We all survived the Pineapple Express (thanks for asking) and are now enjoying a sunny San Francisco afternoon. Yesterday, though, it was all power outages, flooded train tracks, and impassable streets. A couple of us decided to make the best of a bad situation and start on our weekend reading. Here are the books that floated us through the deluge.
Justin: This book is nuts. Like many of Philip K. Dick’s novels, the premise is unsettling and electrifying: The setting is the Cold War, but in a parallel universe wherein the Axis powers won World War II and the United States has been carved up between German and Japanese spheres of influence. As the half-dozen or so main characters—American, Japanese, and German—go about their days, we get a powerful glimpse of life under very different but equally rigid ideologies.
It’s powerful and disturbing to see the racist, fascist beliefs of the Nazis and Imperial Japan made almost banal in the context of peace. More disturbing still is how little some things have changed in Dick’s alternate history. At its heart, this is a novel about separating what’s real from what’s fake. Japanese businessmen are obsessed with trivial bits of Americana, but even the people who collect them can’t distinguish between genuine Civil War cap-and-ball Colts and the clever forgeries that are made just down the street. Dick’s story is its own kind of forgery—a glimpse of a world that in some ways closely resembles our own but is also emphatically not. Though nominally a science-fiction novel, this strange masterpiece has more in common with Kafka than it does with Arthur C. Clarke. Rather than taking you to a new world, it reflects the world you know back at you in ways that make you wonder if you know it at all.
Niree: Bynum interweaves imagination with reality, finding humor in the mundane in this charming collection of related stories about the life of a seventh-grade teacher. Bynum’s characterization of students and teachers is vivid and realistic, her prose layered and richly realized, which makes sense as she draws heavily from her own personal experience.
I heard Bynum read the opening story, “Talent,” at an event many years ago. Her voice is nothing short of pure whimsy, high-pitched and melodic. It so perfectly encapsulates Ms. Hempel’s quivering desires that I was hesitant to try Tavia Gilbert’s interpretation. Gilbert’s voice is sturdier, more dignified. There isn’t that subtle naïveté that really brings Hempel to life. That’s not to say she doesn’t read well; she does. But I can still hear Bynum’s voice echoing in the background, lifting each word that Gilbert drops. For those who prefer print, we also have the e-book version.
Mallory: I could claim that my attraction to this book stems from my New Years Resolution to explore more of my adopted region. Or, that it has to do with my conscious effort to read more nonfiction. But the truth is, James Conaway’s bestselling history of Napa lured me in because I’m a total wino. And it kept me in with its exquisite prose, exemplified by lush descriptions of the region like this one:
Sediments miles deep depressed and broke apart the ocean floor, releasing molten rock that eventually lifted above the brine, a process repeated many times in the collisions of vast plates beneath the earth’s surface that created California quite apart from the rest of the continent. … Napa lay above the water line, a narrow valley drowned in the south and pinched in the north between two converging lines of tortured rock.
So if you’re looking for me this weekend, you’ll find me devouring this book, some cheese and crackers, and a fine bottle of sparkling wine.
Alex P.: Penelope Fitzgerald is one of those authors I’ve always meant to read, but whose work has somehow always eluded my bookshelf. I finally remedied that this week, beginning our acquaintance with her 1979 Booker Prize-winning novel, Offshore. I’m only halfway through the slim novel (and looking forward to finishing it on this rare rainy weekend in the Bay), but I’ve already been struck by the warmly intricate depictions of her characters. They’re all suspended in some way: between marriage and independence, comfort and connection, family and identity—and, more literally, between land and sea, as they live out their strange quotidian existence on houseboats on the Thames. Fitzgerald has an excellent social eye, deftly exposing those telling details in dialogue that unravel an entire scene or psyche. I can’t wait to dive back in tonight.
Regina: This week I’m escaping the winter chill and traveling to the sunny shores of Italy in Beautiful Ruins. Porto Vergogna is a tiny and abandoned village off the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. When the novel begins in 1962, the town is accessible only by boat with a skilled captain. Rugged mountains and sea cliffs isolate Porto Vergogna from the booming tourist industry along the rest of Italian Riviera. Pasquale Tursi and his parents own Porto Vergogna’s only hotel and café located above a cove in the cracked coastline. This less than ideal location makes the hotel a laughingstock for the snobby hoteliers in the neighboring towns. A determined Pasquale dreams of turning his family’s hotel into a chic tourist destination, and decides to singlehandedly build a beach along the hotel’s rocky shore.
One day while hauling rocks for his beach, a beautiful American woman checks into Pasquale’s hotel. Her arrival is mysterious and her identity a secret, but the woman is beautiful, kind, and an actual paying guest at Pasquale’s floundering hotel. From here the narrative skillfully alternates between 1960s Italy and present day Los Angeles. The sunny climates and touching story of long lost love in Beautiful Ruins are keeping me warm during these cold winter nights.