Saturday, July 5, 2008

In Another Man's Library

It's intriguing, finding out from a book jacket blurb, how the place where we're staying in San Francisco is owned by a family with its breadwinner a teacher at a prestigious prep school. I marvel at the amount of books acquired and the lavish (by my standards) space on a literature instructor's salary. I definitely should consider a career change! What's also noticeable are the differences in titles. Unless all of his Stephen King paperbacks or Sword of Shannara series are stacked in some locked closet (along with wine, which seems noticeably absent from public view), I guess he's pretty highbrow.

Even the children's rooms have neat paperbacks in French, lots of titles on sailing and yachting (I see a photo of kid on boat) in one and lots of science fiction of the better sort in the younger lad's quarters under a Star Wars poster. (Also the Borat travel guide I didn't have time to get to, darn it.) I cannot figure out what the mysterious maternal presence reads, does, or thinks, but I persist in guessing that she's French, maybe from the "almost" south where he wrote his probably charming coming of age tale. The blurb on another title, the one for children, lists his past pursuits as a cowboy, a café owner, truck driver and actor, as well as present ones: a French translator, playwright, essayist, and "award-winning poet." The one for the SF picture book emphasizes his journalism for both the Chronicle up here and the L.A. Times, although the paucity of Angeleno content in this determinedly proud household (those Sandow Birk playing cards sum a lot up about defensiveness) makes me wonder if he writes about my city vs. his apparently adopted one-- none of the books identify him, tellingly, as a native.

The books are organized by genre and alphabetized. Unlike many shelves such as my own, no knicknacks or beach-worn rocks or postcards rest in front of the spines, many or which are wrapped in plastic, many from used bookstores, and many gained at impressively low prices. Native California on one area, coffee-table art, totally serious literature (drama, fiction, poetry each in their own nook, the verse subdivided by further geographical region). Many of the books have pencilled markings second-hand, remarkably inexpensive-- $5 for the "Flaubert in Egypt" hardcover with mylar that I reviewed, and all of $5 for a nice old Modern Library (but none of those Reginald Marsh illustrations I love) of Dos Passos' "USA," and a Reader's Guide helpfully left as an insert 1942 "Inner Sanctum" edition (all of $8) from the same publisher of "War & Peace" I was able to copy for Niall, poor guy, as he makes his way laboriously through it. The copy here has an endpaper map in red comparing how far Hitler advanced vs. Napoleon towards Moscow, and I admit I never thought of such a relevant tie-in before between Tolstoy and blitzkreig.

I perused a novel-history combo this morning that I remember as a child about Niall's age, Curt Gentry's "The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California." This battered paperback combines an early-70s look at Reagan-era Cold War California culture and lore with an obviously (I hope it stays that way) imaginary depiction of what would have happened if in 1969 Edgar Cayce's prediction came true and most of The Golden State was destroyed in a massive earthquake 20 times that of S.F. in 1906 and then a giant tsunami. One spring recess nearest the forecast, which I think was April '69, we second-graders gathered in terror on our playground and lamented our transience. I read about many cults in Gentry, who may have been playing to the mandarins as much as the rubes as he determinedly sent-up all manner of folly in my native state, but he does, in retrospect, try to marry pop culture with political commentary with alternative "What If?" irresistible pulp history informatively. I thought about how tall that wave must have been to end all waves as it found the subsided alluvial plains, forced the passes through the Tehachapis, and inundated the Central Valley. Not good for a kid's nightmares.

In those pages, I also found about such figures as Sister Aimee, the IAM faction, lots of Nazis and Birchers, and the forlorn Holy City-- the subject of a blog post earlier this week-- in these pages, and I learned a lot about why everyone else hates and loves this coastal conglomerate of crazies and kooks. I always confused the Rosicrucians with Riker's inland island of crackpots, as the Rosy Cross advertised with a nearby P.O. address up by Los Gatos, pre-Silicon when it was called the "Valley of Heart's Delight." They had a great tract-like drawing of a wondering man in that proto-Amok Books style.

Gantry's vividly related earthquake terrified me, as they do on big scales in my less lurid real life. The 1971 Sylmar jolt happened not long before I opened Gantry's study, and although 60 miles away in my bed at the time, it was potent enough. (I wound up attending high school near its epicenter.) We all hope the Big One hits somewhere off of Eureka or out by Death Valley, of course, but as the state's nearly twice as populated as it was in 1969, I reckon that it's much harder for us to escape geological fate and tectonical destiny, and I love, I admit again, this city, pleasant and breezy although July, as much as my own hot and humid one.

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