Keith Herrell

Ah, San Francisco—a tourist mecca with cable cars, the Golden Gate, steep hills and more. But the city’s cosmopolitan image doesn’t quite match up with its rough-and-tumble, often racist history, as demonstrated by two new books that might cause you to look at its past differently.


Already a bustling seaport while Los Angeles was still in its infancy, San Francisco in the mid-19th century was a major entry point to the American West and beyond. At the height of the California gold rush, thousands of men streamed in from China in search of jobs. Women followed, of course, and many encountered challenging and dangerous conditions—including involuntary prostitution. In The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Julia Flynn Siler recounts the history of these girls and women, as well as the social pioneers who battled Chinatown gang leaders and the city bureaucracy to rescue them from sex slavery and indentured servitude.

At the center of the story is Donaldina Cameron, a Presbyterian missionary nicknamed the “White Devil” by her many opponents in an attempt to keep their victims from fleeing to her. Operating from the Occidental Mission Home at the edge of Chinatown, Cameron provided a refuge for escapees, even seeking them out and spiriting them away from their captors. (Ironically, once safely at the mission, the girls and young women were subject to strict supervision, partly for their safety, and required to convert to Christianity.)

Siler tells the stories of many of these women in episodic fashion, with short chapters that keep the reader turning the pages. Heart-tugging personal stories include the history of Tien Fuh Wu, who was brought in the arms of a policeman to live at the mission as a child, and Tye Leung, who fled at age 12 to avoid an arranged marriage with an older man. Both women became trusted aides at the mission.

Iconic San Francisco historical events are prominent in Siler’s book, including the 1906 earthquake and fire and two outbreaks of the bubonic plague in the first decade of the 20th century. David K. Randall focuses on the plague in Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America From the Bubonic Plague. Chinatown is again the locus of events, as the first victim of the city’s plague outbreak in 1900 was a Chinese immigrant, and city officials immediately ordered a quarantine of the neighborhood. 

Racist leaders demanded that Chinatown be burned down, and corporate interests minimized the threat of danger to “European” residents of the city. It took a man of science with a compelling personal story, U.S. Public Health Service official Rupert Blue, to convince civic and corporate leaders that only the eradication of rats—and the fleas that carry the plague virus—would stop the disease’s spread. Randall brings Blue to life through letters to his family and co-workers and convincingly maintains that, had his efforts not been successful, the disease would have spread across the continent and San Francisco would not be the dream destination we know today.

Ah, San Francisco—a tourist mecca with cable cars, the Golden Gate, steep hills and more. But the city’s cosmopolitan image doesn’t quite match up with its rough-and-tumble, often racist history, as demonstrated by two new books that might cause you to look at its past differently.

Father’s Day comes but once a year, and boy are we lucky for that. With ties going out of style thanks to tech billionaires (they’re all wearing hoodies now), the gift choices are slimmer than ever. Fortunately, as is so often the case, books can come to the rescue.

FOR THE SPORTS FAN
When it comes to sports, the “what-if” possibilities are endless. Mike Pesca has assembled 31 of them in Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History. His list might not match yours, but it’s still a fun exercise and a highly readable departure from traditional sports literature. Pesca, host of the Slate podcast “The Gist,” keeps his readers on their toes with a different author for each scenario, so an earnest “What If the National League Had the DH?” is followed by a whimsical “What If Nixon Had Been Good at Football?” (The verdict: still a president, but no Watergate.) Other authors bolster their arguments with charts (“What If Major League Baseball Had Started Testing for Steroids in 1991?”) or, in the case of “What If Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton’s Pass Hadn’t Gone Awry?,” 38 footnotes. The contributors are a multitalented lot, including actor Jesse Eisenberg, radio host Robert Siegel and journalist/historian Louisa Thomas. The contributors are a multitalented lot but each one embraces the task with gusto, inspiring readers to come up with some “what-ifs” of their own.

FOR THE BIG READER
You probably know Michael Chabon as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, but he’s also an acclaimed essayist. His first collection, Manhood for Amateurs (2009), was subtitled “The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.” This time around, with Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, he’s produced seven essays, all dad-oriented. The centerpiece, “Little Man,” recounts a trip to Paris Fashion Week with his youngest and most individualistic child, Abe. (Chabon was on assignment for GQ, where the essay originally appeared.) The essay is not about finding common ground, as is often the case in such essays where father and son are poles apart, but rather Chabon’s happiness that his son has finally found “your people.” The remaining essays are shorter and peppered with humorous insights, particularly “Adventures in Euphemism,” which has Chabon trying to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to his children without uttering a certain word. Chabon’s relationship with his own father, of course, does not go unexamined, and again he zigs where others zag, taking care not to be overly sentimental.

FOR THE MOVIE BUFF
A cute gopher popping out of his hole adorns the cover of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story. This is ironic, because the makers of the film hated the last-minute addition of the animatronic gopher that bedeviled Bill Murray in the 1980 film. They saw it as an example of the Hollywood studio system destroying their masterwork. But gopher or no gopher, Caddyshack, a slobs-versus-snobs tale set at a country club golf course, became a cult classic, rife with quotable lines and fondly remembered scenes. Film critic Chris Nashawaty tells the behind-the-scenes story in an entertaining fashion, starting at the very beginning with the founding of the National Lampoon, which served as a springboard for Doug Kenney, who co-wrote the classic Animal House and co-wrote and produced Caddyshack. In fact, Nashawaty doesn’t start recounting the actual filming of the movie until well past halfway through the book. No worries though, as readers will enjoy the backstories of writing, casting and the cocaine-fueled shenanigans of Murray and his pals, including Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield and Kenney, the real star of the book if not the movie.

FOR THE COMIC-BOOK FAN
The genre of graphic literature has grown past just comic books and the newspaper funny pages, and Michael Kupperman, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and Marvel comics, is deadly serious in All the Answers. This black-and-white graphic memoir is perfect for dads who grew up reading comic books and are looking for something with a bit more weight to it. It tells the story of the author’s father, Joel Kupperman, who became famous as one of the stars of the 1940s and ’50s radio and television show “Quiz Kids.” The elder Kupperman subsequently became an author and professor of philosophy, but he retreated from public life as an adult. Spurred by his father’s diagnosis with dementia, Michael coaxes him into talking about his experiences in the public eye and how they shaped his life as an adult. In the process, father and son have some frank exchanges. The son learns how to be a better father as a result of the failings of his own dad, who was perfect in math, perhaps, but not so perfect in the challenges of marriage and family life. Kupperman’s simple, stark drawings add to the somber mood of the book and enhance readers’ understanding of its haunting story.

FOR THE JOKESTER
So Dad thinks he’s funny, eh? He likely has nothing on Tom Papa, whose Your Dad Stole My Rake: And Other Family Dilemmas is a collection of essays with laughs on every page. The aptly named Papa, a father and head writer for the radio variety show “Live From Here” (formerly known as “A Prairie Home Companion with Chris Thile”), has a one-liner for every family situation, from Facebook (“a class reunion every day”) to owning a cat (“like dating a supermodel”). The book is organized by topics (wives, grandparents and so on), so skip around if you like, or simply read straight through for an extended look at Papa’s twisted but ultimately sunny (well, no more than partly cloudy) vision of family life. If you’re lucky, it lines up with your own.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Father’s Day comes but once a year, and boy are we lucky for that. With ties going out of style thanks to tech billionaires (they’re all wearing hoodies now), the gift choices are slimmer than ever. Fortunately, as is so often the case, books can come to the rescue.

It's not your father's Father of His Country at the forefront of Peter Stark's Young Washington. Think more along the lines of a rash nephew. That's because in his pre-Revolutionary War days, George Washington was anything but the placid aristocrat gazing forth from the dollar bill. He was, as Stark puts it, “a very different Washington from the one we know and hold sacred.” Young Washington is Stark's explanation of how the gap was bridged.

Stark, a historian and adventure writer, gives us plenty of both as he starts with a vivid depiction of Washington deep in the Ohio Valley wilderness, carrying a message from Virginia's colonial administrator to a French military officer. (Stark skips over Washington's boyhood, so no cherry tree is harmed in the production of this book.) It's 1753, and the British and French are jostling for supremacy in the region. Later, Washington's surprise attack on a French reconnaissance party becomes the opening salvo in the French and Indian War. He serves alongside the British, fighting rough terrain, reluctant colonial soldiers and the occasional bout of “bloody flux” (dysentery) as well as the French and their tribal allies.

Stark, at one point using 11 uncomplimentary adjectives in one sentence, doesn't sugar-coat his subject. The young colonel is vain and frequently threatens to resign his commission, and he isn't above bending the facts in letters to authorities. He also unapologetically hangs two deserters “for example's sake,” in his words. Along the way, he finds time to court wealthy widow Martha Custis while professing love for the unattainable wife of a friend. But that's just a sidelight in Young Washington. In the crucible of war, he learned to control his passion in more ways than one.

It's not your father's Father of His Country at the forefront of Peter Stark's Young Washington. Think more along the lines of a rash nephew. That's because in his pre-Revolutionary War days, George Washington was anything but the placid aristocrat gazing forth from the dollar bill. He was, as Stark puts it, “a very different Washington from the one we know and hold sacred.” Young Washington is Stark's explanation of how the gap was bridged.

If you’re sitting down with the audaciously titled Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eileen McNamara, you may find yourself exhausted by vicariously participating in the life of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the woman who most famously founded the Special Olympics but also served as cheerleader-in-chief for the Kennedy political dynasty.

Shriver, the fifth of nine children born to Joseph Kennedy Sr. and his wife, Rose, never stopped working for the causes she believed in. The book’s full title serves as a pointed reminder that had she been a man, Shriver would have been fully encouraged to ascend to the political heights achieved by her male family members, such as her brother, John F. Kennedy.

The Kennedys have fiercely controlled their family’s reputation, making honest biographies a challenge. But following Shriver’s death at 88 in 2009, members of the Shriver family provided McNamara with access to 33 boxes of private papers that open a window into a remarkable life, warts and all. Most amusing among the papers are Shriver’s notes to herself, including tips on how to make small talk at the many parties she attended.

But access isn’t everything, and McNamara wields a deft touch as she recounts Shriver’s role in the Special Olympics and extending rights for the developmentally disabled, which was surely influenced by the tragic story of her older sister Rosemary, who was born with intellectual disabilities and sent out of public view after a botched lobotomy. Audaciously titled or not, Eunice leaves no doubt that its subject truly changed the world.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

If you’re sitting down with the audaciously titled Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eileen McNamara, you may find yourself exhausted by vicariously participating in the life of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the woman who most famously founded the Special Olympics but also served as cheerleader-in-chief for the Kennedy political dynasty.

How can a dictator hide in plain sight, telegraphing evil intentions years or even decades after their demise? Daniel Kalder posits that it’s simple: Many of them left behind a body of literature. Kalder, a journalist who lived in Moscow for 10 years, immersed himself in “dictator literature” and has collected his analyses of their often terrible writing and its consequences in The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy. As it turns out, in addition to being despots and practitioners of genocide, dictators are typically megalomaniacs who like to put their thoughts on paper for posterity.

Kalder started reading the works of dictators around 2011 and somehow managed to finish the requisite reading and complete his own book within the decade. To say this was a tall task would be an understatement—there has been no lack of dictators in the course of human history—but Kalder delivers with this entertaining and highly informative book. It helps that he keeps his sense of humor. “Dictators usually live lives that are rich in experience,” he deadpans early on, and the quips are sprinkled throughout (including a shot at everyman author Bill Bryson). Given the subject matter, they are never unwelcome.

As for the dictator-authors, it’s safe to say there are no Brysons among them. Mussolini comes off best in terms of writing skill (“borders on the readable”), while Hitler (“staggeringly incompetent”) takes a pounding. Kalder then dutifully leads us through the writings of Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini and a few lesser-known despots. There’s a handy summary at the end in which Kalder also considers the impact of social media and warns—perhaps more aptly than he realized when writing this book—about the ability to “wage war . . . through the medium of text.”

 

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

How can a dictator hide in plain sight, telegraphing evil intentions years or even decades after their demise? Daniel Kalder posits that it’s simple: Many of them left behind a body of literature. Kalder, a journalist who lived in Moscow for 10 years, immersed himself in “dictator literature” and has collected his analyses of their often terrible writing and its consequences in The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy. As it turns out, in addition to being despots and practitioners of genocide, dictators are typically megalomaniacs who like to put their thoughts on paper for posterity.

If your view of youth in China involves drab clothing and groupthink, it’s time to come into the 21st century. And it would take quite a long march to find a better guide than Zak Dychtwald’s Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World. Dychtwald, in his 20s himself, has lived and traveled extensively in China, and his first book is an entertaining and instructive exploration of the Chinese generation born after 1990.

Want to immerse yourself in a foreign culture? Take a cue from Dychtwald, who first leaves Hong Kong for “the real China” speaking “no meaningful Chinese” and brimming with garnered advice such as, “Don’t let the prostitutes steal your internal organs.” With admirable determination, he learns to speak fluent Mandarin, lives with Chinese roommates and survives multiple awkward situations.

Along the way, Dychtwald develops insights about everything from the obscure (the hugely popular “double-eyelid” cosmetic surgery, which creates a more “Western-shaped” eye) to the well known (China’s now abolished one-child policy) to the inevitable (sex). He discovers that contemporary young people in China and the United States have essentially identical dreams. But the journey to this point is a fascinating story, and Young China tells it well.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

If your view of youth in China involves drab clothing and groupthink, it’s time to come into the 21st century. And it would take quite a long march to find a better guide than Zak Dychtwald’s Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World. Dychtwald, in his 20s himself, has lived and traveled extensively in China, and his first book is an entertaining and instructive exploration of the Chinese generation born after 1990.

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