After a recent trip to San Francisco, I found that part of me, as with the old song about leaving the heart, remained in the beautiful city by the bay. To bathe in my San Francisco vibe, I downloaded on my Nook tablet David Talbot's history of San Francisco from the 1960s through the aftermath of AIDS, "Season of the Witch."
Talbot, the founder of the online news site Salon and a San Francisco transplant from Los Angeles, gives a fascinating account of San Francisco's bigger than life characters and major late 20th century events, from the Summer of Love to the SLA's kidnapping of Patty Hearst, to the People's Temple James Jones tragedy and the killings of Mayor George Moscone and councilman Harvey Milk. The book, packed with details and based on a number of interviews, rivals Jonathan Mahler's similar history of New York, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning." Along the way, Talbot presents a gallery of characters, from left-wing lawyers, Neanderthal cops and politicians, to musicians, artists, thugs, murderers, and political activists. He gives fresh looks at well-known figures such as former Mayor and now U.S. Sen. Dianne Finestein, 49ers coach Bill Walsh, politico Willie Brown, newspaper columnist Herb Caen and others. By the way, he also gives a minor, if interesting, rundown of the history of the famed Tony Bennett song, "I Left My Heart in San Francicso," which I've recently been playing repeatedly on the piano.
The book received a mean-spirited and off-base scolding in The Sunday New York Times Book Review from someone named Ellen Ullman, who blasted Talbot for giving two chapters to the San Francisco 49ers winning the Super Bowl, bringing healing and normality to a city that had endured decades of extreme politics and social upheaval, and, at least in her eyes, slighting the role of lesbians in rebuilding and healing the city. Talbot penned a protest of the review, which the Book Review printed, along with a weak rejoinder from Ullman. After reading Talbot's book, I think that Ullman was completely wrong. Her piece points up the continuing decline in the book review's standards in choosing reviewers, along with their writing and judgments.
She does point to a strength of the book, Talbot's in-depth interviews. And, the two chapters devoted to the 49ers are the least compelling in the book, not because of a falloff in the quality of writing and research, but because the winning of the Super Bowl pales in comparison to the dramatic events that shook San Francisco in those years.
Anyone who lived through those times and has a strong knowledge of what occurred in the city will find a wealth of new information in "Season of the Witch." The last pages devoted to the AIDs crisis are a poignant testimony to the human spirit. The book made me feel, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, "eich bin en San Franciscan."
Speaking of the Nook, I was full of happiness at the tablet after using it to download a copy of Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold's collection of reviews about ethnic restaurants in that city, a tome I'd looked for fruitlessly for years in bookstores. Alas, just when my Nook feelings had reached a new high, I bought a volume of writings by legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, only to find blank pages when I tried to read it. (A commentary on the lost brain cells of the era?) I called the Nook helpline, and talked for some time to a friendly Asian woman, who, although we couldn't understand every other word, gave me detailed instructions about how to fix the problem. However, her solution didn't work, so she promised to report the situation to a technical team, whom she said would need a week or two to fill the empty spaces with Bangs' vivid prose. I hope that occurs, but I'm skeptical, especially since Nook apparently no longer sends me emails confiming my purchases.
Despite the occasional breakdowns, I'm generally happy with the Nook, after my initial impulse to take it back after receiving it as a Christmas gift. I still love print on dead trees, but the Nook offers many advantages. I find it eases the acquiring and reading of books. Several weeks ago, I downloaded the Sunday Washington Post for 75 cents, and marveled at the facility in reading the newspaper, flipping through the pages with e-ease.