Cheryl Olsen’s bed stand is a mess. It makes her happy.
The Art of Character — I continue to dip in to this treasure months after author David Corbett gave it to me and Eric when we met for coffee at Caffee Mediterraneum on Telegraph in Berkeley, because he said that’s the best way to read it—as needed. It overflows with profundities like “By giving the character a deep-seated need or want, you automatically put her at odds with something or someone . . .” Goes without saying this volume should be on every writer’s reference shelf, but it’s also a highly entertaining read in its own right.
Speaking of that famous—or infamous—Berkeley street, I started reading Michael Chabon’s (we’re practically neighbors, after all) Telegraph Avenue shortly after I got it for Christmas last year, but so far I haven’t been able to give it the concentration it demands. It’s full of Chabon’s signature array of vivid, quirky folks, but there are so many of them up front I feel the need for a spreadsheet until I figure out who’s going to be alpha important. Not necessarily a bad thing, just one requiring more focus than I’ve been able to give. But hopes are high.
The Wonder Bread Summer, by Jessica Anya Blau — I won this in a giveaway on Jennifer Haupt’s blog. Feeling no compunction about getting my money’s worth, I casually glanced at the first page thinking I’d come back to it in a month or so, but I couldn’t put the book down. With naïve Black/Chinese/Jewish/freckle-faced Allie in the driver’s seat, anything can happen and when it does, it’s always unpredictable. Driving her friend’s Honda Prelude with a moon roof up and down California with a bread bag full of cocaine looking for her mother, the tambourinist for Mighty Zamboni, Allie is a good girl in peril. As a UC Berkeley grad, I may’ve enjoyed the CAL GRL license plate—oft’ misread as CALL GIRL—more than some readers, but there are loads of other fresh, surprising, unique, raunchy, hilarious elements as well. And as the mom of a twenty-something female, I marvel at Blau’s ability to simultaneously menace and tickle.
Fred Setterberg’s Lunch Bucket Paradise is a permanent fixture on the nightstand because it brilliantly captures a special time in California history—and my own adolescence in a working class neighborhood. Whenever I want to get in touch with my roots, I read a couple of pages of Fred’s vivid, uncluttered prose and I’m transported . . . immediately reminded of why I love this “true-life novel.”
Meghan Laslocky is another Oakland writer. My incomparable sis-in-law gave me her The Little Book of Heartbreak about “Love Gone Wrong Through the Ages.” This tidy volume is a marvel of research interwoven with self-deprecating humor—right down to the author’s favorite breakup albums (Joni Mitchell’s Blue tops the list), movies about love and loss, and a hearty recommendation for the surprisingly tender 700+-page Johannes Brahms: A Biography. Laslocky concludes her “poignant and informative waltz with the characters and creations of heartbreak” with advice on everything from getting to know your attachment style to diversions, drugs and wallowing. Who would’ve thought her topic could produce such mirth?
Farther from home
Similar in its humorous style and equally jam-packed with historical anecdote, Andrew Shaffer’s Literary Rogues came to us as a thank-you gift: Eric, We Wanted to Be Writers, and several of the writers interviewed in it figure prominently in one of Shaffer’s chapters, although not as any of the wayward authors of this “scandalous history” thereof (much to E’s disappointment). Anyone who follows @andrewtshaffer on Twitter knows he’s the very funny fellow who also wrote the parody Fifty Shames of Earl Grey and “other fucking masterpieces” (including essay collections, nonfiction and novels).
Two other books I can’t seem to bring myself to relegate to shelves less close at hand are by friends. William Souder’s biography of Rachel Carson, On A Farther Shore, is there lest I get too complacent about what’s happening to our planet. And because its 500 pages represent such a noble and important and well-written accomplishment. The Age of Desire is there because Jennie Fields worked in advertising for 30+ years before becoming a full-time novelist. It’s terrific historical fiction and represents a different sort of accomplishment.
Next in the queue is friend Catherine Gammon’s Sorrow. Though the title initially gave me pause, this excerpt and C’s unwavering hand on the page make me confident the prose will transcend the heartache.