By Georgia Rowe
Correspondent, San Jose Mercury News
Posted: 10/30/2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
New novels by authors Amy Tan and Daniel Alarcón, the second volume in the autobiography of Mark Twain, and a co-biography of Carol and John Steinbeck top the latest releases from Bay Area authors. Also on the list: a “kind of” memoir by “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams.
- “The Valley of Amazement” by Amy Tan (Ecco, $29.99, 608 pages.) Amy Tan returns this month with a sweeping new novel, the San Francisco author’s first since 2005’s “Saving Fish from Drowning.” “The Valley of Amazement” is the epic story of three women: Violet, a courtesan in a first-class Shanghai brothel; daughter Flora, abducted as an infant; and Violet’s American mother, Lulu. The action moves between Shanghai’s teeming city life to a quiet village in rural China, and a rapidly changing 19th-century San Francisco; as always, Tan’s principal thematic concerns — family relationships across the generations, women’s struggle for independence, the intersections between old and new cultures — come to the fore. She will discuss the book at a City Arts and Lectures event Dec. 3 at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco.
- “At Night We Walk in Circles” by Daniel Alarcón (Riverhead, $27.95, 384 pages.) Daniel Alarcón’s new novel is an engrossing story of oppression, artistic freedom and the power of language. Set in an unnamed Latin American country and recounted by an unidentified narrator, it follows a young actor named Nelson. In his early 20s as the book begins, Nelson lives a life of quiet desperation — caring for his widowed mother, envying his absent brother, and sleeping with his faithless girlfriend, Ixta. His life takes a radical turn when he joins Diciembre, a guerrilla theater group preparing to mount a provocative play titled “The Idiot President.” The ragtag company goes on tour, and the play has an incendiary effect. In the tradition of great Latin novelists, Alarcón’s writing captures the small details of everyday life — and the momentous events that can change the world. He will read from the book Nov. 9 at Diesel, A Bookstore in Oakland.
- “Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 2” edited by Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith (UC Press, $45, 733 pages.) It’s probably safe to say that no American author liked to talk about himself as much as Samuel Clemens. In this hefty book — which follows the hugely successful Volume 1, published in 2010 by UC Press — Clemens, aka Mark Twain, tells his story and more. Meticulously researched and annotated, it reveals the many facets of Twain: shrewd observer, social critic, wily self-promoter and unrelenting satirist. It’s also a mesmerizing account of the author’s era. Twain seemed to know everyone in it — politicians, actors, newspapermen and notorious women — and he’s never at a loss for words to describe them. “Vol. 2” is a remarkable achievement.
- “Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage” by Susan Shillinglaw (University of Nevada Press, $34.95, 352 pages.) John Steinbeck is back in the news — the “Grapes of Wrath” author is the subject of a new biography by Jay Parini, and he’s seen from another aspect in Susan Shillinglaw’s “Carol and John Steinbeck.” Carol’s the focus, and Shillinglaw — resident scholar at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and professor of English at San Jose State — draws a compelling portrait of this intelligent modern woman. John and Carol lived in San Francisco, Pacific Grove and Los Gatos — their friends included writer/mythologist Joseph Campbell and composer John Cage — and Carol acted as her husband’s muse, editor and principal critic; steered him toward writing about social justice; and suggested titles such as “Of Mice and Men.” Like many women of her era, she lived in her husband’s shadow. However, her contributions are well-documented here.
- “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life” by Scott Adams (Portfolio Penguin, $27.95, 256 pages.) As every “Dilbert” devotee knows, cartoonist Scott Adams is a very big success. In this amusing new memoir, though, Adams recounts the failures that made him who he is. From unhappy office boy to investor and sometime inventor (one of his creations was a burrito called the “Dilberito”), he recounts his experiences and offers advice. Some of his suggestions (“Goals are for losers”) are simply hilarious. Others — even as he mocks the reader for taking advice from a cartoonist — make perfect sense.