Editor’s Note: The Spine is a new book column covering the literary scene of the Bay Area in reviews, interviews, guides, event previews and more. Guiding us is award-winning writer Leilani Clark, who’s contributed to Mother Jones, Civil Eats, Time Magazine, the Rumpus and the North Bay Bohemian, in addition to KQED. Running biweekly, The Spine is your smart check-in on what’s happening in the region’s book world.
Review: Dryland by Sara Jaffe
Sophomore year is a strange time in the life. You aren't a newbie to high school. And most kids, if they're lucky, have made it through the tumultuous transitions wrought by puberty, with a new body and altered, hormonal brain in tow. Still, you are nowhere near -- at least this is how it feels when you're deep in the muck -- to finishing high school and entering the adult world. Dryland, the debut novel from Sara Jaffe, a fiction writer and musician who lives in Portland, fully captures that adolescent irritation, and the strange sensation of floating above your own teenage life. The novel is a seamless, dreamy, gray ride through a few months in the life of Julie Winter, a high school sophomore who lives in the Pacific Northwest (probably Portland, though that's never explicitly stated) who is on a semi-sleepwalking journey between childhood and young adulthood.
Julie lives in a suburban, unchallenged home environment with her mother and father. Her brother, a former high school swimming champion with Olympic aspirations and a secret, has disappeared. Maybe to San Diego. Maybe to Berlin. His once-a-year phone calls reveal nothing much about his current life. It's the early 1990s, and Julie spends Saturdays at the River Market, scoping Guatemalan bags and contemplating clove cigarettes with her best and oldest friend Ericka. To Julie, Ericka has become almost alien in her lust for skater boys and dreams of ascending out of the yearbook captioning ghetto and into greater high school fame. When Julie embarks on a reluctant friendship with Ben, an old friend of her brother's, she uncovers an entry point into another way of living, not to mention the rock band My Bloody Valentine's 1991 album Loveless.
Ultimately, Dryland is more a novel of feeling than plot. While grounded in quotidian life in a way reminiscent of Haruki Murakami's style -- think lots of coffee drinking and descriptions of chicken dinners -- the book somehow floats above everything. It gives the sensation of being of the earth, water, and sky all at once.
When Julie decides to become a swimmer herself to mixed success, the book's prose really hits the sweet spot. My favorite moment arrives when Julie dives into the pool at her first swimming practice.
"My body sailed. It flew. To call what was happening swimming would be to render mechanical what felt, in the feeling - the being - of it, like sugar, like a dream. The floor of the pool was toothpaste blue and my shadow was that cool, fast color. My body sailed. My first head-lift to take a breath, already halfway down the lane. Breathe and duck and back under, smooth, there could have been nobody else in the pool. The pool could have been surrounded by everyone - Alexis, Coach - watching me shuttle, sail, unaware with their watching. Something brushed the bottom of my foot and I shoot it off and thought of seaweed, as if I were not only weightless but poolless, as if what I'd felt was the touch of the chorusing flotsam that surrounded and supported me."
Later, when Julie realizes, sort of, that she has a crush on the girls' swim team captain Alexis, Jaffe treats a potential "coming out" story with a light, deft hand, never explicitly stating that Julie has suddenly realized she is gay. It's all in the moment, just as it is in real life: little moments adding up to a life lived. There aren't any grand realizations or declarations of love. That writerly choice by Jaffe ends up being as satisfying as any dramatic arc of events.
Sara Jaffe appears at the RADAR queer reading series on Oct. 14 at 6pm.
How Lori Ostlund Does Litquake
Lori Ostlund is a fiction writer and teacher who lives in San Francisco. Her first collection of stories, The Bigness of the World, received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, and the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award. Her new novel After the Parade, out Sept. 21, received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist. Publishers Weekly has called her prose "smart, resonant, and imbued with beauty."
My approach to Litquake is to balance new (to me) voices with the known. I’m a fan of Barely Published, which introduces emerging local writers and is curated by James Warner, a great supporter of other writers. The MFA Mixer, Castro Reading, and 826 Valencia Student Reading at LitCrawl on Oct. 17 all look appealing. In the known camp are Original Shorts: Love-Hate, offering four writers whose work I already know and admire—Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, Jason Friedman, Molly Giles, and Ethel Rohan—and two more whose work I am open to knowing and admiring. Then there's the Press 53 Reading (LitCrawl). Press 53, a wonderful, North Carolina-based press, has a strong stable of writers in the Bay Area, including some favorites: Meg Pokrass, Grant Faulkner, and Jane Ciabattari.
I am especially interested in the conversation between Chinelo Okparanta (Under the Udala Trees) and Vu Tran (Dragonfish) because I keep hearing great things about their recently released novels. New Voices includes Angela Pneuman, who had a terrific story in the 2012 Best American Short Stories and Val Brelinski, with her intriguingly entitled The Girl Who Slept with God. Let’s Get Uncomfortable and Talk about Race has the double appeal of best Litquake title and a wonderful moderator, ZYZZYVA’s Oscar Villalon.
Everything is better with poetry and with wine, so I’m delighted to see these two brought together in Flight of Poets on Oct. 16. I have a reading that night, but wish that I could be there to hear Indigo Moor’s poetry again and taste the wine that the sommelier pairs with it. Finally, I’m intrigued by Bay Area Poets Picking Poets on Oct. 11 because it includes Dean Rader, who is always funny and writes poetry that perfectly balances the cerebral and emotional, and because of the concept -- a lineup created by one poet tagging the next.
More Litquake Picks from The Spine
With so much to choose from, it's hard to narrow down the best events at this year's festival to only a handful. Litquake's opening night on Oct. 9 offers a fun celebration of "famous and unhinged" 1800s-era San Francisco that includes sea shanties performed by singers from the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. On Oct. 10 at Z Below, Heidi Julavits and Vendela Vida, founding editors of The Believer, discuss their recent books, collaborations among female friends, and their experiences as editors. San Rafael offers its own day-long version of Litquake on Oct. 11. Check the event site for a list of the readings. Chris Abani's conversation with Sarah Ladipo Manyika about race, culture and identity promises to be fascinating. On that same night, two Pulitzer Prize winners, including San Francisco's Adam Johnson, will talk about, among other things, uh . . . the Pulitzer Prize. On Oct. 14, Ruben Martinez and Alia Volz are part of a roster of writers appearing at No Burritos sponsored by Huizache, a magazine of Latino literature out of Centrovictoria at the University of Houston. On Oct. 16, San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguia, along with Penelope Houston and others, celebrate the 24th Street corridor/Calle 24 otherwise known as "Bookstore Row" because of the concentration of bookstores: Adobe Books, Alley Cat Books, and the Modern Times Bookstore Collective. For a complete list of Litquake 2015 events, go here.