Volume 42 Number 12

December 19 – December 25, 2007

  • No categories

Seeing other people


› lit@sfbg.com

WISH LIST When I give a book as a present, I like to have a good story to tell about where it came from — about the author’s travels or secret family life or public stunts. Many of 2007’s best bets for worthy literary gifts tell such stories on their own. Curated, compiled, and translated, they have the marks of an outside force, concerning themselves with how other people — an author’s child, a lover from another culture, eccentrics from California’s Central Valley — secretly see the world.

Sexy, contemplative, elusive, and addictive, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear (New Directions, 400 pages, $15.95 paper), translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is the first installment in Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow detective trilogy. Marías maps the sharpness and strange beauty of interpersonal relationships onto a larger relationship between Spain and England. The narrator’s intense observations of people expose the spooky ways in which we read our lives: "those who catch or capture or, rather, absorb the image before them gain a great deal, especially as regards knowledge and the things that knowledge permits."

Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colors (Knopf, 448 pages, $27.95), a collection of essays and one story, translated by Maureen Freely, is similarly a book that anyone interested in literature or love or cities or sounds or writers’ families will return to. "When Rüya Is Sad," one of several snippets about Pamuk’s daughter, ends so touchingly that the richly detailed worlds evoked in the Nobel Prize–winning Turkish author’s novels become more intimate, less imagined: "The two of us gazed out the window without speaking for the longest time, I in my chair and Rüya on the divan, and we both — Rüya sadly and I with joy — thought about how beautiful it was."

When Pamuk spoke in Berkeley in October, he noted that it can take him a long time to warm up to even the best translations of his work. New World/New Words: Recent Writing from the Americas (Center for the Art of Translation, 266 pages, $18.95), edited by Thomas Christensen, is a continuously exciting Spanish-English exploration of the passion of translation. "O body, love and Lord, / Show me a tree made in your image," poet Pura López-Colomé writes in "Prisma/Prism," translated by Forrest Gander.

The characters in the new edition of Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley (Heyday/Great Valley Books, 592 pages, $18.95 paper) also ask the land to reveal divinity. Editors Stan Yogi, Gayle Mak, and Patricia Wakida present a fantastic stable of story makers, from Yokuts California Indians to Joan Didion. The resulting read is hot, dry, wet, and, ultimately, mythic — something hard to achieve on a road trip through Fresno. In "The Underground Gardens," Robert Mezey writes hauntingly of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere’s underground gardens in Fresno (still maintained), remembering that Forestiere "clawed at the earth forty years / But it answered nothing." In the poem, the gardener becomes both Christ and seeker.

I wish that cultural critic Antonio Monda had trod similar earth-meets-human ground in Do You Believe? Conversations on God and Religion (Vintage, 192 pages, $12.95 paper), or at least asked his famous interviewees (Spike Lee, Grace Paley, David Lynch, and 15 others) to do what they do best: create something that more fully tells the story of their views of the divine. Either the editors cut out a lot to fit in so many interviews, or Monda was often in a rush; it’s hard to imagine the subjects really responded with one or two brief sentences to provocative questions and statements such as "What does death mean to you?" and "Religion teaches us to defend life to the last breath." Nonetheless, there are moments of clarity here. The book’s symphony of voices reaches a climax when Toni Morrison, pressed about her belief in an "intelligent entity," replies that when she thinks "of the infiniteness of time, I get lost in a mixture of dismay and excitement. I sense the order and harmony that suggest an intelligence, and I discover, with a slight shiver, that my own language becomes evangelical."

Of course, there are ways to be excited without being evangelical. Harold Bloom’s close reading of the gospels in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine (Riverhead, 256 pages, $15 paper) renews our faith in the value and spirit of the critic. A trio of photography books also transcend theological back-and-forth: The Black Hole, by Anouk Kruithof and Jaap Scheeren (Episode, 102 pages, $32 paper), is a delightful response to a series of newspaper articles of the same name about the future of art school graduates. Reading Jeff Wall, a collaboration between the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art (168 pages, $50), is like strolling down the block with an old friend who happens to have curated the wide-eyed Canadian artist’s current retrospective at SFMOMA (through Jan. 27, 2008). Ghosts Caught on Film, by Melvyn Willin (David and Charles Publishers, 160 pages, $16.99), is a foray into the world of double-exposed — I mean paranormal — photography, more fun than a game of Balderdash in which you’ve already looked up all the words beforehand. And one last idea: Give everyone on your list the same book and you’ll feel like a City Arts and Lectures moderator, or maybe even the contented curator at an invite-only museum of life.

Shelf help


› lit@sfbg.com

WISH LIST My family of origin is so nuclear that on smoggy days a mushroom cloud can be seen above the suburb where my parents still reside. During the holidays we gather there to rehearse and stage the roles we will alternately perform and resist in the ensuing year. While Dad tracks holiday cards sent and received on an Excel spreadsheet, Mom dons a pair of felt antlers and holes up in the kitchen. As for me, I revert to fatigued, endless reading, as if by some cruel law of repetition I have returned to that sullen moment in junior high when my only friend suddenly became popular, leaving me with nobody but books as my companions. Without intervention, I might remain in this half-hypnotized state, rereading Flowers for Algernon until the world outside grows dim, like a dream I can barely remember. This year, however, I’m readying myself with an eclectic batch of new books, books that make me want to participate instead of turning into a listless blotch of angst. These titles provide critical frameworks for dissent, suggest avenues for engagement, and probe cultural blind spots — generating new aesthetic possibilities along the way.

I, for one, like to kick off the holiday season with a powerful dose of well-researched feminist analysis, supplied this year by Susan Faludi in The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (Metropolitan Books, 368 pages, $26). It’s akin to taking vitamins to ward off the winter cold that’s going around the office. I read some Faludi, I ask my brother to help out in the kitchen. Faludi argues that a highly gendered mythology reasserted its virulent hold over the national psyche (as writ large by the national media) in the wake of Sept. 11. Drawing from an abundance of sources, she parses out the myth: strong male heroes rescue helpless girls, feminism is dismissed as a frivolous and dangerous mistake, and cowboys and manly men rise again to keep the home soil safe. In debunking this overblown narrative, Faludi demonstrates that it doesn’t actually help those it valorizes, nor does its rehearsal expedite an increase in national security or political accountability.

Investigating the symbolic construction of identity and myth from the angle of art, Tisa Bryant’s Unexplained Presence (Leon Works Press, 167 pages, $15.95 paper) takes up "black presences in European literature, visual art, and film." Fusing criticism, film theory, and fiction with a keenly poetic ear, Bryant reenters cultural artifacts to open up these symbolically loaded but structurally silenced or backgrounded characters and motifs. Her stories trace the ways in which black subjectivity is distributed or denied within pictures and plots, between viewers and artworks and artists, and in acts of conversation and debate, of queer identification or refusal to see. What is most remarkable is how Bryant transforms these elisions into acts of imagination, restoring or reconfiguring partially glimpsed subjects via fleet and surprising sentences that traverse the distance between representation and meaning.

Renovating symbolic systems can be hard work, and nothing restores a fatigued body and mind like making changes to the physical infrastructure — such as sawing through your drainpipes to divert "barely used" household water from sewers to gray-water systems for gardening and washing clothes. Sexily linking the macro to the micro, the locally grown junta known as the Greywater Guerrillas has expanded its how-to know-how into Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground (Soft Skull Press, 416 pages, $19.95 paper), a collection of essays that examine the global plight of water misuse and attendant broad-scale ecological impacts. I don’t think it undermines the gravitas of the issue to mention that portions of the book are a sheer pleasure to read, especially when editors Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, July Oskar Cole, and Laura Allen (illustrations were supplied by Annie Danger) detail their efforts to "disengage from the water grid" by taking plumbing into their own hands.

What James Kochalka takes into his hands in American Elf Book Two: The Collected Sketch Book Diaries of James Kochalka (Top Shelf Comics, 192 pages, $19.95) is his life, tidbits of which he transforms into daily diary comics. Visually and verbally, Kochalka risks a silly, reckless sweetness — a sampling of titles includes "Romance of Life" and "Everything was fine until the old wakey wake." The strips are also a little bit perverted and weirdly honest, as Kochalka’s elf-eared stand-in catalogs a receding hairline, farty dairy hangovers, and arguments with his beloved and salty-mouthed wife. As the pages and days pile up, the effect is infectious, such that, while under the diaries’ spell, I began to sense secret fissures of creative potential and magic in the mundane flow of everyday life.

Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Terry Hope Romero, and the army of flavor lovers they run with have changed the landscape of vegan cooking. In Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook (Marlowe and Co., 336 pages, $27.50), Moskowitz and Romero draw inspiration from a variety of international cuisines, without making any claims to authenticity. The resulting recipes (mole, saag, and lasagna, to name a few) are adventures in surprising flavor combinations. A helpful foreword details how to stock a vegan pantry, and tips offered alongside the easy-to-follow recipes instruct on where to find specialty items or how to organize your cooking tasks — advice that, as an unskilled, distractible cook, I found particularly useful. An appendix of menus ranges from rich party foods to low-fat and easy-to-prepare options.

Printed in large type, so it’s easy to read when splayed open next to a bicycle, the repair-manual portion of the illustrated Chainbreaker Bike Book: A Rough Guide to Bicycle Maintenance, by Shelley Lynn Jackson and Ethan Clark (Microcosm Publishing, 256 pages, $12), builds from the ground up. Starting with the ethics and rewards of skill sharing, it moves on to detail parts, tools, and instructions for system-by-system checkups and repairs. The book’s second half comprises reprinted issues of the Chainbreaker zine, originals of which were lost when zinester Jackson’s New Orleans home flooded after Katrina. The zines complement the how-to portions with a wider view of the bicycle’s cultural impact — e.g., the role of bikes in the women’s clothing revolution, the democratizing potential of this low-cost form of transportation. Note: the book hits shelves in February, but aspiring bike enthusiasts can order it now at www.microcosmpublishing.com.

And to come full circle … Sherman Alexie’s first young adult (and graphic) novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown Young Readers, 240 pages, $16.99), reminds me that a return to YA reading can be the opposite of mind-numbing — when undertaken with a book that’s emotionally spring-loaded, linguistically gymnastic, and devastatingly funny in turns. Drawing from his experiences growing up, Alexie tells the story of Junior (a.k.a. Arnold True-Spirit Jr.), a comic-drawing Indian kid who leaves his reservation to attend an all-white high school. Between racism at school and conflict with friends on the reservation, Alexie nails the ups and downs of a young artist learning to navigate by his own radar, amid competing claims from family and a sometimes encouraging but often deviously indifferent world. Ellen Forney’s inspired illustrations channel Junior’s manic, tell-it-like-it-is sensibility and provide a visual anchor for Alexie’s loquacious narrator.

Lust and loss


› lit@sfbg.com

Many dedicated faggots have made the comparison between cocksucking and prayer, especially when knees are planted in the ground, eyes closed because of something too powerful to look at. But Christopher Russell’s Landscape, a book of black-and-white photos of men cruising San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park, at first appears to take this assertion one step further — with the trees towering above and light cascading onto shirts, hands, exposed asses, it’s almost as if these men have stumbled into heaven. If so, they appear unaware — in one early photo, someone crouches forlorn in the shadows between trees; above him beckon three perfectly crafted beams of light. There’s an eeriness to many of these photos, as the sumptuousness of the foliage and the brashness of the sunlight render the sex acts comparably mundane: white T-shirts pulled up and white briefs pulled down like on a porn set; the spooky silhouette of a face pressed against a waiting crotch; baseball caps and dark sunglasses holding distance.

It’s when the images become fractured that they reveal depth of feeling — faces merging with leaves and light, heads blending into trees awaiting sky, the motion of hands and arms and legs conjuring a certain type of flight. When the camera pulls back, it’s the sky that’s shimmering, a brightness between branches and leaves with just a tiny figure below. We see a face turned, or the back of a head — yet the action is not where the figure is gazing but above and around, leaves swaying in the breeze and branches shaking underneath the glow of the setting sun. It’s here that we can truly appreciate the complex landscape of lust and loss, adventure and longing.

In one photo, the silhouette of someone’s coat blends so neatly with that of a tree that it resembles a sagging branch, and it brings to mind an image reproduced in the French writer Tony Duvert’s Good Sex Illustrated, a scathing 1974 critique of a five-volume "liberal" sex manual published the previous year in France. The photo, taken from the handbook in question, shows a park somewhat more groomed and far less picturesque than Buena Vista, but we see light reflecting off trees and a man in an overcoat standing to the side of a path, his back to us. Unlike in Russell’s photos, however, it’s the man who seems monumental and the trees a backdrop as a child gazes up from several feet away, apparently immobilized by what he sees. The image, from the volume aimed at 10- to 13-year-olds, is meant to illustrate the dangers of pedophiles who apparently lurk in parks. But Duvert indicts the motives of parents who warn their children about such violence, declaring, "What they are really trying to do isn’t to protect the child but their own exclusive right to do whatever they want with him."

In Good Sex Illustrated, published in English for the first time this month, by Semiotext(e), Duvert skewers the emerging field of sex education as nothing but "science taking charge of the old moral order." With a savage glee, he dissects the volumes of the manual allegedly geared toward helping young adults discover their sexual selves but instead intent on "libidinal dismembering" and centered on a "pro-birth obsession." Duvert is most hilarious when he compares what the handbook calls a "feeling of total fulfillment" from pregnancy to that of a teenager getting fucked in the ass: "Jean scrubbed his ass pensively: is this what they call a feeling of total fulfillment?" In a related footnote he brilliantly comments, "It goes without saying that as soon as the pleasure of having a cock inside your body stops being depreciated, the honor of having a fetus there won’t be over-emphasized." But if this is one of Duvert’s most skillful reversals, it also illuminates a gap in his analysis. After all, he’s comparing a woman’s alleged feelings during pregnancy to a man’s response to getting fucked (we hear nothing about a woman’s sexual pleasure). While Duvert incorporates a nuanced gender critique into many of his readings, he prioritizes male sexuality throughout the book, which ends up thwarting him in his overall mission of subverting the social order by encouraging the sexual freedom of all children.

David Halperin’s What Do Gay Men Want? An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity has a similar aim of moving conversations about sexuality (and sexual safety) away from standards of "healthy functioning" and "rational" or "irrational" behavior. Halperin seeks to champion queer cultural traditions over the judgments of psychology and the false dichotomy between risk and safety. (In a homophobic culture, what gay sexual behavior, after all, isn’t risky?) In searching for a more comprehensive approach to gay male sexual splendor, Halperin revisits a vulnerable and challenging 1995 essay by Michael Warner in the Village Voice, "Unsafe: Why Gay Men Are Having Risky Sex," in which Warner at one point states that "abjection continues to be our dirty secret." If Warner talks about abjection as a sense of "dirtiness" due to societal condemnation, Halperin describes it as "an experiment with the limits of both destruction and survival, social isolation and social solidarity, domination and transcendence." In other words, "the more people despise you, the less you owe them, and the freer and more powerful you are." Halperin proposes, "Instead of worrying about the appeal of abjection to gay men, … what we really should be doing is trying to think concretely about … how to make it work for us."

It’s a provocative idea, but unfortunately Halperin here departs from his methodical (and meticulously footnoted) analysis of safer sex strategies to endlessly circle around Warner’s essay and certain passages from the writing of Jean Genet, resulting in a repetitive rhetorical jumble. To be sure, Halperin provides a few illuminating examples (including the writing of porn star Scott O’Hara and the brilliant and short-lived zine Diseased Pariah News), but What Do Gay Men Want? could certainly have benefited from an analysis of the wealth of queer world-making in the era of AIDS that has centered on the possibilities (and perils) of an embrace of outsider status — the work of David Wojnarowicz, Samuel Delany, Derek Jarman, Gregg Bordowitz, Justin Chin, or Essex Hemphill, to name a few among innumerable possibilities. Or, perhaps, an analysis of Christopher Russell’s photos, where the messiness of desire becomes landscape.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is the editor, most recently, of Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity.


By Christopher Russell

Kolapsomal Press

70 pages, $49.95


By Tony Duvert; translated by Bruce Benderson


184 pages, $14.95 paper


By David M. Halperin

University of Michigan Press

176 pages, $22.95



› paulr@sfbg.com

Reading a work of fiction is a little like getting into someone else’s car for a trip that someone else has planned without consulting you: it’s an act of trust. The car pulls up and you climb in. You hope that the headlights and brakes are in working order and that there is no liquor on the driver’s breath. You assume that the driver knows the route, even if you don’t; you assume the destination is a worthy one, even if you’ve never heard of it. Discreetly you fasten your seat belt. The car pulls away from the curb, perhaps smoothly, perhaps amid squeals of burning rubber.

You might soon find yourself bouncing along unpaved rural roads or roaring through hairpin curves in the mountains, wishing you’d remembered your Dramamine. Snow, rain, fog, sleet, sunshine, boring vistas of cornfields, stunning views from turnouts, all are possible — and eventually you’re there, wherever it was you were meant to be taken. You didn’t get lost, the car didn’t crash, no one was killed or maimed, the journey was memorable if not always agreeable, and this is what we call literature. If you don’t like the destination, you make a silent note to yourself and, thumb extended, wait for another car to come along.

In Philip Roth’s new novel, Exit Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 292 pages, $26), there is a good deal of perseveration about the Library of America, our pantheon of literary immortals — of greatness, that great American obsession. Roth, notably, has already been admitted to this black-jacket collection, and his alter ego in the novel, the now-aged Nathan Zuckerman, a bundle of genitourinary woes and other peeves of the sort that afflict the solitary when they find themselves tossed into the simmering kettle of metropolitan life, is keen to see his late mentor, E.I. Lonoff, similarly enshrined. But Zuckerman isn’t the only character interested in Lonoff’s legacy; there’s also Richard Kliman, a 28-year-old literary ambitionist. Kliman wants to write Lonoff’s life and believes he’s caught an exciting whiff of incest in the dead writer’s story.

Zuckerman and Kliman, needless to say, aren’t fated to be chummy, though they do meet in an impressive shower of word sparks. Google tells us that Lonoff is probably a semiportrait of Bernard Malamud, author of The Natural and a friend of Roth’s, but the particulars of Lonoff’s fictive life — a house deep in the Berkshires, a flitting shadow of sexual transgression — struck me as a mingling of details in the lives of real-lifers J.D. Salinger and Henry Roth.

The other Roth — Philip — may or may not be a great writer, whatever that means (more anon), but he is certainly a good writer. He pulls up to the curb in an unassuming rig, and within moments we are under way, the scenery gliding by, the author in complete control, with a route and destination plainly in mind. The language is effective, not showy; its pull is strong and steady. The writer of these words has obviously thought about life as he’s lived it; the experience of growing older is rendered with vivid precision and an equally vivid lack of sentimentality. The author has nothing to prove, only something to tell, and we are only too pleased to listen, as the journey ticks by and the pages turn one after the other.

"Good writer," like "friend," is possibly too temperate an expression for our intemperate times. Gore Vidal once suggested that the good is the enemy of the great — a splendid aphorism — but he seemed to understand great as gifted, with good being highly polished, self-approving, and perhaps slightly resentful ordinariness, the glittering gemstone that turns out to be zircon. That is the truth about most glittering gemstones. Yet great, in our demotic culture, carries another meaning: it means "celebrated," and celebration is often the result of telling people, intentionally or not, what they wish to hear. Good writers can do this as well as bad writers.

Being considered a great writer in this sense is a political achievement, like winning the presidency. It’s a symbiosis that has to do with the writer’s times and the writer’s relation to those times. How does the writer see the times, and how is he or she seen by them? What if the relationship is adversarial? What happens if the writer is inclined to commit the unpardonable sin of telling the truth? Does the Library of America take these factors into account?

Long ago I noticed, and I continue to notice, that the animus at the heart of most unfavorable comment about fiction is You didn’t write the book I wanted you to! I am a disappointed consumer in a land where the customer is always right! Much favorable comment merely inverts this proposition; such noise is idiotic but at least doesn’t hurt the writer’s feelings. (Imaginative writers bruise easily, like peaches.) Lost in this welter of vainglory and petulance is the patient attempt to understand what was attempted, measure what was achieved, and describe the gap between the two. Some dare call this criticism, and while criticism might lack the autoerotic thrill of anointing the great or carrying out drive-by shootings on literary misfits, it remains our only trustworthy method of separating the good from the rest.