The kids are all right: In his debut novel Leaving (St. Martin’s, $24.95), a family saga all the more authentic for the fact that it refuses to end tied up neatly in a bow, El Cerrito’s Richard Dry evokes many Oaklands — from its post-WWII prosperity to those explosive, revolution-bound summers a generation hence, and on to gang warfare and the crisis of angry kids who believe they have nowhere to go. Dry does this with aching love and angst, creating tangible characters whose violence shields tenderness.
As a mental-health worker in an institution for disturbed youth, “I formed a number of close relationships,” Dry says. “But I was also spat on, shat upon, and had my nose broken.” Behind that violence lay years of neglect and abuse.
The kids’ stories inspired the novel and helped him “come to a place of compassion for even the most brutal of the children.” Reading Black Panthers’ autobiographies and doing in-depth research at Caltrans and the Oakland Public Library, Dry crafted scenes that readers who lived through those times tell him ring true.
“It gives me chills to think how something that came from inside my own head, fiction no less, can create strong personal feelings in another human being,” says the author, who will be at Pleasanton Public Library on October 9. “I think that’s the most powerful potential of writing, to allow true empathy, the way I experienced the lives of Monster Cody, Richard Wright, Elaine Brown, and others by reading their works. I also want readers to feel hope for the potential of these kids, but to understand the great, nearly overwhelming challenge they face.”
Dry hopes, too, that those who suffer in real life as his characters do “will get a larger sense of the context surrounding their lives, which is why I’ve included slave narratives and historical chapters in the book.”
Look, you: In Simon Wood‘s new thriller Accidents Waiting to Happen (Barclay, $15.95), a marital indiscretion leads to trouble, which leads to more trouble. For Wood, a Richmond engineer, writing this debut novel was trouble, too. So was finding a publisher. But then, so is reading.
Wood is dyslexic.
“I usually have a headache after an hour or so of reading and only have a few pages to show for it. When I’m banging away at the keyboard it looks great,” says the author, “but I don’t really read when I’m writing.” Afterward, “I can’t read through my own work with accuracy. My wife has to step in. She highlights or questions passages or sentences that have come out garbled. Between us, we’ve developed a number of techniques” to tackle the disability and ensure that Wood’s pages “end up the way I intended them to read. Dyslexia only hinders the mechanical process of writing and, like any process, that can be modified. Imagination is what’s needed to tell a good tale.”
California scenery whizzes past in Wood’s novel — a second one is due out next year — and accidents do happen, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.
“Hitchcock, Chandler, Hammett, Woolrich, Cain, and a host of others are my tutors and guides,” says Wood, who listens to books on tape “by the bucketload.”
“They’ve introduced me to the devilment that can be inflicted on a character and the reader,” says Wood, who will be at Barnes & Noble in El Cerrito Plaza on September 19. “The thing I love most about thrillers is the accidental hero. I love seeing an ordinary person with no special skills walking blindly into mayhem that has nothing to do with him. I think I do have a knack for creating frightening chains of events.”
Push: Popular Oakland midwife Peggy Vincent really delivers with her memoir, Baby Catcher (Scribner, $25). The director of the East Bay’s first-ever alternative birth center, she became the first completely independent nurse midwife to receive hospital privileges in the Berkeley area. Personal anecdotes make labor pains seem — well, not exactly fun, but darn near magical.
War wounds: “It was a sunny day in Berkeley,” Julie Otsuka tells us on the first page of When the Emperor Was Divine (Knopf, $18). That sunny day was in the spring of 1942, and signs had turned up all over University Avenue and in front of the YMCA overnight, ordering everyone of Japanese extraction to pack up and prepare to be evacuated. The family whose devastating journey Otsuka follows in her lyrical debut novel was inspired by her own.
She once found a box full of censored letters her grandfather had written during his internment, and “I knew there was a lot that wasn’t being said.” The war years had never been discussed much in her home.
“From time to time, my mother would mention this or that person whom she knew from ‘camp.’ But ‘camp’ just seemed like a totally normal point of reference to me. It was just another word — like ‘apple’ or ‘chair.’… It just never sounded that bad. It certainly does not compare to what happened to the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust.” That’s one reason, Otsuka suspects, “that many Japanese Americans have been reluctant to come forward with their story. Why draw attention to yourself when there are so many people who have suffered fates far worse than your own?”
Yet it was bad — “wrong, a travesty of justice … the effects of wartime discrimination can last a lifetime,” notes Otsuka, whose mother still ends every telephone conversation by saying, “The FBI will check up on you again soon.”
Never having written a novel before, “I really had no idea what I was doing.” Ideas and images accumulated one by one, which is perhaps natural, as Otsuka is a painter. She also calls that process “fortunate, because if I had sat down one day and consciously tried to write a novel about the camps, I wouldn’t have made it past the first line.”
Burning love: In Keith Gandal‘s Cleveland Anonymous ($15.95), new from Berkeley’s Frog Ltd., a boy and his foster sister lose their virginity to each other on the banks of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River moments before the water catches fire. The girl vanishes. Fast-forward twenty years and the boy is now a disabled environmental detective whose San Francisco home has just been destroyed in the Loma Prieta quake.
His subsequent search for the answers to the questions that began on that riverbank leads him into a swirl of murder, madness, and relentless memories of flames and ash.
“A first novel is a crazy undertaking,” Gandal acknowledges, “especially when it eludes recognized genres.” And, admittedly, when it starts with almost-incest. He’s a brave man.
Les temps they were a-changin’: The only simple thing about Susan Daitch‘s debut novel L.C. (Dalkey Archive, $14.95) is its title. Stories are layered over stories, politics over politics, as a 19th-century Parisienne’s diary, translated and annotated by an American scholar, comes into the hands of a UC Berkeley radical, circa 1968. All three women evoke scenes and struggles at once separate and similar. Although Daitch attended Columbia instead of Cal, “Berkeley is the place that carries the most symbolism of that period of American history.” So she consulted with friends who hung out in Sproul Plaza during those teargassy days.
“The difference between their memories and the kind of theater that goes on now” at Cal “is pretty marked,” the author notes. “Besides the evangelicals, there are extreme skateboarders, drummers, swing dancers, a play about the Lorax, and so on. When I walk through Sproul Plaza now, it’s hard for me not to hear those voices saying, ‘This is where the bullet holes are in the library; this is where the SLA found the file cards with Patty Hearst’s address on them’ — but the skateboarders are interesting, too.”
L.C.‘s Parisienne refuses to stay put; its radical is on the lam.
“History,” Daitch says, “runs in cycles.”
Picture this: UC Berkeley English instructor Thomas Farber had an idea for a nonfiction book about art: he would hire female figure models and write about them. But as the parade of nudes began, his plan changed. The Observer (Metropolitan, $22) turned into spare, daring, erotic fiction — Farber calls it his “models, sex, and death novel” — in which a young married woman and an older writer share a passion for art and for each other, breaking taboos as they go.
Isle say: As a child in Hawaii, Alameda’s Pam Chun used to “meet hundreds of second, third, and fourth cousins who my mother said were from the ‘other side’ of the family. But no one explained what that meant,” says the UC Berkeley grad.
The stories her grandmother told “at night around a bonfire on the beach or in the early morning after she finished her prayers to Kwan Yin” were evocative, yet they raised unanswered questions as well. Not until Sen. Hiram Fong, a family friend, told Chun about her great-grandfather, Lau Ah Leong, did she learn that this larger-than-life figure had once been one of the islands’ richest and most famous men.
“He was notorious for having had five wives,” Chun says now, “all at the same time, as well as ten sons and eleven daughters” — and those are only the ones she knows about. She suspects there were more. After virtually coming back from the dead as a young man in China, Lau grew into a wildly successful businessman whose life, lands, and loves spanned two continents. With The Money Dragon (Sourcebooks, $24), Chun has turned her family’s true story into a first novel, a sweeping jaunt that is exacting in its historical and cultural detail and unstinting in its revelations about anti-Chinese discrimination in pre-statehood Hawaii.
“I was amazed that Lau was not mentioned in any history of Hawaii nor in any history of the Chinese in Hawaii despite his great influence and success. I was determined to discover why,” Chun says. “And in the process, I also discovered all those ‘other sides.'”
Perforce alfresco: In Surviving on the Streets (Loompanics, $14.95), trained journalist and longtime Berkeley street person Ace Backwords dispels myths and gives real tips on the nuts and bolts of being homeless: why it happens, where stuff can be scrounged, what is and isn’t safe … and it has just been named a ForeWord magazine Book of the Year.