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HUM525: Hitting the Books 

Your required reading for the fall semester.

Wednesday, Sep 2 2009

Instructor: Jonathan Kiefer

COURSE DESCRIPTION: Through close reading of several new or forthcoming books by local authors, students will learn how weird and screwed-up their world, their country, their parents, and they themselves really are, but also why to bother being a member of the human race anyway.


By Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (Twelve, 352 pages, $24.99)
Bronson, having written a slew of award-laden magazine articles about the science of parenting and also the local best-selling author of What Should I Do with My Life? and The Nudist on the Late Shift, and Washington Post writer Merryman have now devised "a revolutionary new perspective on childhood that upends a library's worth of conventional wisdom." That title comes from the oh-shit moment most new parents have when it occurs to them what they're really in for. "This book will deliver a similar shock," Bronson calmly intones in a snazzy video promoting the book.

All That Work and Still No Boys
By Kathryn Ma (University of Iowa Press, 168 pages, $16)
As the title wryly suggests, family dynamics also figure prominently in these 10 stories of immigrant experiences, many of them set in Northern California. Having won the Iowa Short Fiction Award among other heaps of praise, San Francisco writer Ma also has been predicted to win a Pulitzer by American Wife author Curtis Sittenfeld in the Daily Beast.

The Water Giver: The Story of a Mother, a Son, and Their Second Chance
By Joan Ryan (Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $24)
The mother is Ryan, formerly a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. The son is a 16-year-old problem child with learning disabilities and ADHD who wore out his mother. Parenting had become more a matter of maintenance and repair than of loving and connection. So imagine how she felt one day to find him in a coma with a traumatic brain injury, and then to endure his long, arduous, uncertain rehabilitation. That would be their second chance.

Suggested supplemental reading: Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year (1994), by Anne Lamott, another beloved local writer who favorably blurbed Ryan's book.

The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder
By Stephen Elliott (Graywolf Press, 224 pages, $23)
From the San Francisco author of Happy Baby and My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, a deeply personal disquisition on the sources of identity, the effects of chemical enhancement on obsessive storytelling, and a locally momentous tale of true crime. A few years ago, while local tech-sector wonder boy Hans Reiser stood trial for the murder of his Russian wife, Reiser's best friend — whom Elliott knew from the S&M scene — admitted to killing several people himself. That prompted Elliott to investigate, and to wonder whether his own abusive father actually did once kill a man with a shotgun, as the elder Elliott had apparently hinted at in an unpublished memoir. And that's just the setup. Given that Elliott can make even a dashed-off predawn e-mail into a drop-everything, ripping-good read, his new book threatens to blow many minds.

Suggested supplemental reading: The White Album (1979) by Joan Didion; My Dark Places (1996) by James Ellroy


By Dave Eggers (McSweeney's, 351 pages, $24)
This nonfiction novel, to revive an old-fashioned term, has the makings of a modern classic. It's about a Syrian-American small-business owner and father of four who remained in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, paddling a canoe through the flooded streets to help his neighbors, until authorities mistook him for a terrorist and locked him up. One specific, sympathetic, deeply researched story becomes the emblem of a profound American moment.

The Sower
By Kemble Scott (Numina Press, 232 pages, $23.95)
Originally published as an e-book on Scribd and just released in hardcover, the romping new thriller from the Lambda Literary Award finalist and best-selling author of SoMa is described by Scott as The Da Vinci Code meets Sex and the City. (Or, as the author David Henry Sterry more elaborately put it, "The Da Vinci Code as seen through the twisted eyes of John Waters and transcribed by the Marquis de Sade.")

It involves a narcissistic San Francisco swinger who finds himself to be the only known carrier of a manmade supervirus that cures every disease — and can be transmitted only through sex. This has the dubious effect of turning our hero into a culture warrior's wet dream.

The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry
By Jay Kinney (HarperCollins, 288 pages, $16)
At last: A practicing Freemason who lives in San Francisco and is a member of several local lodges explains everything. Well, almost everything. Students are cautioned not to be alarmed if, after reading this, they begin noticing an abundance of black-suited men carrying black briefcases following them from class to class.


Lynnee Breedlove's One Freak Show
By Lynn Breedlove (Manic D. Press, 120 pages, $15)
The queer cabaret host, singer for punk-dyke band Tribe 8, and author of the bike-messenger novel Godspeed has developed his/her highly comical, category-confounding, body-image-issue–busting solo show into a new book. The goal is to transmute confusion into clarity. Or at least hilarity.

Music: I-LXXIV
By August Kleinzahler
(Pressed Wafer, 306 pages, $17.50)
The much-lauded longtime local poet also has a warm, funny, cranky, effortlessly literate way with the essay. Kleinzahler, who once held court in a weekly music column for the San Diego Reader, has collected a broad range of easygoing missives on music, whose subjects include Liberace, Louis Prima, Thelonious Monk, Glenn Gould, and Dinah Washington.

Students are required to keep a commonplace book in which to record favorite quotations from the books they read during the semester.

Pop quizzes will be in the form of impromptu conversations on Muni buses and in coffee shops, by which students will be judged for their ability to convey deep reading of the material without sounding pretentious.

Attendance at author events, as they come up, is encouraged. Attendance at Litquake festival field trip (Oct. 9-17; is mandatory.

Fall Arts Guide

Nicola Luisotti by Chloe Veltman
Five Classical Music and Opera Events to See This Fall by Chloe Veltman

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company by Bonner Odell
Fall Dance Picks by Bonner Odell

Stage Sage: Speculating about this season's theatrical experiments by Chris Jensen
Other Fall Stage Events by Chris Jensen

Visual Art
Harpoons and Harbingers: This fall, visual artists bite, reflect, and cannibalize by Traci Vogel
Art listings compiled by John Graham

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

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


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