Books & Lit

Literature: The Year In Reviews

by Paul Wilner

Michael Lewis, Dave Eggers, Jaime Cortez and Rebecca Solnit are among the many local authors who published books this year. | Eggers photo courtesy of Brecht Van Maele, Solnit photo courtesy of Trent Davis Bailey.

It’s been quite a year in literature, mirroring the fear, confusion and hope of our changing times. It seems like eons ago that Amanda Gorman provided poetic inspiration at the presidential inauguration — a contact high that proved short-lived. The pandemic receded some locally but is far from resolved. Economic uncertainty abounds. The wounds of the ongoing racial divide remain largely unaddressed.

Writers in California and beyond dealt with these issues directly or less head-on. The Every, Dave Eggers’ latest parable on the evils of untrammeled technology, struck a timely note with the Facebook whistleblower hearings and The Facebook Files investigation from The Wall Street Journal. A sheaf of volumes from Washington journalists documented the haphazard (at best) goings-on of the Trump years. Berkeley-based author Michael Lewis transcended the limitations of Beltway journalism with The Premonition, a trenchant critique of the mishandling of the COVID crisis that dismissed the former president as a “comorbidity.’’

Taking a longer view, polymath essayist Rebecca Solnit’s latest volume, Orwell’s Roses, offered new perspectives of how the prophetic Nineteen Eighty-Four author combined the personal with the political — and how we might best follow his example.

More obliquely, Crossroads, Santa Cruz-based novelist Jonathan Franzen’s portrait of a troubled Midwestern family in the ’70s, took up timeless themes of the competing demands of faith, monogamy and sibling rivalry.

Multicultural perspectives were addressed in rounded fictional portraits from Jaime Cortez (Gordo) and Keenan Norris (The Confession of Copeland Cane). Anthony Veasna So’s blazingly brilliant, posthumously published short story collection, Afterparties, was a sad reminder of what was lost with his death last December. None of these works were prescriptive, or preachy, but they certainly opened doors for others to walk through.

Readers adapted to the enforced isolation of the pandemic with a plethora of virtual events, benefits to support indie bookstores and the ever-expanding proliferation of book clubs that helped the literary community continue to thrive.

Above and beyond the pandemic, it was also a year of losses: iconic poet and bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti, former San Francisco poet laureate Janice Mirikitani, poet and activist Jack Hirschman, former California poet laureate Al Young, UC Berkeley history professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Leon Litwack, underground comix bad boy S. Clay Wilson and longtime San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker, among many others.

A revival of historical fiction from two Bay Area authors helped us understand our forebears. Vera is Carol Edgarian’s account of how a 15-year-old girl (the illegitimate daughter of the proprietor of a famous San Francisco bordello) navigated the City in the wake of the 1906 quake. Jasmin Darznik’s The Bohemians recreated the artistic ferment in the area a decade later, as iconic figures like photographer Dorothea Lange found their métier — and struggled with the twin sins of racism and male chauvinism.

Those who do not understand the past are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps the examples set by those we’ve lost, and those who remain, will help point us to a brighter future in the coming year — in literature and in life.

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