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Novel Ideas

Three literary luminaries share what they’re reading right now.

Maw Shein Win (left), Vanessa Hua (middle), Ingrid Rojas Contreras (right)

Photo: Vanessa Hua by Andria Lo; Ingrid Rojas Contreras by Jeremiah Barber


It isn't all bad news out there… Across the country, poetry reading is on the rise, and in the Bay Area, where one finds a diverse representation of voices, the literary community is flourishing. Here are the lit picks of local pros.

Invisible Gifts ($14, Manic D Press, 2018)
Next Up: “I’m currently working on a new book for Omnidawn slated for publication fall 2020. Some of the poems are about the ways in which we are physically, emotionally and psychologically contained, and how we challenge those containers.”
Lit Pick: “I’m loving Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems ($16, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018) by local author Jennifer S. Chang. The collection is a hybrid book that blends poetry and fact, mythologies and lists. The language is so precise, compelling and moving—beautiful restraint—an umbrella of leaves feeding hungry infant silkworms.”
Guilty Pleasure: “I mainly read poetry these days. But every Labor Day weekend, I go to Sea Ranch with my family and friends, and we get a stack of trashy magazines—Us Weekly, Star, In Touch—and read them on the beach. We don’t have a TV. ... So for us, it’s a decadent thing to do.”

A River of Stars ($27, Ballantine Books, 2018)
Next Up: “Years ago, I was watching a documentary about China and up flashed a photo of Chairman Mao surrounded by girls dressed like bobby- soxers. I then discovered that he loved to ballroom dance—and that a special troupe of teenage girls was selected to partner with him on the dance floor and in the bedroom. My next novel is my conception of one of his lovers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.”
Lit Pick: Last Boat Out of Shanghai ($28, Ballantine Books, 2019) by Helen Zia. She’s a longtime Bay Area journalist and activist. The book is about the occupation of Shanghai by Japan, China’s Civil War and its aftermath, told through the eyes of children. There’s a contemporary relevance in thinking about the refugee crisis and families being separated at the border. On the craft level, I admire how she shifted so seamlessly between the personal and the national.”
Guilty Pleasure: “When we were in Hawaii last year, someone had left behind Liane Moriarty’s... what is it? Big Little Lies ($16, Penguin Random House, 2017)? So I started it. But I didn’t feel guilty. I just felt like reading it.”

Fruit of the Drunken Tree ($27, Doubleday, 2018)
Next Up: “A family memoir revolving around my grandfather, who was a curandero (faith healer). People would say he had the power to move clouds. He was supposed to teach what he knew to a son, but my mother was the only person to whom he felt he could pass on his knowledge. And because she was a woman, it wasn’t allowed.”
Lit Pick: “Right now I’m reading Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border ($16, City Lights Publishers, 2018). Octavio Solis grew up at the border, and he based the book on devotional paintings that people [in Catholic communities] commission as a way to thank God. He took that idea and wrote these very short pieces that describe dramatic events from his childhood. I’ve been reading it in bed at night; it’s taking me a long time to get through it, but it allows each moment to be like a painting that you remember.”
Guilty Pleasure: “When I want to relax, I’ll read M.F.K. Fisher. I’m vegetarian, but I love reading about all the meat she cooks.”


Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco 

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