Noe Valley Voice July-August 2002

If I Were Oprah

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

This spring Oprah Winfrey, the so-called queen of books, abdicated her throne, saying no more monthly book club, no more book suggestions for you, her loyal subjects. Her claim: "It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share."

Nonsense, I say. I've got hundreds of books I would love to recommend. I've got friend upon friend -- loyal readers all--who are chomping at the bit to suggest a good book to anyone willing to listen.

While the Noe Valley Voice doesn't provide quite the bully pulpit that a nationally syndicated talk show does, I'd still like to do my small part to keep the passion of reading alive in Noe Valley this summer. As the New York Times recently suggested, now that Oprah has dropped out of the book-trade scene, "a thousand Oprahs should bloom."

Here goes:

If you've got an obsession with reading writers from the New Yorker like I do (and even if you don't), you've got to check out Love Trouble: New and Collected Work, short stories by the late satirist Veronica Geng. Geng offers up riffs on everything from gender relations to restaurants.

Another great read is Picture by the legendary journalist Lillian Ross. Da Copa Press has just published the 50th-anniversary edition of this work of nonfiction, written in the form of a novel. Voted one of the 20th century's top 100 journalistic works, Picture documents the making of the John Huston film The Red Badge of Courage. Newsweek has called the book "the best book on Hollywood ever published."

Among books by the younger crop of writers at the New Yorker, I loved Paris to the Moon, essays by Adam Gopnik, written from the perspective of an American man -- and parent -- living in Paris. I also enjoyed Susan Orlean's The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, an eclectic collection of Orlean's "best and brightest" people profiles, from notorious Olympic skater Tonya Harding to a typical 10-year-old boy named Colin Duffy.

Discovering the late, great Richard Yates: The overlooked novelist and short-story writer Richard Yates influenced a number of writers who went on to achieve great success --Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, and Ann Beattie among them. Yates led a difficult life filled with alcoholic binges and failed aspirations. After he died in 1992 at the age of 65, most of his work fell out of print, but thanks to his protégés, there lately has been renewed interest in Yates, and several of his books have been reissued. I highly recommend Revolutionary Road, Yates' first novel and a National Book Award nominee in 1961. Revolutionary Road is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young suburban couple who believe that greatness is just around the corner but who "mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves."

I also recommend The Easter Parade, a novel that recounts four decades in the lives of sisters Emily and Sarah Grimes. "Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce," Yates begins this spare, truthful novel.

Another must-have for any fan or soon-to-be fan of Yates is The Collected Stories of Richard Yates, a voluminous collection in which all of Yates' short fiction appears, including seven stories that have never before been published. Yates' autobiographical and Gatsbyesque story "Saying Goodbye to Sally" alone is worth the $28 price of this book ($16 in paperback).

Recommendations from "the Source": While Oprah offered up her personal literary tastes (read: novels about individual struggle and redemption), I think it's important that we expand our reading horizons as much as possible. To that end, I made a phone call to the most literate, well-read person I know -- my literary Deep Throat, if you will. I call him "the Source"--because he is the source of so many wonderful books I never would have thought to read if he had not so exuberantly recommended them. "The Source" prefers to remain anonymous, but I will divulge that he is a 70ish CPA with a keen sensibility who devours books like I do the blueberry muffins at Noe Valley Bakery.

Here are his top three recommendations for a good summer read:

His first pick is Waiting by Ha Jin, which won the National Book Award in 1999. "Most anything Ha Jin has written is worth reading," says the Source, noting that Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 and is now a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta. As for Waiting's plot, the National Book Award panel of judges tells us that it "portrays the life of Lin Kong, a dedicated doctor torn by his love for two women: one who belongs to the New China of the Cultural Revolution, the other to the ancient traditions of his family's village. Ha Jin profoundly understands the conflict between the individual and society, between the timeless universality of the human heart and constantly shifting politics of the moment."

Number two on the Source's list is In Sicily by Norman Lewis, the British author of 13 novels and 13 works of nonfiction. "This is a short book, only 166 pages," says the Source. "Lewis has long been fascinated with Sicily, and in this book he compares his World War II memories of the island with the changes that have since taken place. He writes of the Mafia and its influence over the lives of Sicilians and reflects on the recent African immigration and changing sexual mores."

Finally, the Source suggests The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. This book, written in the form of seven novellas, received the 2002 Neustadt Prize for World Literature. The Source: "Enjoy the travels and adventures of Maqroll, a modern-day Don Quixote, as you follow his surreal journey. Gabriel Garcia Marquez calls Mutis one of the greatest writers of our time."

When you need to laugh: On those chilly, foggy July days in San Francisco when I'm wondering why I live in this city, no one does a better job of cheering me up than essayist David Sedaris. I think his latest collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day, is his best. It's worth shelling out the $14.95 the book costs just to read "You Can't Kill the Rooster," about Sedaris' brother Paul, who allegedly calls himself "the Rooster" when he's feeling threatened.

I also recommend the highly amusing short-story collection Do the Windows Open? by Julie Hecht. The nine stories are all narrated by a neurotic, 40-something photographer named Isabelle, who is on a never-ending quest to photograph "Dr. Arnold Loquesto, the world-renowned reproductive surgeon." Her diatribes on a careless floor sander and her East Hampton neighbors are hilarious.

Yes, poetry can be read in the home: I must confess that I don't read much poetry, although I did recently enjoy The Beauty of the Husband by noted Canadian poet Anne Carson (another suggestion from "the Source"). Subtitled "a fictional essay in 29 tangos," Carson's book is the story of a marriage, as well as a rumination on Keats' idea that beauty is truth.

For further suggestions in this category, I went to my friend and poet P.J. Taylor. She recommends Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems, by current poet laureate Billy Collins, who also happens to be a rare species among poets ... a truly popular poet. As P.J. explained to me, "Billy Collins writes deceivingly light verse. You remember his poems. You want to know parts of them by heart. Mostly, you want to grab someone and say, 'Listen.' This is a good book of poems to share with a loved one. It's perfect Sunday morning coffee in bed reading."

P.J. also recommends Americans' Favorite Poems, edited by U.C. Berkeley professor and former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, which offers up 200 poems enthusiastically suggested by American readers along with moving testimonials about the various works.

Cultural anthropology: I have two suggestions in this not-exactly-light-reading category. First is social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which explores the harsh realities faced by low wage earners in this country. Over the course of two years, Enhrenreich posed as a homemaker lacking in workplace skills who was attempting to reenter the job market. Ehrenreich lived in cheap motels, survived on fast food, and took whatever minimum-wage job she could get, including waitress, housecleaner, and Wal-Mart sales clerk. The book, which was inspired by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, asks the question, "How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?" Nickel and Dimed is enlightening, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny.

The second is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, which looks at the conflict between the doctors at a hospital in Merced, Calif., and a refugee family from Laos over the care of a small Hmong child diagnosed with severe epilepsy. This book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, offers up evenhanded, suspenseful -- in a word, awesome--literary journalism in recounting a highly disturbing story.

For people in search of mystery: Again, I'm not a mystery reader, but my friend P.J. is. She highly recommends any books by British crime novelist Minette Walters, including The Ice House, The Scold's Bridle, and The Sculptress. Walters' work has been translated into 32 languages. "There's no lead detective," says P.J. "These books are tense, psychological thrillers. I've read every one so far. They are mysteries for people who demand their mysteries be smart and well-written."

P.J. also suggests any mystery written by Kathy Reichs. "Like [best-selling mystery author] Patricia Cornwell's protagonist Kay Scarpetta, Reichs' Temperance Brennan works with solving murders, but she isn't perfect like Scarpetta," says P.J. "Scarpetta has the perfect Mercedes, the perfect house, and is a gourmet cook. Temperance Brennan is a real-woman detective. She's a divorced, recovering alcoholic, and she can't cook." Death du Jour is one of Reichs' most popular works.

Final thoughts: Any of these books can be purchased at one of our three great 24th Street bookstores. Cover to Cover, at 3812 24th Street near Church, is your best bet for new books, and if they don't have what you're looking for in stock, they'll special-order it for you. Just ask. They'll also accept orders online through, or call 282-8080 and order by phone.

Phoenix Books, located a block away at 3850 24th Street near Vicksburg, is a good source for used books. The store also has a table filled with an outstanding selection of low-priced remainder titles. The phone number for Phoenix is 821-3477, or go to

For mystery and suspense lovers, the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, at 4175 24th Street near Diamond, is the place to go for both new and used titles. Check out the store's web site at for upcoming events and recommendations. The phone number is 282-7444.

And don't forget the Noe Valley ­ Sally Brunn Library, located at 451 Jersey Street near Castro, which has an abundant selection of books, including a substantial women's studies collection. For library hours and other information, call 695-5095 or check out the San Francisco Library's web site at Through the web, you can reserve a title and have it sent to your local branch for pickup. You can also suggest books you'd like to see in the library, but haven't found in the online catalog. Happy reading!

Kathy Dalle-Molle is the "Last Page" editor and an 11-year contributor to the Noe Valley Voice. She has worked as a freelance book editor, permissions editor, and researcher for Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, and Jossey-Bass for more than a decade.