How Much of These Hills Is Gold follows two orphans in the Gold Rush years of the American West who pick their way through a hostile climate and even more hostile residents who can’t abide their Chinese origins. Dreams and symbolism figure strongly along with tigers (really!), which made it difficult for me to get into the well-crafted family story but it felt arms-length to the end, which is not ideal for a novel.
Tag Archives: California
The intertwined stories of successive owners of the same piano in The Piano are strangely compelling, probably thanks to the strong female characters with unusual lives. Still, I felt that the story was too forced, too unlikely, too constructed to really flow, and, in parts, read more like a compilation of careful research (on interesting topics including music, Russian emigres to the US, Death Valley) than a story one may actually embrace and believe. You may be more trusting and charitable than I am.
On Sunset is a delightful memoir of the author’s childhood, being raised by her grandparents as her unmarried mother lived nearby and seemed responsible enough, but not, apparently, to raise a child. Her grandparents had unusual lives. Her grandmother, born in an Iranian Jewish family, grew up in Shanghai there her father was a wealthy merchant. Her grandfather grew up poor in England but spent time working in Alaska before marrying late in life. She tells of growing up in a mansion, the furniture of which gets sold off to pay for necessities, while proper manners and decorum are observed at all times. I loved the description of her relationship to her grandfather, who is kind and wise and generous, as perhaps only someone who grows up poor can be.
Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen is a memoir and book-length argument in favor of immigration reform. The author was sent to the US at age 12 to live with his (documented) grandparents with the hope of a better future. Things worked out well for him: he attended a good high school and was able to take advantage of generous financial help to attend college, but proper paperwork proved elusive and a talented journalist finds himself with no legal avenue to regularize his situation — although, interestingly and despite (or perhaps because of) his fame, he has not been deported. I would have preferred more of a focus on his personal history and less political commentary, but it’s important to show how productive individuals are left in limbo because of decisions made long ago by their parents.
The story in There, There takes place mostly in Oakland (it turns out that there is a there there) and features a group of disparate characters, Native Americans who will attend a Powwow at the Coliseum, some with non-peaceful designs. But the story is really about the rough lives of the participants, with violence, alcohol, drugs, racism, and that for several generations. The details of the plot at the powwow seem unnecessarily overdone compared to the life stories, and the life stories are so dark that it’s hard to persevere past the first 200 pages or so, but the start is very promising.
I was a little leery of the precocious Nenny’s voice in Every Other Weekend — plus, can the ordinary life of the daughter of divorced parent be really that interesting? Well, yes! As we follow her to her parochial school, through her wildly devastating nightmares, and along her complex relationships with her silent, though, but secretly sweet stepfather, we fall in love with her world and her vision of it. Even without the eventual tragedy, she takes us into the universe of third graders, and it’s not quite as simple as we might think. Don’t give up before you read at least 100 pages!
I wonder how Corey Pein, the author of Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley would describe California’s Gold Rush. He would find much to bemoan: the fantastic hopes of newcomers who believed there were fortunes to be made, the long work hours, the unbelievable cost of housing, the swindling and backroom dealings, and the harsh realization that the only ones making a reliable living are those that sold shovels and jeans. And that’s exactly what the book is about: how dreamers of riches find themselves lining the pockets of unscrupulous property owners and promoters of “startup boot camps” while gentrifying neighborhoods push out blue-collar workers much like the Gold Rush crowd systematically removed Native Americans that were in the way.
I’m not sure why we need a book-length expose to show that Silicon Valley is in an economic bubble, with all the problems attending to economic bubbles. And some facts are curiously wrong: it’s true that commuter trains are unconscionably slow in these parts, but it does not take three hours to go from San Francisco to Mountain View.
I hesitate to recommend My Absolute Darling because I almost closed the book after the first few chapters, whose vivid evocation of child abuse I found overwhelming, even repugnant. Yes, the heroine is indeed a survivor, as critics note, but she does have to endure a lot at the hands of her father and it makes for man rough pages. Two things really shined for me: the description of the Mendocino coast, with its physics beauty and its strange characters, and the complicated reality of abused teens, who choose to retreat rather than trust outsiders. But a tough read, for sure!
A Gambler’s Anatomy is certainly different, starring a shadowy backgammon player who plays high-stakes games with rich men (all men) around the world and winds up needing surgery for a threatening brain tumor. We visit Singapore, Berlin, Berkeley. We revisit the hero’s strange childhood and the strange business ventures of his childhood friend. But as exciting as gambling and neurosurgery can be, the story never crystallized into a satisfying whole for me, just a string of occasionally tiresome adventures.
It must be fashionable for grown men to write about their childhood bullies. Unlike Whipping Boy, however, Bullies: A Friendship focuses on the present. The author’s one-time bully is now the president of a motorcycle club in Oakland, CA, and the author, somewhat strangely, sets out to explore in great detail the activities of the club, depicting Oakland as a drug-infested den of violence and hopelessness which leaves locals, and even semi-locals like me shaking our heads. Yes, there are very dangerous places in Oakland but even the author acknowledges that he managed to live there for months in complete safety, apart from his repeated trips to the infamous triangle where his ex-bully, now supposedly “friend”, operates. It turns out that motorcycle “clubs” (I would say gangs) are very violent and 200 pages of that simultaneously turned my stomach and bore me immensely. Stay away from psychopaths.