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[466] Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

“What about San Francisco?”
“What about it?”
“Did you like it?”
She shrugged. “It was O.K.”
“Just O.K.?”
She laughed. “Good God!”
“You’re all alike here.”
“How so?” he asked.
“You demand adoration for the place. You’re not happy until everybody swears undying love for every nook and cranny of every precious damn –”
“Whoa, missy.”
“Well, it’s true. Can’t you just worship it on your own? Do I have to sign an affidavit?”
He chuckled. “We’re that bad, are we?”
“You bet your ass you are.”


I have no excuse for not having read Tales of the City: having lived in San Francisco for twenty-five years, being gay, and knowing all the places mentioned in the book like the back of my hand. The fictional Barbary Lane that is the domain of the series is actually based on a street called Macondray Lane right in my neighborhood! It’s my backyard.

I’m not sure I even need a lover, male or female. Sometimes I think I’d settle for five good friends.

Tales of the City is the first book of the series. It opens with the arrival of Mary Ann Singleton, a naive young woman from Cleveland, Ohio, who, seeking a change in life and leaving her cagey one, goes on vacation to San Francisco and impulsively decides to stay. Soon she finds herself living in 28 Barbary Lane and working for Edgar Halcyon, president of Halcyon Communications. Her life becomes intertwined with those of her neighbors and co-workers. There’s the eccentric marijuana-growing landlady Anna Madrigal, the hippy bisexual Mona Ramsey, the lothario Brian Hawkins, the sinister and cagey Norman Williams, and Michael Tolliver, the sweet boy-next-door gay guy who is always “thriving on downers.” Later, her boss and his affluent family come into Mary Ann’s social adventures by way of some astonishingly contrived coincidences.

Hell, Mouse! I hardly know any straight men anymore.
You live in San Francisco. (Mona Ramsey)

Tales of the City is no high literature, but Maupin writes with warmth, acuity and tremendous authenticity about ordinary people learning to live with themselves and one another, regardless of sexual, gender, and cultural difference. I think the charm is that San Francisco being a very small world in which these characters, all separated by less than six degrees of separation, and flawed by human frailty, criss-cross each other’s lives in shifting vignettes, in the most humor0us, unexpected way. How these lives often intersect is also blackest when it’s funniest, hinging on finding a sense of permanence and love in a world in which all the values are being reassessed. The book is a collective vignette of life in 1970s San Francisco, and in spite of the huge cast of characters, everything is explained and tied up neatly.

400 pp. Harper Perennial Paperback 2007 edition. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Warm Furlough Day

Where would I be on a warm furlough day? Bookstore. Just get lost in it, browsing with insouciance, pulling random books whose spines speak to me. After a full morning of reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, I agree Hemingway’s style is strong and detailed, but with so little happening over so many pages, I found myself becoming impatient with the story. Perhaps just a sign of the times and my own personal taste, I put the book down after reading only half of it today. Off I went to Dog Eared Books to see what might catch my attention. On an unseasonably warm day, foot traffic is sparse, let alone the money-spending crowd.

Dog Eared is one of my favorites in town. It’s right in the middle of Mission/Valencia, where good food and delicious coffee are to be had. It’s the perfect place to be stranded in. I was looking a copy of Somerset Maugham’s The Writer’s Notebook, but to no avail. On the tables nearest to the cashier are heavily discounted new books, including selected NYRB titles. Last time I got Evelyn Waugh and John Williams books at heavy discount. Today upon careful probing I have discovered two new authors whom I have never heard of: The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt and A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis. The former concerns a black family that decides to cross the color line in order to claim their share of the American dream around the turn of 20th century. The latter reads like a comedy of a city dweller’s effort to will himself a meaningful life by purchasing and renovating a collapsing ruin. Two promising books that will accompany me to Asia.

Valencia – Dog Eared Books

Like yesterday, I took a break from reading The Sound and the Fury and had a walk. I finished Part III of the book (one more to go), which is the easiest installment because the narrative is actually linear. I could have continued the novel but decided to let what I have read thus far gravitate. Off I went to Valencia/Mission where a friend operates a collective boutique on 18th, The Mission Statement. On the way to her shop I stopped by a bookstore I should have shopped more often, Dog Eared Books.

What I like the most about this independent/neighborhood bookstore is their dedicated NYRB classics section. Dog Eared carries both used and new books, and has a very good children’s books selection. Today some of the new NYRB classic titles are marked down to $7.98, and almost all of the new Evelyn Waugh books are $4.98 each.

After much deliberation, the haul contained a variety of titles that are both intent purchases and impulse buys: The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams (I was looking for Watership Down), Love, Etc by Julian Barnes (have never read him but since he recently won the Booker Prize, okay), The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (guilty for not having read this), Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (brand new for third of original price), and Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (a brand new copy but priced as a an used book). The biggest satisfaction (other than the books) is that I support local and indie businesses.

Dickens’ Christmas

“Happy Christmas” is what you hear most often at the Dickens Christmkas Fair, a Bay Area tradition since 1970. This year the Great Dickens Christmas Fair returns to the San Francisco, with shops bedecked with Christmastime finery and filled with unique treasures. What renders the verisimilitude of Victorian England, on top of the theatrical experience through authenticity, participation, and playfulness is the setup, which lanes of Victorian London, as the glow of twilight settles upon the city, with the scent of pine boughs & freshly baked scones floating in the air and the sound of carolers and holiday merrymakers accompanying your stroll. Telegraph boys announced reception of missives. Chimney men paraded the streets. A brutal chimney sweep almost claims Oliver in Oliver Twist. A witty, swaggering Cockney, Sam Weller, who rejuvenated the story of Pickwick Papers, is also sighted. Although Little Nell broke thousands of hearts the world over, reduced politicians to tears, and has been argued over by critics and readers ever since, the heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop is well alive here. A cruel ice queen forever clad in her dusty wedding dress, Miss Havisham is one of the most fascinating figures in literature. She haunts the pages of Great Expectations, living in a decrepit mansion and plotting the downfall of others. Clad in white wedding gown, she was seen at the fair signing a marriage contract on a wheelchair. But the con-artist fiancée was nowhere to be seen. Wielding a club, terrorizing his family and, scariest of all, eating eggs whole with the shells on, Daniel Quilp from The Old Curiosity Shop is like some fairy tale creature, milling about the tea shoppe. In the same tea house, I met clones of Mr Micawber from David Copperfield, Pip from Great Expectations, and the swaggering scoundrel, a quasi-grubby, amoral variation of Peter Pan, Mr. Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, all taking afternoon high tea. The one character that steals the show no doubt is Ebenezer Scrooge, the old misery-guts who becomes a good man after being visited by a number of ghosts on Christmas Eve. It’s one of the great stories of all time. Not only was Scrooge there in person, a handful of shops and taverns were named after him.

The fun thing is that I cannot distinguish between the characters from the attendees, as most folks are fully dressed Victorian for the occasion. Are the drunken lads characters? What about the alehouse whores? The old ladies behind the kitchen counter are making meat pies from scratch. A family, all dressed up in Dickens England costumes, some with tattoos and piercings, are having a meal at the tavern as in the picture above. You can stop in for a hot toddy or a pint of Lagunitas at Mad Sal’s Dockside Ale House, where the low-life hang out and the high-born drop in. You can raise a champagne toast to the holidays at Fezziwig’s Warehouse, the most cheerful spot in London. That wearing coats, shawls, wraps, bonnets, hats, scarves and gloves while “on the streets of London” goes a very long way towards creating the illusion of a cold Christmas Eve. Folks who are attentive to the minute details of their costumes and outfits head-to-toe constantly remind me that I’m walking in London on Christmas Eve. While you feast on food of the British Empire, or shopping for a corset at Velvet Bedlam or bowler’s hat at Gentlemen’s Fit, pedestrians have to part and make way for the retinue with sign bearing the message: “Lips that touched liquor shall not touch ours.” The one place that is so close to my heart, of course, is the Books and Print Shop in which a plethora of antique leather bound novels are shelved. They go from $35 to $150, depending on condition and date. Some Dickens are dated pre-1900. So tempted was I to buy the whole soft leather-bounds. (Thank you Charles Lougee for the pictures.)

City Lights

Wooden rocking chair at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. This chair, in the poetry room upstairs, is where I usually sit and read when I pay a visit. Students from a spring 2011 anthropology course at Berkeley digitally documented the cultural heritage of City Lights Bookstore to show the cultural and spatial relations between City Lights and Vesuvio Café. Click here to see the entire set of pictures.

Cherry Blossoms, Yukio Mishima

The ebullience and conviviality of cherry blossom festival in Japantown takes a darkening tinge this year on the heels of the recent tragedy. In Japan, the flowers have long symbolized the fleeting nature of beauty and life. Japanese poets from early on took this as analogous to the ephemerality of life. The focus, besides cherry blossom viewing, is on relief effort, which is what have brought me to the community this weekend. Short window of the blossoms, made worse by gusty wind in the city that blows off the petals, is perceived with a new layer of meaning.

On top of the benefit booths, Tokyo-based Kinokuniya Bookstore also donates a percentage of the sales to relief effort. San Francisco store has a good selection of Japanese literature in English translation. Yukio Mishima (三島由紀夫 1925-1970) is the purpose of the visit. He is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century, whose avant-garde work displayed a blending of modern and traditional aesthetics that broke cultural boundaries, with a focus on sexuality, death, and political change.

Although it is known that he visited gay bars in Japan, Mishima’s sexual orientation remains a matter of debate, as his widow wanted that part of his life downplayed after his death. However, several people have claimed to have had homosexual relationships with Mishima, including writer Jiro Fukushima, who published a revealing correspondence between himself and the famed novelist.

I’m interested in reading two of his most controversial novels, which are meant to be autobiographical. Forbidden Colors (禁色 Kinjiki) describes a marriage of a gay man to a young woman. The name kinjiki is a euphemism for homosexuality. The kanji 禁 means “forbidden” and 色 in this case means “erotic love”, although it can also mean “color” or “lust.” The word “kinjiki” also means colors which were forbidden to be worn by people of various ranks in the Japanese court. The title is pun-intended and has multiple meanings. Confessions of a Mask (仮面の告白 Kamen no Kokuhaku) is about a young man who, born with a less-than-ideal body in terms of physical fitness and robustness, struggles to keep his homosexuality to himself. It’s been recognized that Mishima had placed himself in the novel, cast himself as the protagonist.

Double Cravings

I headed to Clement Street for Burmese food and the ultimate guilty-pleasure-slash-comfort-sweet-calling: Japanese crepe with banana, nutella and coconut ice cream at Genki. Craving fulfilled ten bites later. But there was an inner craving yet to be fulfilled since I was under the influence of the magnetic field of Green Apple Books. I was rifling the bargain trucks outside and in two minutes I found two books that have been on my radar:

The Wilderness: A Novel Samantha Harvey
The Likeness: A Novel Tana French

Since today’s purpose is not to browse the entire collection, I wasn’t plan on looting books. But Green Apple has just wielded the power that it is absolutely impossible to keep my purse string tight.

Literary San Francisco

Even though I have acquired e-reader, actually two of them, exclusively for travel, I don’t see books that are actual books—the hard prints, on the cusp of being swept away because of the heated and flourishing literary scene in the city. Despite its techie edge and staggering rent, San Francisco is the home to many independent bookstores that thrive, as New York Times has mentioned, “thanks to a city of readers who seem to view books not only as a pleasure, but as a cause.” I’m very proud to be part of this cause. Historically rooted literary scene, such as the Beat Movement that had given birth to the internationally renowned City Lights Booksellers, gave rise to the city’s proliferation of small bookstores that thrive in compact, walkable neighborhoods with a militant objection to chain stores. Needless to say these indies all possess neighborhood relevants that make it easy for visitors to explore not just the city’s literary terrain but cultural history. Mission District is the home of numerous bookstores, including Dog Eared Books on Valenica with an eclectic selection of new and used fiction. Not too far from it is Borderland, the grand central station of sci-fis. A walk on 18th into the Castro will find A Different Light, which specializes in GLBT titles.

Venturing out of the Mission into Upper Haight will find two bookstores that afford completely polarized impression. Booksmith has recently undergone change of ownership which has revitalized the whole literary scene. This store has the most interesting categories. Diagonally across the street is Bound Together, a closet of a shop crammed floor to ceiling with the heavy, serious literature that is not necessarily organized by authors. This little hole with barred-up window calls for patience and time. Independent bookstores do not just thrive on major commercial strips. Christopher Books perching at a corner on Portreo Hill is a cute literary boutique. West Portal Books on West Portal also attracts a literary crowd that mirrors those at various locations of Books Inc., West Coast’s oldest independent bookseller, host of almost half of the city’s literary events. Got written up on so many occasions here is, of course, Green Apple Books, the great dame of indie and used bookstore of the city. Marcus Bookshop on Fillmore is the city’s hidden secret. It’s the country’s oldest bookstore that specializes in African American books. nearby in Japan Town is Kinokuniya based in Tokyo that offers titles in Japanese language and Asian American literature in English. Echoing Kinokuniya is East Wind Books in Chinatown, specializing in Chinese titles.

Make your trip to San Francisco a literary one on top of cable cars and culinary explorations.

A Different Light Bookstore (Castro) 489 Castro Street @18th GLBT
Alexander Book Company (Financial District/SoMA) 50 Second Street
Aardvark Books (Castro/Upper Market) 227 Church Street @Market
Adobe Book Shop (Mission) 3166 16th Street (between Guerrero & Valencia)
Bibliohead (Hayes Valley) 334 Gough Street @Hayes
Bird & Beckett (Glen Park) 2788 Diamond @ Chenery
Book Bay – Fort Mason Fort Mason Center Building C, Room 165
Book Bay Main (Civic Center) Main Library at the Grove Street Entrance 30 Grove Street
Book Passage (The Embarcadero) 1 Ferry Building #42
Books Inc / Opera Plaza (Civic Center) 601 Van Ness @Golden Gate
Books Inc / Castro (Castro)  2275 Market Street (near 16th)
Books Inc / Laurel Village (Laurel Height) 3515 California Street @Locust
Books Inc / Marina District (Marina/Cow Hollow) 2251 Chestnut Street (between Pierce & Scott)
Bookshop West Portal (West Portal)  80 West Portal Avenue @Vicente
Booksmith (Haight) 1644 Haight Street (between Clayton & Cole)
Bound Together Books (Haight) 1369 Haight Street (between Masonic & Central)
Browser Books (Pacific Heights) 2195 Fillmore Street @Clay
Christopher’s Books (Portreo Hill) 1400 18th Street @Missouri
City Lights (North Beach) 261 Columbus Avenue @Broadway
Dog Eared Books (Mission) 900 Valencia Street @20th St.
Forest Books (Mission) 3080 16th Street @Valencia
Get Lost Travel Books (Upper Market) 1825 Market Street (near Guerrero) Travel books
Green Apple Books & Music (Inner Richmond)  506 Clement Street @6th
Green Arcade (Hayes Valley) 1680 Market Street @Haight Politics and Environment
Kinokuniya Books (Japantown) 1581 Webster St #165 (inside Japan Center) Japanese titles/Asian American studies
Marcus Books (Western Addition) 1712 Fillmore Street @Post African American studies
Phoenix Books & Records (Noe Valley) 3957 24th Street (between Noe & Sanchez)
Russian Hill Bookstore (Russian Hill) 2234 Polk Street (between Vallejo & Green)

Book Bloggers’ Visit, with Pictures

Dim sum (small Chinese plates) was one thing we would do for sure when Steph first e-mailed me about their upcoming trip to San Francisco. Nashville has three Chinese restaurants but only one serves dim sums. On Sunday, I took Steph and Tony, and my friend Rick to Great Eastern in Chinatown for a sumptuous meal of dim sum. Most locals will tell you that the best dim sums are in the suburbs, Great Eastern, just a stone’s throw from their hotel, is a better bargain in the heart of Chinatown with comfortable seats and sans screaming children running berserk. Steph and Tony left the ordering to me, which, on top of the usual fares of har gau and siu mai, include steamed rice noodle cakes, water chestnut cakes, steamed custard bun, pork bun, and pan-fried rice noodles in a special XO sauce (which was worth the 20-minute wait).

Green Apple Books in the Richmond was our next stop. The atmosphere of neighborhood bookstore—its creaky floor, stuffed ceiling-to-floor shelves and the great bargains on new books gripped Steph and Tony as soon as we walked into the main store. Like almost any indies here, Green Apple has a character and neighborhood relevant. While Tony took pictures around the store, Steph would ask him whether she should buy this book and make inquiry of her inventory at home. The Steph who claimed “I have no self-control” totally surfaces at the exciting selection of Green Apple especially the international/foreign literature.

Steph ponders at her pile of loots. Paul Auster, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Yiyun Li, and more!

At the realization that they are only  allowed two carry-on pieces, they decided to buy and ship home the whole pile that Steph is seen pondering at in the picture, plus another bag full of books from the annex next door. Tony also got himself a Green Apple t-shirt with a propos message “So many books, so little time.”

Steph, Tony, and I posing in front of the heavily discounted new books at Green Apple.

Readers browsing. How could you ever have enough time for all these books?

It was almost three hours later when we finished browsing the A to Z used fiction at the annex. Just the fiction only. Then we were off to one of the hidden spots that was not Twin Peaks but where you could see a panoramic view of the city.

Too bad bloggers on boozes were not captured in pictures. But it was so much fun to have met Steph and Tony and to show them my secrets of the city. I hope they enjoyed their trip in San Francisco and can’t wait to see them again, in Nashville and Toronto.

Steph & Tony Investigate San Francisco

I just sent Steph and Tony of Steph & Tony Investigate back to their hotel after spending the day with them in the city. We started off with a dim sum brunch in Chinatown, followed by a pilgrimage to the book mecca—Green Apple Books in the Richmond, where they picked up two bags of goodies. Then we hit one of the hidden spots where you can see the city’s skyline. Then they suggested, if I’m not tired of them yet (of course not!), we could go grab dinner together—so we did at Home and had burgers over cocktails. Steph and Tony are the first book bloggers I met here in the Unted States. We had so much fun chatting about books, literature and fiction—and what we like and why we don’t like what most readers like!.  What fun! It looks like Steph and I are the only ones who aren’t thrilled about Room (Emma Donoghue). I’m very excited to have met the book bloggers who share similar tastes in reading and show them around my city. I hope they enjoy the rest of they stay, as they’ll venture out to Golden Gate Bridge and have a fancy meal at La Folie. I’ll post some pictures and I’m sure Steph & Tony will have a full report replete with pictures when they get back. Thank you guys for the great company and for extending your warm welcome to Nashville in the future.