Noe Valley Voice May 2007

A Novel Take on the Neighborhood: Two Local Writers' Books in Print

By Erin O'Briant

Two of the many writers who make their home in Noe Valley have their words in print this month. One is a sex-columnist-turned-fiction-writer whose most recent mystery was published in the traditional manner. The other is a mother and longtime neighborhood resident who has serialized her second novel, leaving free copies of a different chapter each week at a local bookstore. Both stories are set in Noe Valley.

Alvarado Street resident Michael Castleman's book Death Caps was published on April 20. It's the second in his series of mystery novels featuring newspaperman Ed Rosenberg, and the plot centers on a murder committed with poisonous mushrooms called death caps.

The novel is a true product of Noe Valley. Castleman wrote most of the book in the little studio he and his wife built behind their house 12 years ago. "However, during the writing of Death Caps, there was a flood in my office," Castleman remembers. "It took a week for huge industrial blowers to dry out the carpet. They made a God-awful racket and I couldn't work there, so I took my laptop to Tully's [Coffee] on 24th Street and wrote there."

In addition to a murder mystery with historical and local color, Castleman's latest book features more personal interests. "In Death Caps, I wanted to explore marital issues, have strong women characters, and try my hand at a few sex scenes," he says.

The novel's protagonists are a couple who live in a Victorian cottage they can barely afford on Fair Oaks Street. When they bought the place, they wanted to live in the heart of Noe Valley, but couldn't afford a house there.

Perhaps it's no surprise that Castleman's next book, which he's currently re-writing, is titled A Killing in Real Estate.

Inspired by Stanford University's annual re-publishing of old novels in a weekly serial format, 19-year Noe Valley resident Karen Allen decided to publish her second novel, Matisse Trances, the same way. Chapters one through six are available free at Cover to Cover Booksellers on Castro Street near 24th Street. Allen adds a new chapter each week. She says her goal is to attract 100 readers interested in finishing the book--she estimates she has about 25 regular readers now.

Although Allen knows it's asking a lot of readers to pick up part of the book each week, she thinks Cover to Cover is such a pleasant store that people won't mind returning again and again. But the story line--most of which is set in Noe Valley--is the real hook. Allen explains, "The novel chronicles a woman who is a painter and a rape victim counselor whose husband is consumed by his high-tech startup. When the venture capitalist financing her husband's company asks her to teach him to paint, her life changes in unexpected ways." The book features lots more characters, a murder mystery, and, of course, a fine Matisse painting.

Like Castleman, Allen is busy crafting her next work of fiction. Titled Universal Time, the novel will be a departure for her. "It's actually a little bit sci-fi."

Allen has no readings scheduled this month for Matisse Trances, but Castleman will celebrate his new publication with a reading Sunday, May 20, at 2 p.m., at the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, on 24th Street near Diamond.

Excerpt from Matisse Trances by Karen Allen

Nick headed off to greet yet another business school chum or racquetball partner or client who'd bought Quandary products and was no doubt on their Christmas card list. Tired of the tense, animated crowd, Fran lingered where she was, but not resentfully so. Quandary needed venture capital, and this evidently was the game that had to be played. Nick had poured the last two years of his life into Quandary, and for his sake Fran wanted it to succeed. Surely, once the company got securely off the ground, the intensity would dissipate, the demands subside.

Fran noticed some prints on the wall. Intrigued, she stepped forward and saw it was a set of five exquisite Goyas, but before she could examine the prints more closely, a voice from the other side of the room made her turn. The voice belonged to Alison, one of her oldest friends who was now also her sister-in-law. Alison hadn't spotted Fran; she was surrounded by five or six attentive men and looked stunning as usual, her long hair straight and sleek, the short hemline of her power red dress showing off striking legs. Before the birth of her child, Alison had been an investment banker in New York, and her sophistication still coated her like shellac--it could be scratched but not penetrated. You'd never know she's wearing a nursing bra under that dress, Fran thought. Alison seemed to take even motherhood in perfect stride.

Fran considered telling Alison that Nick was looking for her, but no, Nick would find her soon enough. She turned her attention back to the prints. On a nearby couch, a man and a woman were discussing website intergenerational something or other, a conversation Fran easily tuned out. The man's hand gracelessly moved to the woman's knee, harder to ignore, but Fran wasn't deterred; she had rarely seen such a remarkable collection of Goyas. How extraordinary, she thought, that mere scratches on metal could turn into riveting scenes of pain and pathos, war and destruction. A soldier points a bayonet at a terrified peasant. Dead bodies lie in piles beneath a cannon. Ragged children huddle against a wall. Scenes, images.

Image: It is April, a year ago. Alison has just moved to San Francisco; she's been in her new apartment barely a month. Amazingly, Nick's brother-- shelf-worn, bearded, acerbic Jeremy--academic, skeptic, nobody's fool Jeremy--now holds Alison's hand and announces they're engaged. They will marry early in May. Fran blinks, astonished. She hadn't even known they were dating. Later Tonia comments that marrying Jeremy is a classic Alison maneuver--Alison is known for her single-minded achievements. But Nick's brother--why him? Fran watches as Jeremy's hand opens and closes around Alison's, possessing, releasing, possessing. It seems incestuous somehow, Fran thinks; they're both so closely tied to us.

Image: The dinner table, two months later. It is June, post-wedding, and Alison brightly announces she is three weeks pregnant. With a grin, Nick claps his brother on the shoulder and congratulates him. Fran tries to smile encouragingly at the parents-to-be, but she's thinking, they're barely married, they know nothing about children, they aren't ready. But who ever is? She and Nick had planned for Anna, they took the courses, read the child development books, and still they'd been overwhelmed. If you really knew what it was going to be like, Fran thinks--the sleep deprivation, the nonstop responsibility, the incomprehensible demands that seek you out and intrude on every corner of your life--would you ever do it? And then you'd never know about the wonder and the joy that are as absolute as anything life has to offer. Jeremy is staring at Alison, stunned. Had she waited to tell him in front of us? Fran wonders.

Excerpt from Death Caps by Michael Castleman

Fair Oaks is a quiet street nestled into the hillside that slopes down from affluent Noe Valley to the grittier Mission District. Ed and Julie's Italianate Victorian, built in 1889, had three modest bedrooms, one small bath, a new skylight over the breakfast nook, a little deck leading to a cozy yard, and a basement room that housed Julie's sewing equipment, fabric, and yoga mat, and Ed's library, home office, and rowing machine. Even with two good incomes, the house was a stretch. Renovations stretched things further. But that was life in San Francisco.

After the party, Julie drove the sitter home. Ed peeked in on Sonya, who should have been fast asleep, but wasn't.

"We didn't do reading," she pouted.

"Just a little, Daddy. One page? Please?"

It was way past Sonya's bedtime, but they were encouraging her to read. Ed sat on the edge of her bed while his no-longer-little girl worked her way through Charlotte's Web. She was turning into quite the reader, though Ed still had to help with the occasional word. Two pages and some tough negotiations later, Ed tucked Sonya in, kissed her, and whispered in her ear, as he did every night, that she was his favorite girl in the whole wide world.

As Ed departed, Sonya demanded the song.

"It's too late, honey. Go to sleep."

"But I need the song. I really need it."

Across the hall, Julie was undressing and heard the plaintive whine. She appeared in a robe and touched Ed's shoulder as if to say: I'll take things from here. Every night, Julie sang Sonya to sleep with one of a half-dozen songs. Sonya requested "Lean on Me." Julie sang it a honeyed alto.

Then Ed and Julie descended to their basement sanctuary. Julie sat at her sewing machine and mended a zipper. Ed opened a book on the heyday of the cable cars in the 1890s, when twenty-one lines ran from downtown all the way to the Presidio and south to the Mission. Most of the track was damaged beyond repair in 1906 and never rebuilt, but five lines remained in service until the late 1940s, when Mayor Roger Lapham decided to embrace progress and save money by getting rid of them. Then Ed's eyelids got heavy.

He was brushing his teeth when the phone rang. It was too late for good news.

"Ed? Todd," the voice said, minus Todd Gardner's usual joviality. "Dar's in the hospital."

"What? What's wrong?"

"They don't know. But something's weird. I'm in the emergency room. An ambulance just pulled up. The guy on the gurney looked a lot like Ted Calderone."

"What happened?" Ed covered the mouthpiece and yelled to Julie to pick up.

Todd ignored the question.

"I've got the boys with me. But it looks like I'll be here all night. I hate to ask, but can one of you come get them?"

"Of course," Julie said. "Where are you?"

"CPMC." California Pacific Medical Center, the huge hospital in Pacific Heights on the city's wealthy north side. It was a twenty-minute drive from Ed and Julie's.

"I'll be there in ten," Julie said. She was already dressing.

"What happened?" Ed repeated.

"We got home from a party. Dar had a stomachache. Then it got worse. Then I heard moaning from the bathroom. I found her doubled up on the floor looking like she was dying." His voice cracked.

"Where is she now?"

"Intensive care."

"What do the doctors say?"

"Nothing. Not a goddamn thing." The crack in his voice widened. "I'm freaking. You should've seen her.

"I'm on my way," Julie said.

Ed told Todd to hang in there. It sounded lame, but what else could he say?

Todd and Dar had two sons, T.J.--Todd Junior--twelve, and Donny, ten. Ed opened the door to the guest room. Lately, Julie had taken to calling it the nursery. There were clean sheets and a thick blanket on the bed. Ed pulled the futon from the closet, unfolded it, and made it up.

Then what Todd said registered: Calderone might be there, too. One person hospitalized after a party could be anything. But two might be something else....