I really enjoyed Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (1986). I was, understandably, a bit apprehensive about the whole verse thing… The Golden Gate is written in Onegin sonnets (for those interested in rhyme scheme and history, eNotes has an interesting analysis of the sonnet style used, available to the browsing public), but the voice is contemporary, vibrant, warm and humorous, making it extremely accessible. The story flows, connecting the sonnets, and is truly enjoyable (unlike Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, but I digress).

I was also apprehensive about how well this book would work for my reading challenge. I’m reading my way across the USA–3-5 books (or, er, 10 (?) from California) from each state, with an emphasis on those in which the setting is an integral part of the story, and where we, as readers, learn a little something about the people, history, and/or geography of that particular state. How well would a book in verse work for that?

Surprisingly well, actually, and the passages I took note of for this post were not all of landscape as one might expect. There were some wonderful bits about San Francisco, including local landmarks such as Printers Inc bookstore and Caffe Trieste.

The enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular,/ Fluorescent-lit, with Bach piped through/ The glamorous alleys of its angular/ Warren of bookshelves, the dark brew/ Of French roast or Sumatra rousing/ One’s weak papillae as one’s browsing/ Lead to the famed cups, soon or late,/ That cheer but don’t inebriate./ Magical shoe box! Skilled extractor/ Of my last dime on print or drink,/ Mini-Montmartre, Printers Inc!/ Haven of book freaks, benefactor/ Of haggard hacks like me, who’ve been/ Quivering for years to your caffeine.

A few years ago, I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, also set in San Francisco–maybe bookstores are a San Francisco thing; they’re definitely a college town thing. Printers Inc no longer exists as a bookstore–it was put out of business by the big box-store book sellers, much as many of them have been put out of business by Amazon–but the Printers Cafe is apparently still alive and well in Palo Alto. According to the historical Printers Inc page linked above, this well-loved store was the first to mix coffee and books, long before there was a Starbucks on every street corner and in every book or grocery store.

And, of course, Seth pays homage to the Golden Gate Bridge.

They park the car by the Marina./ The surface of the cobalt bay/ Is flecked with white. The moister, keener/ October air has rinsed away/ The whispering mists with crisp intensity/ And over the opaque immensity/ A deliquescent wash of blue/ Reveals the bridge, long lost to view/ In summer’s quilt of fog: the towers,/ High-built, red-gold, with their long span/ –The most majestic spun by man–/ Whose threads of steel through mists and showers,/ Wind, spray, and the momentous roar/ Of ocean storms, link shore to shore.

There are other scenes that are quintessential California–like the description of the group of friends picking olives off the trees on Stanford’s Campus Drive, and pickling them in brine. These trees may not all be there any longer–since 1996, Stanford has apparently been transplanting various trees to provide shade and greenery, and to improve sustainability and environmental stewardship on campus–but I suspect some of them remain.

But picking fruit from what most Americans would probably consider unusual backyard trees does seem to be a very California thing. Our new house has a fig tree and an avocado tree; at our previous house, we enjoyed the citrus trees. I planted a couple of tomato plants the first year we moved in, and the seeds from a few fallen fruit went wild–we had the largest tomato bush I’ve ever seen, that produced lovely little cherry tomatoes for 7 years with little to no human intervention. And, ignorant Yankee that I am, I cut unripe green tangerines and used them as “limes” all the first summer we lived in that house–I was completely shocked at the end of the summer to cut one and find they were now orange inside!

And while the tourists may take the whale watch boat tours, locals often simply use binoculars from the beach or cliffs instead.

From the tall overlook, the indented/ Shoreline extends in cliffs and bays/ And promontories through the scented/ Wind-sheared sage northwest to Point Reyes./ … / Beyond the surf in smooth migration/ The great gray whales serenely go/ South from their summer habitation,/ The Arctic, down to Mexico.

There are a few birds in this book, mostly common ones we’ve seen before, but I must admit I was a little surprised to see Seth refer several times to the “blue jay.” Blue jays are prolific with a wide range, but that range does not extend to California. However, I realized pretty quickly that he must be referring to the California Scrub Jay, and a quick search informed me that they are locally known as blue jays. And, actually, since I haven’t done the list yet for The Wild Birds by Emily Strelow, I guess this counts as a lifer for us!

In short, I really loved The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, and it was a perfect addition to my reading list for California! I suspect this one will remain on my shelf, to be enjoyed periodically–and it’s one that I expect I’ll find something new in every time I pick it up.

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