What We're Reading in SF
August 2016

Summer in San Francisco means one thing: the return of our native son, Karl the Fog. Yes, that damp, grey blight on our fair city has a name—and an Instagram account. While tourists visiting the city huddle in fleece sweatshirts they bought at Pier 39 and misquote Mark Twain (no, he never wrote "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco"), we locals know better than to put away our winter jackets. Karl puts a serious damper on beach reads, so this month, rather than reviewing summery titles, we'll embrace the chill and round up five of our favorite books about the chilly city we call home. If you're going to San Francisco, wear flowers in your hair if you must. But more important, wear layers, and bring an extra book. You might want to stay indoors.


Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Robin Sloan

Before he was a novelist, Robin Sloan worked at Twitter. Unlike so many tech-averse bibliophiles, Sloan has first-hand experience as an insider in the Bay Area tech culture. While it may seem that book-sniffing octogenarians have little in common with hackers in hoodies, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore reveals a surprising synergy between the two groups. The mysteriously secret rituals of Penumbra's bookstore and cultish loyalty of his customers mirror the fetishization of the Google campus and the Kool-Aid evangelism of its employees. If you'd prefer your Penumbra with more San Francisco history and less Silicon Valley subplot, read Sloan's novella, Ajax Penumbra 1969.


Dan Lyons

While we're on the subject, fans of HBO's Silicon Valley will not be disappointed by former Newsweek journalist Dan Lyons's tech tell-all, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. A scathing exposé of start-up culture, Disrupted chronicles Lyons's experience at HubSpot, the marketing software company that he describes as "a Montessori frat house." While the action in the book takes place in Boston, the industry it skewers is the economic engine of the Bay Area. Lyons's snark is off the charts, and while his writing is sharp and often hilarious, there's nothing funny about the ageism and lack of diversity he so rightly calls attention to in the book.


Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words
Wendy MacNaughton

But enough about tech. Let's get back to the heart of San Francisco, as in the "I Left my Heart in" Tony Bennett variety. In Meanwhile in San Francisco, SF native Wendy MacNaughton takes readers on an illustrated tour of her beloved city through pen and ink drawings and watercolor. MacNaughton wandered the streets with her sketchbook in hand, interviewing and drawing city workers, residents, Muni drivers, and locals from all walks of life. The resulting book is part travelogue, part documentary, filled with vignettes that capture a moment of time in a rapidly changing city.


Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
Rebecca Solnit

Recently, I heard another local author, Rebecca Solnit, speak at the Bay Area Book Festival, a two-day celebration of all things bookish, now in its second year in Berkeley. Solnit is whip-smart, warm, and engaging, and the effortlessness of her writing follows her onto the stage. (Yes, she really did write the essay, "Men Explain Things to Me," before breakfast.) Infinite City is the first of a trilogy of so-called "atlases of the imagination" that Solnit created with the help of artists, writers, and cartographers. The 22 maps and essays in the book explore the area thematically, overlaying personal histories with politics and geography with culture. The resulting portrait of San Francisco that emerges is as multilayered and complex as the people who live here. Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas is the second book in the series, and the final installment, Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, will be released in October.


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers has become one of San Francisco’s most beloved literary figures. Since rocketing to fame in 2000 with his Pulitzer Prize–nominated memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers went on to found McSweeney's, a literary press, and 826 Valencia, now a national nonprofit writing and tutoring center for kids. In the last few years, Eggers has been prolific. He's written half a dozen critically acclaimed novels and short story collections and racked up enough awards to wallpaper a room. But most impressive, A Heartbreaking Work stands up to the test of time. Sixteen years later, I still think about a particular passage every time I drive south on Highway 1 and pass Montara Beach. Vividly, I picture Dave and his younger brother Toph tossing a frisbee, waves crashing onto the sand, the Pacific Ocean breeze blowing away just a little of the heartbreak of losing their parents to cancer. That's a long time for a scene in a book to stay with you. Genius.


This post appeared previously in the Read it Forward newsletter.

Image credit: Guinevere de la Mare


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