May's Literary Events

Friday, May 6

At the start of local author Katie Arnold-Ratliff's debut novel, Bright Before Us (Tin House Books, $14), a 25-year-old schoolteacher takes his second-grade class to a San Francisco beach. It's a field trip. With discoveries. "The children are afraid," she writes. "Unexpected events frighten them. But they look at the man and they are, in a small way, put at ease. They look at him and think, He's our teacher. And then they hear him scream." Yes, there will be discoveries. A downward spiral of discoveries. Arnold-Ratliff has described her book as "a novel about a spectacularly bad teacher," but that gives nothing of it away. Discover more when she reads from it and signs copies at Green Apple Books, 506 Clement (at Sixth Ave.), S.F. 7 p.m., free; 387-2272 or www.greenapplebooks.com.

Saturday, May 14

"Concluding the Classical era in 1827 with Beethoven's death is absurd," Robert Greenberg writes. "Instead, we should end it in 1803, the year Beethoven composed the bulk of his Symphony no. 3 and, in so doing, rendered classicalism obsolete in one outrageous act!" Well, duh. And how about Tchaikovsky's overture to Romeo and Juliet? "There should be a parental warning label on that long, sprawling theme!" Totally. Greenberg is San Francisco Performances' music historian-in-residence and the author of How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart (Plume, $16). You might call him a determined demystifier. Here he goes again: "Without resorting to voodoo or a discussion of extraterrestrials, it's hard to say where Mozart's music did come from." So true, so true. And wait until you hear what he has to say about Bartók — today, with the Alexander String Quartet at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), S.F. 10 a.m., $25-$46; 392-2545 or sfperformances.org.

Tuesday, May 17

The book, a first novel by an accomplished editor, critic and translator of poetry, was to be called The Translator's Apology. But the author suddenly died. Then her sister resumed it, in a way, with her own book, called The Translator's Sister (Mayapple Press, $15). That survivor is the poet and San Francisco State University professor Mary Winegarden, whose new book of poems deals with the death of her sister, Katharine Washburn, openly and experimentally. It too is a work of translation, between forms — prose, poetry, fiction, memoir — and perhaps even between the basic states of death and life. Winegarden is joined tonight by fellow SFSU writers Jennifer Arin and Julyan Peard, also reading their own recent work, at Bookshop West Portal, 80 West Portal (at Vicente), S.F. 7 p.m., free; 564-8080, www.bookshopwestportal.com.

Sunday, May 22

The filmmaker John Sayles is known for his broad-minded ingenuity. You hear about how he's script-doctoring the likes of Apollo 13 and The Mummy in order to fund his own damn good personal projects, like Lone Star and Sunshine State. You hear about how those films are "dense," "sprawling," and "novelistic." Sometimes you even hear about his dense, sprawling novels, and about how damn good they are too. His newest, A Moment in the Sun (McSweeney's, $29), is a panoramic view of the Alaskan Gold Rush, the Spanish-American War, and pretty much everything else that was going on in the United States and several other countries at the turn of the 20th century. It is also a good example of why, where the printed word is concerned, McSweeney's, too, is known for broad-minded ingenuity. It doesn't just publish books. It publishes Huge, Hulking, Handsomely Designed Tomes. Not even the cinema has such glories as these. Sayles will be in town with his new book at Tosca Cafe, 242 Columbus (at Broadway), S.F. 6:30 p.m., free (21 and up); 986-9651 or www.toscacafesf.com.

Thursday, May 26

The cover of Swim Back to Me (Knopf, $25), the new book by San Carlos author Ann Packer, bears a picture of a pink candy heart on a fishhook. Perhaps it's a sly rebuke to the unspoken notion of Packer as mere "women's fiction" specialist. Yes, the same cover also invokes her bestselling debut novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier, but in relatively fine print; it's the image that grabs you and gets you wondering: Who would cast such bait? Who would take it? Will this book be a process of reeling in, of tossing back? Perspectives will vary. They already have: Swim Back to Me has been said to contain two novellas and four short stories, or one novella and five short stories. And so her subtly implied defiance of categorical expectation continues. What is clear right away, aside from Packer's Stanford-area upbringing, is her perception of family tragedies and human responses thereto, each delicately layered with revelatory quotidian details. The intrepid literary fictioneer presents her work at the Booksmith, 1644 Haight (at Belvedere), S.F. 7:30 p.m., free; 863-8688, www.booksmith.com.

 
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