Books Of The Month
Here are the 12 choices by and about California that inspired CW's editorial staff to put pen to paper.
Thursday, December 10, 1998
Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil
David Mas Masumoto. W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. Hardcover.
David Masumoto is a third-generation Japanese-American, who still works an 80-acre peach farm first planted by his grandfather in a fertile valley near Fresno. Several years ago, Masumoto turned to writing, garnering prestigious awards for his first effort, Epitaph for a Peach, a loving tribute to that juicy fruit that has your mouth watering from page one. This book is more ambitious, and just as lovely. Masumoto writes of tending vines planted by previous generations, of walking in the fields surrounded by quiet ghosts, of reviving organic farming methods and using his grandfather''s tools, because "I farm peaches with the taste for an older generation...[and] old tastes are cursed with old farming methods--hand labor, walking the fields, trusting old shovels and shears."
As he works on his trees'' roots, Masumoto searches for his own roots, in travels that take him from the Japanese internment camps where his family spent World War II, to the rural village in Japan where he meets the relatives his grandparents left behind 75 years ago. What keeps his book from falling prey to the sickly-sweet nostalgia and platitudes typical of "roots" books is his lively, straight-forward writing style, his gift for sketching, in a few quick brush strokes, an entire personality. He doesn''t tell us how horrible the internment camps were, nor the shame his parents felt there--that suggestion comes through powerfully by the words he chooses not to speak. His encounter, as the Berkeley-educated "American son," with the traditional Japanese hot tub where his great-aunt bathes naked before him, is one of the best, most succinct descriptions of Old World/New World culture clash I''ve read. This book provides a rare glimpse into the little-known world of Japanese-American farming families in northern California; it''s a quick read, and will leave you smiling and thoughtful. SF.
Home and Away
Joanne Meschery. University of California Press, 1998. Paperback.
Joanne Meschery''s novel Home and Away is set in a California far removed from the urban centers of the Bay Area and Southern California--a small town near the Nevada border. The time is early 1991, as the nation goes to war with Iraq. For Meschery''s protagonist, Hedy Castle, there''s plenty going on the home front, too.
A customs officer checking cars for contraband fruit (and ferrets) for a living, Hedy must also cope with a husband off trying to make a last stand at competitive skiing, a father who''s recovering from a stroke, and a teenage daughter hoping to measure up to the demands of varsity basketball. Interspersed with news bulletins of SCUD missiles, nerve gas and troop deployment are issues of conscience Hedy must deal with closer to home. Will her daughter''s beloved basketball coach face small-town persecution as a lesbian? Should Hedy help her daughter''s best friend--the child of a vocal, born-again Christian--get an abortion? Should Hedy herself indulge in an extramarital affair and seek some measure of solace for the years she has spent abandoned and alone?
These would be tough moral choices for any single parent. But Hedy has allowed herself to become virtually paralyzed by inaction and has in fact made a choice of choosing not to choose. Ultimately, the pace of Hedy''s life quickens and she is forced to become not just a spectator, but a player. And, as she makes decisions, she realizes that while playing for keeps can mean losing, it can also mean laying claim to hard-won gains. This is a fairly quick read, but not an empty one. Women in particular will find themes worthy of thought and discussion. JD.
The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo
Oscar Zeta Acosta. Straight Arrow Books, 1972. Paperback.
The Revolt of the Cockroach People
Oscar Zeta Acosta. Straight Arrow Books, 1973. Paperback. (Both now available through Vintage Books)
It will have been 25 years ago this June that Oscar Zeta Acosta, the notorious "Dr. Gonzo" of Hunter S. Thompson''s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, set sail from the coast of Mazatlan only to disappear forever into folk legend and history.
Although Acosta''s claim to fame rests primarily as Thompson''s cohort in chemical madness, he is much more deserving of recognition as one of the key players in California''s Chicano movement, and as the author of two superbly written, semi-fictionalized autobiographical works first published the early 1970s, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, and The Revolt of the Cockroach People.
Acosta comes across as an astute social observer who deftly weaves his personal story with the emerging Chicano movement in California during the late ''60s to early ''70s. Both books intersperse Acosta''s childhood reminiscences of growing up in the San Joaquin Valley with anecdotal accounts of his career as a political activist, firebrand attorney, and all-around drug fiend to create a brilliant summary of the complexities and dynamics of race relations and politics in California during the height of the entire counterculture movement.
Few authors have better captured the urgency of the times than Acosta. Beyond the inherent interest in Acosta''s colorful personal story, told in a style that is both engaging and fiercely honest, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People provide a rare and valuable record of the historic roots of the Chicano movement. RP.
By the Light of My Father''s Smile
Alice Walker. Random House, 1998. Hardcover.
Alice Walker is no stranger to controversy. She has spent the last 30 years recounting stories of slavery, female genital mutilation and homosexuality. To her credit she has 22 books, including the provocative Pulitzer Prize-winning tome, The Color Purple and its highly accredited and no less feisty sequel The Temple of My Familiar. Now, six years after her last book, By the Light of My Father''s Smile has finally come to us from Walker''s 40-acre residence in Northern California. Predictably, her latest release is sure to stir up something big.
Walker has once again chosen to brazenly explore many of life''s greatest taboos--most notably sex. Her unapologetic journey into patriarchal repression of female sexuality in By the Light is at times shocking--perhaps even offensive to all but the most open and generous of minds.
The story revolves around the lives of a tortured family. In a break from her usual celebration of the mother bond, Walker turns to attack the sins of the father. In life, he is a ridiculous, sex-driven monster full of blame. In death he is forced to watch his living daughters make rapturous love as his penance.
While her writing is powerful and compelling, Walker fails to create a novel with those same characteristics. The plot often seemed to be no more than a platform for her ideas, most of them overtly negative. A long-time fan of Walker, I am disappointed. By the Light made me feel like an outsider--a literary voyeur rather than a part of Walker''s sensuous, elusive and ever controversial world. AP.
Valley of the Moon
Jack London. University of California Press. Hardcover. (To be published in January of 1999.)
First published in 1913, just three years before his untimely death at the age 40 from kidney failure, the Valley of the Moon represents a significant departure from Jack London''s better-known tales of rugged outdoor adventure.
Cast as both a modern love story as well as an elegy of California''s transformation from a predominately rural society to an urban/industrial one, Valley of the Moon is the story of Billy, a former prizefighter and teamster, and Saxon, a laundry worker and Billy''s independent-minded lover, as they search for a return to a more idyllic existence away from the harsh working-class realities of urban life. RP.
Gary Webb. Seven Stories Press, 1998. Hardcover.
In a real-life cloak-and-dagger tale that Tom Clancy couldn''t have invented, former San Jose Mercury reporter Gary Webb has proven once and for all that the U.S. government was indeed involved in cocaine trafficking in the 1980s. Based on extensive research, Dark Alliance presents convincing evidence that the CIA, the FBI, the U.S. Justice Department and Oliver North facilitated cocaine importation to the U.S. by a group of deposed Nicaraguans in order to raise money for the CIA-backed Contra army. Even more startling, Webb links the Nicaraguan cocaine influx to the boon of crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles in the early ''80s, a tragic plague that eventually infiltrated inner-city neighborhoods nationwide.
In the final chapter, Webb relays his personal saga that resulted from writing the truth. Following the first story of his four-part "Dark Alliance" series that appeared in the Mercury in 1996, Webb chronicles his sudden rise to fame, followed by a speedy and painful descent into the depths of journalistic contempt. Perhaps due to jealousy or government arm-twisting, the New York Times, the Washington Postand the Los Angeles Times, among others, crucified Webb''s story. Using anonymous sources, slanted interviews and incomplete research, the American mainstream media undid in a matter of weeks what Webb had spent an exhaustive year and a half constructing. Webb was subsequently condemned by his editors who couldn''t take the heat, demoted and eventually resigned. The remainder of that series was never published, until now. Webb''s research is iron-clad. Thanks to Webb and Seven Stories, we can still believe in freedom of the press. LC.
t.c. boyle stories
T.C. Boyle. Viking, 1998. Hardcover.
With the onset of the millenium, there is no better primer on what the last half of the 20th century was all about, or where we may be headed in the next fifty years, than author T. C. Boyle''s just published collection of short stories.
Longtime fans of Boyle will note the absence of one story inadvertently left out of what is otherwise a complete, mid-career compilation of Boyle''s short story work, published in magazines and four, previously published short-story collections.
What is most astonishing, beyond the sheer number of stories included in the collection, is Boyle''s incredible range of subject matter--everything from apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenarios to historical romances, science fiction tales, portraits of modern, pathological archetypes, and heartbreaking, ironic tales of contemporary dreams and aspirations.
What separates Boyle from other writers working in both the novel and short story form, is his seemingly preternatural ability to shift narrative perspectives--to write satire, parody, black comedy, or pseudo-historical narratives without losing his distinctive voice, his intricate use of language, or his outrageous sense of humor.
As an author absorbed in themes of destiny, evolution and entropy, and the dichotomy between man the animal and man as master of the universe, T.C. Boyle has captured all of the madness of modern life in a way that keeps readers laughing as they dance their way into the apocalypse. RP.
Richard Miller. Dada Foundation Imprints, Ltd., (Monterey), 1997. Paperback.
Meet Mosca, a fly. A 21st century bio-engineering experiment gone awry, Mosca was invented by the CIA to spy on unfriendlies and as a vector to spread germ and chemical warfare. But something has gone terribly wrong. Mosca was mistakenly created with emotions. It cares. Now, Mosca has escaped from his CIA handlers and, let loose upon humankind, is on a mission of its own. Observing all the destruction that humans have caused, Mosca wants to kill off the human race. "Kill all the humans so life can live!" is Mosca''s motto.
As absurd as it sounds, Mosca is an enticing illustration of the inevitable control that humans will one day have over their own evolution. But can we handle it? An intriguing tale of cultural lag, Mosca tells the story of future humans so technologically advanced as to have the ability to produce designer babies, organic robots and custom-made viruses. But still conscientiously archaic, humankind lacks the emotional maturity to control the monsters that it creates, and grapples with the dangers of self-destruction.
Miller, a Monterey Peninsula resident and a contemporary of beat generation writers such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William Burroughs, has published 10 books in a career spanning more than 30 years. LC.
Words of My Roaring
Ernest J. Finney. University of California Press, 1998. Paperback.
This book recreates life in San Bruno, a town just south of San Francisco, in the early years of World War II. Roaring is told in four voices, via the technique of rotating narrators from chapter to chapter. The narrators are a young girl whose mother works in the shipyards and whose father enlists; her next-door neighbor, an abandoned boy taken in by a crotchety great-aunt when his Catholic boys'' home is touched by scandal; a first-year teacher; and a young sailor emotionally scarred by his experiences in the Pacific war zone.
Finney''s writing is somewhat turgid, but eventually the pages begin to turn on their own, revealing a depth and richness of voice that is utterly compelling. The characters all have hidden oddities, described with laconic nonchalance, almost as if lifted from the pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez''s 100 Years of Solitude. Is Mary Maureen''s older brother fighting with the troops in Germany, or is he really hiding out in the family''s garage? Why does Avery, a talented gardener, swallow poisoned mushrooms? How is Chuck affected by the flashbacks of the weeks he spent on a raft in the Pacific after his ship goes down, watching his comrades picked off by sharks one by one? Finney''s book describes the tenderness of first love and the brutality of love lost, as well as the violence that sailors on shore-leave brought to daily life in the San Francisco area, including a disturbing chapter about sailors beaten up and robbed by disgruntled townspeople in a "cowboy bar" near Watsonville. Finney based much of the book on stories told him by local sailors. SF.
Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
Mike Davis. Metropolitan Books, 1998. Hardback.
If anyone could make the Book of Revelation sound like an afternoon of miniature golf, it''s urban prophet Mike Davis. His previous screed, City of Quartz, essentially predicted the Los Angeles riots through a brilliant navigation of the region''s poisonous social history. Now, in Ecology of Fear, Davis deconstructs a socio-environmental Apocalypse that is not only galloping across Southern California, but may also be coming to a city near you.
Ecology of Fear begins with a provocative twist on the natural disasters that have pounded Los Angeles over the past decade: Things could--and, in fact, should--be a lot worse. Through an exhaustive investigation of regional environmental history, fire ecology, seismic research and heavy weather phenomena, Davis illustrates that recent disasters have transpired during a period that, historically speaking, has been "anomalously mild and, therefore, atypical."
Davis also delivers blistering observations on how alienation and racism are exacerbated by paranoid urban planning. In the omniscient Los Angeles metroscape, skyscrapers have brains, public space is a fantasy and Machiavellian architecture orchestrates passive segregation. Meanwhile, city schools are "little more than daytime detention centers for an abandoned generation," while California becomes the "proud owner of the third largest penal system in the world (after China and the United States as a whole)."
The unnerving implication is that greater Los Angeles might possibly represent the shape of things to come across the urban nation, a premonition of like-minded mega-cities trampling over community, compassion and common sense.
With vast intellect, startling prose and a subversive sense of humor, Davis ultimately delivers a message that few want to hear: "Despite the wishful thinking of evangelicals impatient for the Rapture or deep ecologists who believe that Gaia would be happiest with a thin sprinkling of hunter-gatherers, mega-cities like Los Angeles will never simply collapse and disappear. Rather, they will stagger on, with higher body counts and greater distress, through a chain of more frequent and destructive encounters with disasters of all sorts." CW
Trout Fishing in America
Richard Brautigan, 1967. Available with Trout Fishing in America, The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar, all by Richard Brautigan. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1989. Trade Paper.
Re-reading the novellas and poetry of Richard Brautigan, one finds innocence, romance and enough humor that we know he knows there''s more to life than sweetness and light. And now, 14 years after Brautigan apparently put a bullet through his brain, there''s something tragic about his works, too.
Brautigan came into his own in 1967 with the publication of Trout Fishing in America. It''s a difficult work to excerpt in any meaningful way. Brautigan''s staccato sentences build one upon another to create vibrant, absurd snapshots from the ''50s and ''60s. Each short chapter is a scene stolen from time and stands as its own story.
In the chapter "A Walden Pond for Winos," the writer and some in San Francisco''s Washington Square decide that a flea circus will solve their fiscal woes. It''s a mad, desperate fantasy--but one that has its own inescapable logic:
"They talked about how to make little clothes for fleas by pasting pieces of colored paper on their backs.
"They said the way that you trained fleas was to make them dependent upon you for their food. This was done by letting them feed off you at an appointed hour.
"They talked about making little flea wheelbarrows and pool tables and bicycles...
"They of course did not have their fleas yet, but they could easily be obtained from a white cat."
This flea circus is a ridiculous--if appealing--idea and everyone in the story knows it. And in some ways, it''s an apt metaphor for the decade that spawned this Trout.
Maybe it was the undeniability of icy reality in the ''80s that eventually led Brautigan to take his own life. But Trout Fishing in America stands as a tribute to the warmth and vitality of another way of seeing the world. CT.
Cecelia Holland. Forge Books, 1997. Hardback.
California historical fantasy writer Cecelia Holland has been covering the history of our home state for a career spanning 23 books. Not every book is California related. Still, her consistently descriptive style spreads through her subjects, ranging from Tutankhamen to the people of Jerusalem to several on Gold Rush-era California, including her latest, Railroad Schemes, a quick-reading, easily digestible novel about Los Angeles just as Southern Pacific Railroad creeping its way across the country to join the budding El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean.
Holland weaves the Western-style adventures of small-time robbers King Callahan and Pigeye and 16-year-old Lily Viner (who''s roped into their thieving plots) with the unfolding history of the railroad and the efforts by prominent California pioneer businessmen to either push it through or halt it, depending on how their profits stand. Holland''s characters are well-presented, portraying the many types of adventurers drawn to California, from highway robbers to greedy businessmen to Mexican immigrants whose ancestors founded much of the state.
As Holland depicts it, California and Los Angeles are ripe for exploitation and opportunity, even before Hollywood moguls and real estate brokers grabbed hold of them, and Holland paints that picture through rough-and-tumble dialogue and straight-forward scenes of the Old West. Especially interesting to readers who have lived in or visited Los Angeles, Railroad Schemes depicts what are now modern teeming streets when they were "tracks [that] led north across the broad savanna that lay between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific." CC.
Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades
Oakley Hall. University of California Press, 1998. Hardback.
Author Oakley Hall, who has penned more than 20 novels during his career (see interview, page 30), hammered out a story that''s equal parts history and mystery. Queen of Spades follows the exploits of famous San Francisco journalist Ambrose Bierce and his proteg, Tom Redmond, through the streets, high and low, of San Francisco in the 1880s. As the pair try to track down a Jack-the-Ripper-like slasher, they are drawn deeper into a web of intrigue that stretches from the Nevada silver mines to Santa Cruz, Sacramento and SF''s Nob Hill.
The book''s mystery element offers a certain amount of entertainment and delivers a mildly surprising conclusion. But one suspects that the most important purpose the mystery serves is to provide a structure for presenting Hall''s historical research.
And it''s in the historical pageantry that Hall shines. Not only does he create a pair of believable Victorian characters in his protagonists, he sets them in motion against a fascinating backdrop of history. It was a time when the Southern Pacific railroad barons--Charles Crocker, Collis B. Huntington, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins--were the kings of California and owned almost as many politicians, cops and journalists as they did miles of railroad track. Bierce, the curmudgeonly columnist, was an implacable and obsessed foe of the railroad men, and it''s the spark of his anger that truly drives this book. CT.