Top Picks of 2019

There were plenty of duds I read this year but I’m getting better about ejecting from books I’m not enjoying. The list below contains only the highlights though it might appear to be a comprehensive list of books read. But first, some stats:

Non-fiction

Fiction

On Writing

Memoir/Essays

Poetry/Plays

Art

Classics

Read Walt Whitman (1855 Leaves of Grass edition), Rimbaud’s Illuminations, the first volume of Coleridge’s letters, De Salvo’s Virginia Woolf book and the final collection of diaries VW read, Anthony Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie, Guy de Maupassant’s travel diary Afloat.

New Grub Street

George Gissing’s classic work exposing the brutal reality of difficulty making a living as a writer in 1880s London, laying out all the facts, the pittance offered for a work that cost the author a year of his life or more. One writer, Reardon, ends up sick and dies nearly penniless, despite his wife having come into an inheritance. Another writer, Biffen, kills himself, although for flimsier reasons—not caring particularly that his book wasn’t a success but more because he can’t marry someone? Then there’s Jasper, the frivolous man who understands how to write the blather that the public wants, and not to burden himself with a wife unless she’s rich. The story of the two cousins, Amy and Marian Yule, comes into this, Jasper first promising to marry Marian but when her inheritance disappears he pulls away, eventually marrying Amy after Reardon dies.

Marian helps her father write his articles, and she sits in the Reading Room musing one foggy day: “A few days ago her startled eye had caught an advertisement in the newspaper, headed ‘Literary Machine’; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as herself, to turn out books and articles? Alas! the machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for today’s consumption.”

Goal for the new year: deeper, “vertical” reading

This great article from The Paris Review about reading in the age of constant distraction has me committing even more strongly to the idea of abandoning the skimming, attention-lite, “horizontal” reading of online bits in favor of immersion into a longer and deeper focus. Mairead Small Staid takes a look at how well Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age holds up 25 years after it was published, and no surprise he sounds like a soothsayer: “Ten, fifteen years from now the world will be nothing like what we remember, nothing much like what we experience now,” Birkerts wrote in 1994. “We will be swimming in impulses and data—the microchip will make us offers that will be very hard to refuse.”

Staid writes: When a work compels immersion, if often also has the power to haunt from a distance,” Birkerts says, and how I wish this haunting were the sole province of great work. It isn’t: ghosts seep through the words on the screen, ghosts of screeds and inanities, of hate and idiocy, of so much—so much!—bad writing.”

And the final word from Birkerts: “The beauty of the vertical engagement is that it does not have to argue for itself. It is self-contained, a fulfillment.”

As someone inordinately proud of her own reclaimed Borders’ bookshelf, I also loved this great detail: The shelves of the original Borders had been bought and repurposed by Literati’s owners to hold the new store’s fiction section.

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

This is not the type of book you breeze through in an afternoon. Recommended by a meditation class I took a few years ago, I finally got around to reading it in tiny bites each morning, a great way to start the day. Now that I’m through with one pass of the book, I’m going to keep it on my table and start again, a morning burst of wisdom to set the tone for the day.

While I suppose structure is a necessary component of explaining the Buddha’s teachings, I admit that it makes my head spin to try and keep track of all the things: the 7 factors of awakening, the eightfold path, the 5 techniques for getting rid of distracting thoughts, 5 themes of reflection, and on and on. Will I be quizzed on this? Instead, I tried to focus on the underlying concepts and let the numbers float away.

The personal stories inside are the ones that have the most staying power to stick in your brain, like his tales from meditation retreats or other monks’ experiences.

In a Lonely Place

Terrific Los Angeles noir from Dorothy Hughes, a mystery writer my sister recommended. Dix is a grifter, an ex-pilot unleashed from WW2 onto the Santa Monica streets where he inhales the fog while looking around for women to strangle. He calls up an old military buddy who happens to be an LA cop, and ratchets up his own pleasure in committing the crimes that his friend is investigating. The writing is beyond great, “He put out his hand to the mossy fog as if he would capture it, but his hand went through the gauze and he smiled.” Ms. Hughes is now on my must read list whenever I get a hankering for fiction.

In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz

It’s highly likely that a curated selected of diary entries will leave everyone unsatisfied except the person making the choices of what to include. Amy Scholder admits as much, saying in the intro that anyone would make different selections from the thousands of pages, over 30 journals kept between 1971 and 1991, but she picks up a few threads and follows those to show his values, struggles, passion. He is a beautiful writer but I wish there were more in here about his creative process, how he worked, how he went about making the Rimbaud series. In a 1979 entry: “Possibly the way forward is for me to try to extend the range of creative acts to cover both images of beauty (silent disturbing beauty) and of intensity—in drawn images and in written images and in photographic images. In doing this—creating a range rather than keeping the beauty hidden as I have done within journals, head, etc.—then I can at least have the physical proof of that range, and thus no longer feel the need to explain it or prove it in conversations or apologize for not having shown the range in its entirety that I feel is contained within me.”

Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life

An entertaining and witty memoir from Charleston lawyer and disability activist Harriet Johnson. Born with a congenital neuromuscular disease, she’s never been able to walk or bathe or get dressed without help from the form of paid caregivers. She tells stories that she’s honed over the years as payment in return for countless rides and assistance she’s received. From an early protest against Ronnie Reagan’s appearance on campus (not consenting to having her rooms searched without being present and hanging protest signs from her windows directly behind the podium), more protests at the DNC Chicago in 1996 when she felt endangered by the thousands of butts in her face, visiting Cuba for a conference and feeling like she was treated like a normal person,  and debating philosopher Peter Singer about her right to exist. She’s hilarious, heartwarming, sassy, and fierce. Easy to read and leaves you with a much needed perspective from someone who lived her life in a wheelchair.

The Best American Poetry 2019

I used to abhor anthologies but now I find them perfectly suited to my taste, my mood, my attention span(?). These are the best poems of the year, according to Major Jackson this year’s guest editor, a bold statement that invites raised eyebrows. And  of course leads to all sorts of squabbles in the comments/rating system of the book online, people who are pissed not to see more straight white men represented, as if we haven’t had enough of their droning. My own beef is with the ordering system, listing the poems by author’s last name, alphabetical. As someone with a name at the end of the alphabet, I hate this default ordering system. Why not zetabetical, mix it up a bit?

I loved poems from my continued favorite, Ada Limón (Cannibal Woman), along with David Lehman’s It Could Happen to You (I like the idea of taking the anniversary of an event and exploring what else was happening on that day, oh so long ago).

Ilya Kaminsky’s Last Will and Testament, Amy Gerstler’s haunting Update (what life is like after a death), Chen Chen’s I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party wherein they are advised yet again that he is gay and his boyfriend will be attending and to please be interested in him. Victoria Chang’s Six Obits also great (I’m seeing my trend of loving death as a topic)—for friendships, optimism, affection, clothes, the ocean, and the clock. Margaret Atwood has a delightful Update on Werewolves which allows women to get wild and hairy. Jeffrey McDaniel’s Bio from a Parallel World: “Jeffrey McDaniel runs his hands along the two f’s in his name like elephant tusks and shakes his head like a bucket full of soggy trademarks.” The powerful Head Crack Head Crack from Willie Perdomo. Philip Schultz’s The Women’s March zapped me back in time to 2017 at my own march. And I like the idea of David Wojahn’s Still Life: Stevens’s Wallet on a Key West Hotel Dresser, where he describes the contents of Wallace Stevens’s wallet as he’s at a conference away from his wife.

Waiting for Nothing

Tom Kromer wrote about his life tramping during the Depression, the tricks he used to try and rustle up a free cup of coffee, to get people to give him enough money to flop somewhere warm for the night. He made it out to Santa Rosa by 1931, harvesting grapes and by 1932 was working the fields in Napa. The book was written in 1933 while he was enrolled in the California branch of the Civilian Conservation Corps at Camp Murphys in Calaveras County (north of Angel’s Camp).

One great story in here about a trick he learns from another tramp—to buy a donut, drop it on a corner where women wait for a streetcar, wait for a different group of ladies to arrive, walk up to the donut and stare at it, then scurry away to eat it behind a telephone pole. Women would come up and give money to him after seeing that act. Tales of bums huffing the gas that runs the heating system, gas hounds who soak a handkerchief full of gas and drip it into a glass mixed with water, called “derail.” Bums hunkered down in an abandoned building to sleep in the rain, hustled out by cops. Taking pennies and trying to barter for half loaves of stale bread hoping that the baker would just give you the loaf. Walking into fancy restaurants and loudly asking the manager for a meal so he’d make a big deal of being generous in front of customers. Riding the rails out west where it’s at least warm and hiding money in his bandaged arm. And the mysterious chapter 4—which disappeared from some versions of the book—where a he accepts hospitality from a “fairy” dressed up in women’s clothes who offers him a meal and a warm bed.

Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition, prose introduction

It’s taken me about a week to slog through the 24 page, 30 paragraph, nearly unreadable “prose” introduction Whitman tacked onto the first edition, written after the poems when he was starting to puff and bloat. Crowley calls out Whitman’s “rather bumptious American nationalism” as the new prophecy he begins to promote in that text. Indeed, Walt seems very proud to be an American, continues to marvel at the fact that the President must tip his hat to us instead of vice-versa. What fun to travel back in time when that was the case, before the U.S. experienced its own bloat and gluttony.

Despite the confusing, swollen sentences, there are bits of gold dust to be panned and savored. Walt commands us, “This is what you shall do:… read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem…”

I did like his phrasing around appreciating immigrants: “To [the American poet] the other continents arrive as contributions.”

Not a huge fan of how he seems to relegate women to their one role of birthing babies, but that’s the patriarchy for you. Since it’s Walt, it’s filled with “goodshaped and wellhung” men, masturbation (onanism), foolish women.

Earlier, he contradicts himself, “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. ” But he’s barely able to contain himself, as shown in the below snippet. Crowley calls it “Whitman’s age-old habit of never saying in three words what might be said in six.” Is this something you’d want to read?

A Poetry Handbook

Another book I’ve been sipping from for weeks, and one I’ll likely keep reading continuously. I picked up at the Beat Museum, on my list to buy after another poet (Hoagland) called Oliver “the Miss Manners of poetic convention,” so I rose to defend her. This is a helpful book that drills down on technique, inviting students to mimic other writers to try on different styles, to pay attention to SOUND, to the line, whether or not to go for free verse or something more restricted, the role of imagery, tone, voice, the importance of revision.

She recommends consistent writing to allow inspiration to know when to show up. You “promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself—soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes or are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.”

Imagery

“The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world she has taken for subject. If a poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because she has not stood long enough among the flowers—not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.”

Line length

“The pentameter line is the primary line used by the English poets not for any mysterious reason, but simply because the pentameter line most nearly matches the breath capacity of our English lungs—that is, speaking in English—and thus it is the line most free from any special effect.”

Tone

“In order for the tone of the poem to change, the line had to change. Now a line was needed that would sound and feel not like formal speech but like conversation. What was needed was a line which, when read, would feel as spontaneous, as true to the moment, as talk in the street, or talk between friends in one’s own house…. Speech entered the poem. The poem was no longer a lecture, it was time spent with a friend. Its music was the music of conversation.”

 

Bounjour Tristesse

Francoise Sagan’s novella from 1955 is a charming delight, translated from the French by Irene Ash. A 17-year-old woman who enjoys life with her bachelor father (widowed for several years) takes a vacation on the Mediterranean. He brings his latest lover, and the three of them get along fabulously. Then in swoops Anne, a friend of the dead mother, who lures the father into proposing marriage. The daughter plots a way to break them up, accidentally causing Anne’s death and returning them to their normal state of affairs. A delicious snack of a read.

Best bookstores in San Francisco

As a local who actually reads books, I wanted to throw my own list of the best bookstores into the mix, a long overdue paean to the literary lights piercing SF’s legendary fog (which is back with a vengeance this morning).

The Green Arcade

Market @ Gough

Top prize for the best curation of books goes to Green Arcade. Dipping in there week after week, I always discover new treasures. Their interests mesh well with mine, plenty of pro-bicycling, anti-tech, pro-labor, local SF/California, nature, poetry, and art books. A bit lean on the fiction side and very rare to find a used book on the shelves, but otherwise a stellar shop staffed by friendly older dudes.

Readers Bookstore

@ Fort Mason

A hidden gem at Fort Mason, Readers is operated by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, diverting all profits to help fund our seriously amazing library system. Books that get donated to the Friends are curated to end up here (I think the ones that don’t make the cut are saved up for the Big Book Sale, also operated by Friends). Which means all sorts of oddities are in store for you. My first stop is the table by the front where the latest stock of weird books are displayed, followed by a quick scan of the back shelves. Then I check out what’s been added to the Essays section, peep into the fiction shelves, the walking/nature section, poetry, philosophy, and art books.

Bird & Beckett

Chenery @ Diamond in Glen Park

It took me forever to start exploring this section of the city but once I found Bird & Beckett I had a reason to hike over to Glen Park. Great collection of used and new books, usually with someone playing music to accompany your browsing. I beeline to the back room where I once found a fabulous book on color theory, so I head there always hoping to discover more art book treasure. Lots of poetry, essays, fiction, local guides, cookbooks.

Dog Eared Books

Valencia @ 20th

A must-stop whenever strolling through the Mission, Dog Eared is packed with great used fiction, plus excellent recommendations via the staff picks shelves right across from the register. You can also get great deals on new books that were over-ordered(?). They do a good job curating and marketing the books so you can breeze through to see if anything catches your eye. Don’t miss the small zine section or the carousel of pulp books near the front.

Dog Eared Books (Castro)

Castro @ 18th

I also really like the Castro version of Dog Eared, with a heavier focus on LGBTQ books and a different selection of magazines. A smaller store than the Valencia branch but sometimes contains nice surprises on the shelves. And I love their postcard station where you can write to various local, state, national politicians to give ’em hell or shower them with praise. They collect the postcards then mail them in large batches to the various representatives, so you can peruse other people’s rants and thoughts in addition to leaving your own.

Green Apple

Clement @ 6th

No surprise to find this perennial favorite on the list. The original location is teeming with amazing used books to discover either in the Fiction Annex or in the main store’s labyrinthine layout. Staff picks on the shelf in the main store right when you walk in always has good recs, in addition to the Must Read shelf near the stairs that lead to a warren of philosophy, history, nature, poetry. For years this has been my go-to for selling books that I weed from my shelf.

Green Apple Books on the Park

9th @ Irving

I appreciate this location for taking over the space that was once the beloved Le Video, an extensive movie rental place that went out of business. The Park location also hosts author events where I’ve seen a myriad of writers, Anne Boyer most recently. Everything is a little too fresh and new here, not as many used items, not dusty enough like a bookstore should be, but still a great shop.

Adobe Books

24th @ Folsom

I’m really glad that Adobe Books survived the move from 16th street, saved by a group of regulars who turned it into a co-op. There’s a tiny art gallery tucked away toward the back and this has proven to be hands-down the best bookshop to eavesdrop in throughout the city. Here is where I learned that a mayor of SF, Frank Jordan, hopped naked into a shower with 2 DJs on a live radio show in 1995. In the old location, I loved the art project where they arranged the books by color.

Bound Together

Haight @ Masonic

Anarchist bookstore Bound Together is run by volunteers and thus frequently closed, but when you luck out and the door is open, there are always treats inside. Large zine section, lots of books on labor and feminism and technology, plus a program that sends books to prisoners. Features lots of books from the AK Press, a collective now run out of Chico after a fire burned down their Oakland warehouse.

Browser Books

Fillmore @ Sacramento

Cozy bookstore Browser Books also worth breezing through when walking past. Good selection and I’ve previously seen someone getting their Tarot cards read in the back section. Now has a new lease on life since Green Apple purchased it.

City Lights

Columbus @ Broadway

Of course I had to put City Lights on here—there’s a reason it’s on everyone’s list. It’s a historical gem that has an incredible, huge section of poetry in the upstairs room. Push past the tourists and head to the basement for history, labor, philosophy, women’s studies, and the classics—plus the basement dates from pre-1906 fire days! I’ve gotten many a recommendation from the staff picks section—unfortunately placed in a high traffic area that you’ll clog as you scan the shelves.

Forest Books

Buchanan @ Post

Forest Books is an oasis in Japantown. Am I correctly remembering the sound of an indoor fountain, peaceful water soothing the shoppers? Also a great location for used fiction and nonfiction, plus amazing eavesdropping to be had.

Russian Hill Bookstore

Polk @ Broadway

I like the new location’s layout, much more user-friendly than the maze of the last store down the street. When you come into the shop, a ton of local-interest books is on your left while first editions are under glass to your right. Always interesting characters shopping in here, and I occasionally find a used book I’ve been looking for.

More rejects

Sometimes when I go a long time without posting it’s because I’ve been very temperamental about what I’m ready, finicky, moody, tossing things aside. Here’s a glimpse at my recent trash heap of unfinished reads. I don’t always catalog what I couldn’t read, but I feel like it’s become a long list, so adding some of them here. Maybe I’ll make this a monthly purge.

  • Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. This is a great graphic novel, I’m sure. I just couldn’t handle the massive, dense, slow moving story. Bailing out now.
  • 7 miles a second, a comic about David Wojnarowicz with art by James Romberger and color by Marguerite Van Cook. Flipped through quickly, appalled by the unreadable walls of text. Loved the coloring by Van Cook, though.
  • Tramping on life, an autobiographical narrative by Harry Kemp. Billed as one of the first “On the Road” books, it’s dullsville and unreadable.
  • Salt, sugar, fat: how the food giants hooked us. Best part was this excerpt about the day they took the cheese out of Cheez-Whiz which is why I picked the book up in the first place.
  • Jeff Tweedy’s memoir. Sorry, but if you say that your favorite band you’ve been a part of is the one you’re in with your kids, I’m out. Children are not inherently interesting.
  • John Hodgeman’s latest, Medallion Status. He’s a funny guy and I think I prefer to listen to him, not read him.
  • The Tao of Ordinariness was more of a patchwork quilt of other writers’ quotes. Each chapter overloaded with epigraphs, then quotes layered into the paragraphs themselves. And worst of all, misspelling Anne Lamott’s name as he’s quoting her, as Anne LaMotte? Unforgivable.

David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side

It seems a bit obscene to indulge myself in a time traveler trip to the early 1980s Lower East Side but I couldn’t resist. A time when artists were swirling around each other in the streets, collaborating, riffing, nudging, encouraging each other on. A time when you could “get real blood for a buck fifty at this butcher on 13th Street” and so everyone was making gory films with pigs blood and staging exhibitions with blood splatter.

This book of interviews is an attempt to pin down the elusive David Wojnarowicz—artist, writer, painter, activist, wanderer—who was briefly at the heart of the scene until fame jumped in to ruin everything. In an interview with Carlo McCormick, he explains why David stopped making art for a long while: “His whole idea was that when the media flashbulb goes off and burns everything away, the only way to stay creative and be an artist was to exist in the margins, in the dark recesses of the underground. We all felt totally invaded: the East Village scene had become a horrible thing.”

Lots of interviews with artists and friends and comrades of the period. Tales about 3 Teens Kill 4 (David’s band), early punk days, road trips, the Ward Line Pier project where artists took over abandoned and decrepit warehouses near the piers to fill with art and installations in 1983-4.

Like all humans, David was full of contradictions, both generous and stingy to a fault, obsessive about his art yet wanting to linger for hours over diner coffee. Unlike most of us, he was wildly productive and fought for what he believed in— hugely active in Act Up. There were horrible stories about how people died from AIDS, painful lingering deaths or planned suicides in the case of Haoui Montaug. Despite the danger, I come away with a pang for what was a free-moving, open, creative scene that seems to be in the past.

Some of my favorite of his work is the Arthur Rimbaud in New York series of photos. He took photos of a friend who was wearing a homemade mask of Rimbaud in various locations around NYC.