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Wednesday, Dec 31 2008

Okay, deep breath. It's over. The year, that is. And yes, it's quite all right to be tired. We all are. So why not slow down and shut yourself in for a bit — take a moment, or a few hours, or a whole new year, to review? Handily, a year's worth of local literature has piled up and is waiting for us. No, we're not going anywhere.

Really, why travel at all when it's so much easier to give yourself over to five-hundred-plus pages of fabulism from one of those writers who "divides his time" between cities thousands of miles apart — like San Francisco and Beirut, for instance. Yes, that would be Rabih Alameddine, the author most recently of The Hakawati, a consciously mesmerizing braid of ancient Arabic fables and fictive Lebanese family history. A hakawati, by the way, is a storyteller. And this is the hakawati. Just saying. As for its relevance to the elapsing year? "Wartime parties are always inhibition-loosening, euphoric affairs," Alameddine writes, coining a line San Franciscans of the waning Bush era surely can appreciate.

For example, consider Stephen Elliott's visionary anthology, Sex for America: Politically Inspired Erotica, whose title speaks for itself. History shall record that the book's local contributors — including Elliott himself, Michelle Richmond, Michelle Tea, Peter Orner, and Daphne Gottlieb, among others — were true and loyal patriots of a righteously randy republic. Read it and ask yourself: Would the election have gone down the same way without this book?

Meanwhile, Gottlieb's own Fucking Daphne: Mostly True Stories and Fictions gamely gathers other writers' observations of precisely that titular experience, and variations thereof. Former S.F. resident Jamie Berger warms us up: "Daphne falls in love with me when she's sad and drunk. I'm a bartender. And she's a regular. And she's nearly always sad." In a way it's sort of a slap in the face, or at least on the ass, of our memoir-mad, self-loving literary culture — right from the self-lovingest, memoir-maddest city in the land.

This is not to knock the fine literary art of all-about-me-ness. Without it, after all, we wouldn't have Jennifer Traig's Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria, which bravely — and, in fact, quite grotesquely — steps up where no celebrity spokesperson has dared to tread, raising our awareness of an awful and often ridiculous affliction. Perhaps, deep down, we are all a little afraid of becoming convulsively insane, feces-eating Eskimos. Besides, what better follow-up could we ask for from the author of Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood?

The memoir form also seems well suited to Alan Black, whose Kick the Balls: An Offensive Suburban Odyssey patiently and profanely explains what happens when a guy who grew up in Glasgow tries to coach a lame suburban American team of pampered 8-year-old soccer brats. It's a fun read, for sure, but anybody who's heard Black read from it at the Edinburgh Castle pub might prefer the audiobook.

Now, 2008 being a year in which our paper shopping bags couldn't resist condescendingly reminding us that they're recyclable, and "green" became not only the new black but also the new tyrannically omnipresent jargon of political correctness, a new biography of John Muir seemed entirely appropriate. Donald Worster's A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir brings the godfather of environmental activism vividly back to life, as if hand-growing him fresh from the compost heap of California history.

Speaking of natural righteousness, foodie folk hero and UC Berkeley prof Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto seems essential for today's New Year's resolution-maker. Herein lies the recipe for weaning ourselves from the modern Western diet of splendiferous yet quite obviously nefarious "edible foodlike substances." It's a short book — in fact, by Pollan's admission, it can be summarized in seven short words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Even if only out of confusion because you thought it was a themed wall calendar, Katie Crouch's Girls in Trucks is worth a look. In this debut novel, an erstwhile South Carolina debutante tries to make her way in New York. Sounds like standard-issue chick lit, right? Wait for the surprising, delighting details: "Even sex has become an unpleasant act; afterward we roll, annoyed, away from each other's sticky skin, pissed-off as pregnant cats." Somewhat relatedly, Sylvia Brownrigg's Morality Tale, in which a romantic coffee-shop meet-cute descends into a lousy marriage, is narrated by a woman who's writing a book she calls a "Dictionary of Betrayal."

Nope, it's not all just the happy-go-lucky stuff. On that note, wasn't there something or other about the economy? Indeed, Berkeley-based Moneyball author Michael Lewis' latest, Panic! The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, brings together a group of articles by himself and other econ-savvy journalists to provide a highly readable backgrounder on how we all got played as subprime suckas.

Sure, it's a lot of reading, but why wait for the movie when that just means we'd eventually have to leave the house?

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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