"New California Writing 2011": Interesting Times for the Golden State Make Good Reads

Like any anthology, New California Writing 2011, from Berkeley's Heyday Books, enjoys the privilege of a self-selecting readership. It should delight anyone who feels inclined to pick it up. Maybe even haters, of which apparently there are some.

"Schadenfreude has become California's biggest export," writes Heyday honcho Malcolm Margolin in the new book's introduction, citing a high frequency of the phrase "Paradise Lost" in recent dispatches from national press. "We are indeed, in the words of the purported Chinese curse, living in interesting times; let us turn our attention to one of the few benefits that 'interesting times' bestow on us, the emergence of a probing, funny, thought-provoking, and courageous body of literature."

For example, consider Mike Davis' "Labor War in the Mojave," originally from The Nation. Davis begins like so: "The biggest hole in California, with the exception of the current state budget, is Rio Tinto's huge open-pit mine at the town of Boron, near Edwards Air Force Base, eighty miles northeast of Los Angeles. Seen from Google Earth, it is easy to imagine that the 700-foot-deep crater was blasted out of the Mojave Desert by an errant asteroid or comet."

Quite the hooky opener, that, with its curiosity enlivened by irked humor, its correlation of abundance with absence, and its willingness to get in deep.

Yes, this is a many-layered regionalism, with most of the expected demographic categories represented. There are immigration stories, family histories, exegeses on mulberries and falconry and the inner lives of skaters, surfers, borax miners, and many other exasperated, enervated, dislocated souls. Plus: lots of hella specific Cali locales, each as ingratiatingly name-dropped as the punk bands in just-Pulitzered former San Franciscan Jennifer Egan's novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, duly excerpted here.

Reportedly culled from open-call submissions, a few of the pieces in New California Writing 2011 do seem so conscious of the mandate as to become slightly self-blinkering. But editor Gayle Wattawa, who also edited Inlandia: A Literary Journey through California's Inland Empire, knows how to maintain balance. There's enough wound-up and wised-up anger — from veterans and newcomers alike — to keep this new compendium, the first in a planned annual series, from getting tritely effusive.

Other nits barely worth picking include mostly rhetorical questions about organization. Does it help or hurt to pair off pieces according to their formal similarities? Hard to say. Brad Schreiber's "George Blanda Ate My Homework," a letter to a teacher in which the author waggishly construes the Raiders Hall of Famer as an understandable academic distraction and an analog to the hapless protagonist of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, might be at a disadvantage from coming right after "Dear Mr. Atende," Susan Straight's long, angry, funny letter to a presumptuous elementary-school science teacher from a beleaguered single mom. But then wedging some filler between the two wouldn't necessarily solve that problem, if it even is a problem, and it'd be a shame to lose one just because the other plays the same game.

We are meant to congratulate the thing for its democratic attitude, and fair enough. The spirit of such a book is inherently inclusive. The beauty of this one, and a measure of its success, is that no one piece quite sums it up. Some come close, like Tess Taylor's poem, "Song for El Cerrito," which begins: "I used to hate its working-class bungalows, grid planning,/power-lines sawing hillsides. It shamed me/the way my parents did for not making more money./Now it looks like a Diebenkorn."

 
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