Dear readers,

This dates me, I guess, but I don’t like to leave the house without a physical book. It makes me very anxious to be stranded without reading material — what if I’m trapped in an elevator, or the bus hits traffic, or my friend is late? And while devices are a good backup, e-books just don’t bring the same sense of security. Even my smallest purses have to be capacious enough to hold a paperback.

Because I live in an apartment building with a lively lobby-book trade, when I’m between reads I often leave it to chance (or whichever neighbors are cleaning out their bookshelves) and pick something up on my way out the door. This might mean James Patterson on some days; on others, Kierkegaard. It’s added real depth to my reading life! Here are a couple of recent hits.


I’d been meaning to read “I Hotel” ever since Paul Yamazaki, the legendary buyer of San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, recommended it in an interview. So you can imagine my excitement when it appeared on a lobby radiator last January: It was fate — or maybe that nice woman with the sweet terrier mix who lives on 4.

Mixing literary fiction, playwriting and graphic art, “I Hotel” is made up of a series of interconnected novellas set over 10 years in and around one real-life Chinatown hotel. Yamashita’s subject is the Asian American movement of the 1960s and ’70s, a moment of intense artistic and political blossoming. As San Francisco heaves with changes, the hotel resists gentrification even as it plays host to an-ever widening roster of characters and activists. There’s the philosophical postcard-collector who quotes Mao and Gertrude Stein, and the journalist for an alt weekly who’s covering the controversy over whether to declare Chinese New Year a holiday in local schools. We meet a Filipino American farm union worker and a Japanese American organizer working to transform a sweatshop. There are cameos from Oakland Black Panthers and Berkeley antiwar protestors. The Indians of All Tribes occupy Alcatraz; the war rages; there’s a pig-cooking contest; there are ghosts. It’s electrifying.

Lots of other blurb-ish words actually apply here — ambitious, sweeping, virtuosic, kaleidoscopic.This is certainly the Great San Francisco Novel. I’m angry for all the years I wasted not having read it and glad that maybe some of you will come to it as a result of my writing this now.

Read if you like: “The People’s Almanac,” the Cow Palace, San Francisco Sounds
Available from: City Lights!

I grabbed this out of desperation. I was running late; I knew I would finish my Ruth Rendell before the end of my train ride to Philadelphia; my only lobby options were a 2007 Fodor’s Guide to the Berkshires and this copy of “The Custom of the Country,” which someone seemed to have downloaded from the internet. Oh well, I thought. I haven’t read it since college, and even if it is printed in Noto Sans, Edith Wharton is better than nothing.

How had I forgotten how incredible this novel is? The story of an adventuress on the make, it’s one of Wharton’s most rollicking works: She’s as unflinching as ever, and as gimlet-eyed on the vagaries of high society, but it’s also clear how much fun she has portraying parvenu crassness. (Mental note: Pigeon-blood notepaper with white ink is totally declassé.) And in Undine Spragg, the small-town beauty determined to conquer New York, Wharton gives us one of her most remarkable creations. Undine is spoiled, willful, ruthless and vulgar, an amalgam of all Wharton’s Ugliest Americans. But even at her broadest, she remains a fully realized human. You love to hate her — at times it’s as though the author wonders exactly how monstrous she can render her, and keep you reading — and yet a part of you can’t help rooting for her, too.

Time and again, I found myself dog-earing or underlining lines whose wording could simply not have been better (an advantage of a copy this crummy is that you feel free to annotate without guilt). Take this passage, after Undine has thrown a tantrum: “That incident had left her half-ashamed, half-frightened of her behavior, and she had tried to atone for it by the indirect arts that were her nearest approach to acknowledging herself in the wrong.”

Read if you like: “The House of Mirth,” “The Gilded Age”
Available from: The internet, evidently

  • Judge a book by its cover? Last weekend, I stopped by the current exhibition at the Grolier Club: Book bindings from 1470-2020. But you don’t need to be in New York to see it; their programs are beautifully digitized.

  • Make your escape? There’s escapism, and then there’s “The Rome Affair,” by the British writer Karen Swan. You want glamour and romance in the Eternal City? She’s got you. How about some lurid family secrets, hidden passages, yachts, surly heroes, vintage gowns, missing jewels and identical twins? I often think how much duller my life would be had some anonymous benefactor not left this gateway Swan in my building’s lobby, introducing me to the Moët & Chandon Imperial Vintage 1946 of beach reads.

  • Self-actualize? One of my recent giveaway-table acquisitions is a blank notebook. Always useful, right? Except this notebook, titled “In My Humble Opinion,” is full of … abuse. On every page is some sour, misanthropic maxim: “Don’t overestimate the decency of the human race” (H.L. Mencken); “I don’t have pet peeves, I have whole kennels of irritation” (Whoopi Goldberg). I presume it’s intended for venting; I use it mostly for shopping lists. Today: ingredients for lentil soup; “Humanity is a pigsty, where liars, hypocrites and the obscene in spirit congregate.” (George Moore)

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