Every Friday, we share which books, audiobooks, and comics have been keeping us company throughout the week. This week: A companion guide to our home base of San Francisco, a wild collection of stories featuring tenured superheroes and depressive dystopianists, a haunting novel about a Chinese family in 1970s Ohio, and more.
Lyndsey: Like many San Franciscans, I have a deep love for this gorgeous peninsula that I get to call home. I live for lists of things to do in SF before you die, I get sentimental when they play “Lights” at Giants games, and, despite the skyrocketing rents and changing culture, I manage to find new things to love all the time. When I came across Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love, I dove right in.
Kamiya describes the book as “a love letter to the place in the world that means the world to me,” and thats precisely how it reads. Each of its 49 chapters explores a different area of the city, from The Farallon Islands to Chinatown, taking readers on a journey that’s both personal and full of the city’s exceptional history. Each vignette is self-contained, which made it the perfect companion as I made my way through the very streets Kamiya has walked for more than 40 years.
While critics complain that the tech industry, which brought so many of us here, has caused San Francisco to lose its soul, I agree with Kamiya’s assertion that “cities don’t lose points because they have rich neighborhoods. They gain points when those rich neighborhoods are right next to the poor ones, and both are right next to the middle-class ones.”
Justin: Let me tell you about some of these crazy stories: “Access Fantasy” is a hardboiled sci-fi story about a future in which the multitudinous poor live in perpetual traffic jams and pass their time watching quasi-pornographic videos of spacious apartments. ”Vivian Relf” revolves around a man and woman who keep running into one another and are hard pressed to extract meaning from this series of coincidences. “The Spray” is a surprisingly haunting story that’s equal parts Philip K. Dick and O. Henry. But the real pièce de résistance here is “Super Goat Man,” about a man and his encounters with a washed up superhero. who just happens to be part goat. As in his novel The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem is completely comfortable blending the supernatural and the banal, as when his narrator recalls first meeting his satyr-like antagonist:
For us, as we ran and screamed and played our secret games on the sidewalk, Super Goat Man was only another of the guys who sat on stoops in sleeveless undershirts on hot summer days, watching the slow progress of life on the block. The two little fleshy horns on his forehead didn’t make him especially interesting. We weren’t struck by his fall from grace, out of the world of comic-book heroes, among which he had been at best a minor star, to land here in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, in a single room in what was basically a dorm for college dropouts, a hippie group shelter, any more than we were by the tufts of extra hair at his throat and behind his ears.
What sets these stories apart from lesser, self-consciously artificial strains of contemporary fiction is that Lethem’s characters are always more than the sum of their conceits. Whether his subject is a pretentious academic, a sour dystopianist, or an aging superhero, he makes their predicaments startlingly recognizable.
Freya: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins Celeste Ng’s haunting debut novel Everything I Never Told You. Both heartbreaking and hopeful, the novel centers on the Lees, a biracial, well-educated family in the 1970s residing in a small town in Ohio. The Lees are a family of misfits and outsiders: Marilyn, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed mother, has a gifted mind and unfulfilled medical school dreams. James, the American-born Chinese father, desires nothing more than to blend into mainstream American society. Nath and Hannah are the largely ignored siblings longing for their parents’ approval and affection. And finally Lydia, the well-mannered, studious, favorite child, carries the burden of her parents’ hopes and dreams in order to keep the Lees’ fragile family dynamic from falling apart.
The novel explores themes of alienation and loss but is ultimately a study of familial relationships and the kind of love that suffocates, the type of love that forms when parents turn their children into vessels for their own thwarted dreams and ambitions, the type of love that results in a child’s demise.
As you piece together the story of Lydia’s death, Ng reveals an intimate, honest portrait of a family in the midst of unraveling. And yet, the ending is a hopeful one, as it is through this tragedy that the Lees begin to come together.
Alex P: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant —” goes Emily Dickinson’s famous line, which informs every aspect of Jansma’s debut. The novel delights in slanted truths; it is at once an homage to great fiction and a challenge to the limits of a reader’s suspension of disbelief. Ostensibly the globetrotting coming-of-age tale of a struggling writer, his rival-cum-best friend, and a beautiful girl—the one who got away—the novel is less concerned with its well-trod narrative and far more with the nature of fiction itself. Never before, though, have metafictive irony and an unreliable narrator been rendered so compulsively readable.
Jansma fills these pages with literary winks overt and nuanced, while his narratives recall everything from Fitzgerald to Bob Dylan to Tolstoy. But as Jansma wryly alights on each cultural touchstone, he simultaneously unmoors his own tale. The one who got away is married alternately to a member of the Indian royalty, a Japanese Emperor, and a Luxembourgish prince; his best friend goes by Julian, then Jeffrey, and elsewhere Anton. The unnamed protagonist, meanwhile, seems to adopt and discard lives as quickly as he loses manuscripts; personas blow away as easily as pages. The most appropriate appellation he adopts is Outis, the Greek word for “nobody” that Odysseus, another well-traveled protagonist, uses to fool the Cyclops.
As I read, I found myself picking up and dropping each parallel narrative, weighing them, trying to determine which was the most diegetically true. Ultimately, though, each of these slanted stories reveals a truth about society or self more easily comprehended as fiction than when those same truths are encountered in the real world. Jansma’s fiction embodies Dickinson’s admonition: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind”. Or else, as our nameless narrator writes, “Each of these is true, but only somewhere else.”
Ashley: Chaos Walking, Ness’s young adult trilogy, may be one of the quirkiest, darkest, and evocative YA series I’ve ever read, so I was intrigued to discover that we have Ness’s early works (aimed at adults) on Scribd. Though the stories that comprise Things About Which I Know Nothing take place worlds apart from the one in Chaos Walking, these disparate tales share a sense of humor that belies an ominous undertone.
The best of these stories explore the way psychological games, social cues, language, and just generally being in the world forces us to engage with our fellow human beings. In “The Way All Trends Do,” a social scientist explores a now-defunct fad called “groomgrabbing,” in which gay couples “kidnapped” children they believed to be dressed poorly or otherwise in need of a confidence boost and taught them about living it up on the town. Now, years after the fact, the scientist is trying to understand the phenomenon: though most of the children who were groomgrabbed overwhelmingly consider it a positive experience, others became subject to abuse and neglect on the part of parents who hoped to get their own kids grabbed by wealthy strangers. It’s a strange scenario, but it’s executed with deftness, in a style reminiscent of Lydia Davis’s short fiction.