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San Francisco and the Bay Area

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on November 16, 2004

After 25 years of running The Travel Bookshop in west London, Sarah Anderson sold up and has taken off around the world with books for company. In her latest exclusive dispatch for Times Online, Sarah writes an e-mail from California.

There are so many books set in and around San Francisco; contemporary ones range from Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (Vintage 1986) (inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin), which Gore Vidal called “the great Californian novel”, to The Serial by Cyra McFadden (Knopf 1977), an account of liberated life in 1970s Marin County in 52 zingy episodes. The Golden Gate‘s breathtaking sophistication couldn’t be further removed from The Serial, which booksellers refer to as “that book”.    

One of the biggest and best-stocked independent bookshops is in Corte Madera; the Book Passage (51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera 415 927 0960), which also has a branch in San Francisco (415 835 1020). An impressive line-up of authors including Jimmy Carter, Roddy Doyle, Tom Wolfe, Martin Cruz Smith and Nigella Lawson are due there for signings. This satisfying browse before dinner – the shop opens late – was not carried over to the restaurant – Il Fornaio (223 Town Center, Corte Madera 415 927 4400) a huge Italian place where the food was passable but the service was dismal – a supercilious waiter took our order in an off-hand manner and then berated us for leaving no more than an adequate tip. 

Dr Insomnia’s coffee shop (800 Grant Avenue, Novato 415 897 9500) with its sofas and tables seemed to be the only lively place in Novato, Marin County, where I am staying, but there was, however, an impressive second-hand bookshop – The Odyssey Bookshop (828 Grant Avenue 415 897 8755

 I’m not a smoker but there is something sanctimonious about the Californians’ insistence on no-smoking in any public buildings. It was a relief that in The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington (HarperCollins 2002) both the ex-monk, Michael Christopher, and the heroine, Rebecca, smoke – indeed their relationship is largely based on their mutual love of the weed:

“I couldn’t help but smell the smoke,” Christopher said apologetically.

“Oh, I’m sorry! Is it disturbing you?” 

But Christopher said, “Actually, I was hoping you had one to spare”.

Smoking was considered normal in Dashiell Hammett’s (1894-1961) day. He himself was a heavy smoker and drinker, as were his characters in the Maltese Falcon and other novels, who hung around the streets of San Francisco. “He went up to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thickset youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a tough cheery face came into the Grill and to his table.”

Isabel Allende fell in love with an American and moved to San Rafael, writing: “I’ve been in a place for ten days, and I haven’t met one normal human being … They’re all channeling, organic chicken, in Buddhism, Zen, in bus stops, it’s incredible!” (Conversations with Isabel Allende ed. John Rodden, University of Texas Press 1999). I couldn’t be in California and not do something alternative – so I settled for a massage – tame but enjoyable – at the Bodywise Clinic in San Rafael (415 459 6333). The clinic is  part of the Diamond Light School, where students give good and inexpensive treatments. Afterwards it seemed appropriate to eat vegetarian food, so we went to the famous Greens restaurant (Fort Mason, Building A, 415 771 6222) in the city looking over the Bay, which was started by the Zen Center and  which is still, after 25 years, serving yummy food from Green Gulch, the Center’s organic farm in Marin.

The waterfront must have changed dramatically sinceJack London‘s day, when he haunted its bars. Fisherman’s Wharf is full of touristy attractions and is also the place from which the ferry leaves for Alcatraz: “Beside the yard was the wild blue bay, filled with sailboats, ferries, fishing boats, woolly green Angel Island, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge” (All New People by Anne Lamott – Counterpoint 2000). It was raining as we got on the ferry, adding to the gloom of the island, which is only a ten-minute ride away. Today it is run by the National Park Service, having been closed as a prison in 1963 by Robert Kennedy, but it serves as a chilling reminder of how prisoners are treated even today. The audio tour was well done, but as we walked from cell block to cell block I couldn’t forget its history of misery.

In a lecture, Impressions of America (1883), Oscar Wilde stated that “San Francisco is a really beautiful city”. Rudyard Kipling wrote in From Sea to Sea (1889) that “San Francisco is a mad city – inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people whose women are of remarkable beauty”. It is this mixture that makes it such an intriguing place, and somewhere where I wish I could have spent longer.