Although the COVID-19 lockdown has rendered some people bored, that hasn’t been the case for me. Downtime in the past 10 months has provided the perfect opportunity to pick up a book, including catching up with titles I’d been meaning to get to for ages. I’ve read new and old fiction and non-fiction; selections by friends, acquaintances and colleagues; items picked up in free little library book-sharing boxes in my neighborhood (I cannot pass a display of books without perusing); and volumes from among the innumerable review copies that have piled up in my office over months, even years. It’s a great perk in the life of an arts editor. Here’s a brief roundup of 10 memorable recent reads, many with Bay Area ties or focus.
“The Lost Department Stores of San Francisco” by Anne Evers Hitz (2020, Arcadia Publishing and The History Press)
This fun, photo-packed history volume by the great-great granddaughter of one of the founders of the Emporium takes an in-depth, compare-and-contrast look at six stores that set the tone for retail as The City blossomed in the 19th century: City of Paris, The White House, Gump’s, I. Magnin & Co., Emporium and Joseph Magnin. Hitz not only dishes about the retailers’ founders and diverse styles, she describes the stores’ demise and ongoing challenges that have faced the retail industry as shopping, and consumers, have changed so very much in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“Fifth Chinese Daughter” by Jade Snow Wong (1950, 2019 edition published by University of Washington Press)
Written in English by a 24-year-old woman who describes growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown before and during World War II, this seemingly straightforward book is considered a classic of Asian-American literature, even though, as Asian-American studies and English professor Leslie Bow says in the introduction, some have called it a “snow job” that pandered to white audiences by promoting an “illusory meritocracy” rather than addressing racial prejudice. Nonetheless, Wong’s details of her life as a youngster in a strict immigrant family — and how she paved her way to independence by going to university, working in American offices, and found success as a ceramics artist and businesswoman – are fascinating.
“Transactions of Belonging” by Jaya Padmanabhan (2014, Platinum Press)
This collection of 12 mostly India-set riveting short stories — alternately funny, sad, chilling, provocative, edgy and surprising —by The Examiner’s “In Brown Type” columnist really packs a punch. Especially effective are “The Blue Arc,” a sad, even political, tale that humanizes a young sex worker in India’s biggest red-light district; “Curtains Drawn,” a truly startling family scene with an injured bird; and “The Little Matter of Fresh Meadows Feces,” an amusing series of letters and diary entries depicting a sanitation problem in an apartment in India, whose residents experience culture clash while they’re visiting their offspring in California.
“Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight” by Julie L. Kessler (2012, Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Co.)
The Examiner’s “The Traveling Life” writer and attorney’s highly readable memoir is filled with 50 short stories (many wild!) from her life, from the sadness and shock of losing her mother to cancer when she was 21 in just a matter of months (having been called home from an overseas trip); to surviving a crazy abusive boss (also known for showering lavish gifts); to coming to terms with her estranged father. In the cleverly, organized volume, each anecdote is accompanied by a no-nonsense piece of advice offering food for thought.
“Your Golden Sun Still Shines” edited by Denise Sullivan (2017, Manic D Press)
Subtitled “San Francisco: Personal Histories & Small Fictions,” this compilation curated by The Examiner’s “S.F. Lives” columnist has 23 succinct, compelling, intimate and often poetic entries by writers sharing their frustrations with, and love for, The City and its residents. The varied lineup ranges from Sylvia J. Martinez’s wistful memories of childhood summers in the Mission, when she and friends surreptitiously hammered nickels into slugs they used to play arcade games at the corner store; to Tony Robles’ hilarious chat with a buffalo in Golden Gate Park who offers pithy comments about life in San Francisco; to Norman Antonio Zelaya’s vivid, stark meditation on homelessness. Also included are contributions from Examiner columnists Broke-Ass Stuart (who describes San Francisco’s “high rise, low rise and no rise” delineations in “A Tale of Three Cities”) and Kelly Dessaint, who touches on his troubled childhood before detailing his love-at-first-sight encounter with The City in “The View From A Taxi.”
“A Masque of Infamy” by Kelly Dessaint (2013, Phony Lid Books)
The Examiner’s “I Drive S.F.” columnist’s harrowing and often funny book about California-born 15-year-old Louis Baudrey’s struggle for survival amid sexual abuse in his screwed-up family; his move to Alabama; his being separated from his kid brother; and his stint in a hospital’s adolescent psych ward is billed as a novel. Yet readers may wonder if, with its rich details and authentic dialogue, it’s not, in fact, a memoir in disguise. Either way, it’s smart, scathing and scintillating.
“Dissenter on the Bench: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Life & Work” by Victoria Ortiz (2019, Clarion Books)
This book for young adults by the Berkeley writer, teacher, attorney and former dean of University of California, Berkeley’s law school, clearly and rivetingly details the beloved late Supreme Court justice’s impact on the world. What makes Ortiz’s account particularly compelling is her focus on the real people involved in some cases Ginsburg argued or ruled on, such as Lindsay Earls, who, as a teen, challenged her Oklahoma’s high school’s policy that required students to be subjected to random urinalysis drug testing, on the basis that it violated her privacy. (She lost the case; Ginsburg was one of the four judges who dissented.)
“Bo-Bo’s Cave of Gold” by Pam Berkman and Dorothy Hearst (2020, Margaret K. McElderry Books)
The second book in the “At the Heels of History” series of exciting titles for 6- to 9-year olds featuring canine protagonists follows the Gold Rush adventures of a scrappy dog who befriends a Chinese boy and his family who are at the mercy of greedy, cruel white miners. Through the exploits of the golden mutt Bo-Bo, her young friend Sheng (as well as a talking bird named Choi Hung and a bear named Resilience), youngsters learn about how Chinese immigrants faced abuse and discrimination during this dramatic time of California’s expansion. In the series’ equally thrilling and educational first title, “Filigree’s Midnight Ride,” a Pomeranian finds his way inside Paul Revere’s saddle bag, where he’s part of a fateful journey. (The series also includes “Minsha’s Night on Ellis Island.” It’s set in 1921 and features a terrier.)
“Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights” by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe (2019, Algonquin Books)
This riveting memoir shines a light on the fascinating (and, sadly, relatively unknown) life of a pioneering Black woman who was born in 1914 in North Carolina, and went on to make big marks in education, the military, the law, and the ministry before her death at 104 in 2018. Told in a conversational, straightforward style with humor and grace, the book offers dozens of indelible anecdotes and stories, from Johnson Roundtree’s brief encounters with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the office of educator and civil rights advocate Mary McLeod Bethune; to days at Spelman College in Atlanta and law school at Howard University in the late 1940s, where she met Black scholars and attorneys determined to take down “Plessy v. Ferguson’s” separate but equal doctrine. In 1955, she and her partner won “Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company,” a landmark case in which the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled that a Black woman in the U.S. Army who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white Marine indeed was subjected to “undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage.”
“Knucklehead” by Adam Smyer (2018, Akashic Books)
This laugh-out-loud novel, set mostly in the 1990s Bay Area and written by a Black Bay Area attorney, details the misadventures of a funny, smart, outrageous, volatile and young Black lawyer whose life spins out of control as he faces personal and societal demons. While the plot goes admittedly goes crazy, Smyer and his protagonist Marcus – the book is written in first person – always amuse. Here’s Marcus’ comment about one of his tasks at his new job at a corporate law firm: “It was just after lunch. I was writing a brief. I was trying to explain to the Ninth Circuit why they should make Bank A eat a huge loan that had gone bad, rather than Bank B. The trick was to think of reasons other than ‘because Bank B is the one that’s paying me.’” A scene at the restaurant Stars when Marcus is being courted by white law partners in blue suits is also a hoot… one of the book’s many.