history and a sort of fantasmagoric tumble through the first part of the 20th century in Czechoslovakia and Germany," says Whittington. Copacetic.

True-Life Drama

Some in the book industry say the market for memoirs is glutted, but that doesn't stop readers from demanding the real deal.

In this category, Tracy Wynne, who co-owns Cover to Cover Booksellers on 24th Street near Church, suggests Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, by Alexandra Fuller. Fuller, a white woman who was born in England, grew up in the midst of Rhodesia's 1971­79 civil war and watched her parents defend the racist colonial government against blacks vying for land and power. This memoir, written through a young person's eyes, has been likened to Anne Frank's diary.

If it's "true crime" you seek, Wynne also recommends The Poet and the Murderer: A True Crime Story of Literary Crime and the Art of Forgery, written by Simon Worrall. In 1997, Sotheby auctioned off a newly discovered poem by Emily Dickinson, only to have it returned as a fake. As it turns out, the true penman was Mark Hofmann, a rare book dealer and "master falsifier" already doing time for murder.

For history buffs who enjoy a stranger-than-fiction tale, Sithbunkerd of Phoenix Books suggests The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, a 1998 book by Simon Winchester. It's the true story of how, in the late nineteenth century, Professor James Murray collaborated with Dr. William Chester Minor on the first Oxford English Dictionary. Only after Minor had contributed almost 10,000 definitions over the course of two decades did Murray learn his terrible secret. Now, doesn't that make you want to get hold of a copy?

Alternate Realities

For those who like to leave planet Earth, Jude Feldman of Borderlands Books (Valencia near 20th), which specializes in fantasy literature, has three hot, or in our case cool, summer picks.

Kushiel's Dart, published in 2001 by Jacqueline Carey, is the first book in a trilogy, which Feldman describes as "well-written, well-imagined, very complex, and fun." Pagans rule, and the book's heroine, Phedre, is an indentured courtesan and spy who has "Dumas-style adventures in politics, religion, and intrigue." Publishers Weekly even compares this character to Scarlett O'Hara.

Feldman's second recommendation is The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. This "hilarious" mystery, published a year and a half ago, takes place in an alternative London in which literature is sacred and a thief named Hades is busy stealing characters from books. (Look out, Jane Eyre!)

Finally, Feldman suggests John Barnes' 1995 book Kaleidoscope Century, as something that will appeal to both sci-fi enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists. The book's hero wakes in 2109 at the age of 140 in a young body, but has no memory of his past. His only clues are the messages he has left from his earlier life. Unfortunately, he was not such a good guy.

Mysteries--Who Done 'Em

For suggestions in the mystery genre, we consulted gumshoe expert Diane Kudisch, owner of the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore on 24th Street near Diamond. At the top of her list is The Master of Rain by Tom Bradby. Set in 1920s Shanghai, this larger-than-life novel, which recently came out in paperback, is full of double dealing and grisly murders. It has the feel of a classic noir thriller, she says.

A perennial favorite of Kudisch's is a mystery series by Diane Mott Davidson, who writes about Goldy Schulz, a caterer and sleuth in Colorado. Her novels, such as Cereal Murders, Dying for Chocolate, and Tough Cookie, each wrap up with 10 or so recipes for dishes Goldy has prepared in the story. Readers have actually tried out Davidson's recipes, reports Kudisch.

"It's great beach reading," she says. "Unless you get hungry easily. Then stay away."

Kudisch's last recommendation, Andrea Camilleri's The Shape of Water, comes from Italy. It has sold millions of copies in Europe, but was only recently published in the United States. Sicilian police inspector Salvo Montalbano must solve the murder of a local politician found dead in a locked BMW with his pants down. Hey, this could trump The Sopranos.

For the Young at Heart

If you are already up-to-speed on the magical adventures of Harry Potter, Wynne of Cover to Cover suggests I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. First published 50 years ago, Castle is a novel about an eccentric but poor family living in a crumbling English castle. The 17-year-old protagonist attempts to escape the limits of her life through journal writing. Wynne says it's a charming, romantic comedy, good for older teens as well as adults. The book also has been made into a film, to be released July 11.

Sithbunkerd of Phoenix Books recommends the classic Where the Red Fern Grows, an autobiographical novel by Wilson Rawls. This Depression-era story of a little boy and his coon dogs deals with themes of loyalty and friendship. It also happens to be a favorite of Oprah Winfrey and First Lady Laura Bush.

And now for my pick: it's The Year of the Horse by Diana Walker. This book, a childhood favorite, is about a teenage girl who, with her siblings, is sent to live with her grandmother while her father attends to his writing career. The girl befriends an arrogant horseback-riding boy next door and soon discovers a talent she didn't know she had. The story has humor, romance, very likable characters, and horses--all excellent ingredients for a summer read. Alas, it's out of print, but the staff at the Noe Valley Library say they'll help you find a copy. Or try the used bookstores.

I just located my own 20-year-old copy and squeezed it out of the bookshelf. I think I'll take it to "the beach" (Douglass Park) this summer. Now where did I put my sweatshirt?