Summer in the city’s pretty sweet, so we thought we’d give a shoutout to Brit + Co’s bicoastal bases in San Francisco and New York City. The two places are famous in song and story, film and television. Watch as they go head to head in this week’s book club. What will win — The Strand or City Lights? Golden Gate or Brooklyn Bridge? MOMA or SF MOMA? Luckily for book lovers, you don’t have to decide; you can read them all.
1. Breath of Earth by Beth Cato ($10): Let’s start the east/west battle in San Francisco at a defining moment in the city’s history: the devastating 1906 earthquake that literally shook society to its very core/foundations. The new architecture that emerged from the rubble was to take characteristics from its past but became a rather different city. What would have happened, though, if that earthquake could have been prevented? In the fantasy-inflected Breath of Earth, earthquakes are prevented by a group of men called geomancers, who sublimate the earth’s power to move and calm the fault lines.
Ingrid Carmichael is the secretary to one of these magical men, but wishes she had his job; she has plenty of magical talent, even more than the most famous of them, but the patriarchal society she lives in refuses to give women a chance (sound familiar)? “Ingrid hated her shoes with the same unholy passion she hated corsets, chewing tobacco, and men who clipped their fingernails in public,” Cato writes. “It wasn’t that her shoes were ugly or didn’t fit; no, it was the fact that she had to wear them at all. In the meeting chambers of the Earth Wardens Cordilleran Auxiliary, she was the only woman, and the only one in shoes.”
All this changes when Ingrid is left to her own devices after the geomancers are unable to save themselves, and a grand conspiracy is brought to light. The dominant alliance between the United States and Japan masks terrible things, including a mysterious plan surrounding the upcoming 1906 seismic event that could have worldwide repercussions. If you like your San Francisco a little steampunk, check this one out.
2. The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis ($17): Just like Beth Cato re-envisions a famous event in SF history to anchor her story, Davis takes a famous city landmark and imagines a possible history. The Barbizon Hotel in NYC opened in 1927 as a professional retreat for women who had come to make it on their own. It represented its own type of seismic cultural shift: Suddenly, it had become possible for women to choose to have a career. Many, however, still felt the need for a safe home in the middle of a swirling city filled with opportunity. In The Dollhouse, Davis imagines the Barbizon in the 1950s and more than fifty years later, and sees a small world filled with its own kind of intrigue.
In 1952, Darby McLaughlin moves into the Barbizon from a small town in Ohio, as she prepares to start secretarial school. Her room is on the same floor as a host of aspiring models, and the plain and shy Darby (“Grand Central Terminal had frightened her to bits”) finds herself not fitting in. Needing some sort of attachment in a lonely city, she gravitates toward hotel maid Esme, but the other young woman may not be the best influence. She brings Darby out of her shell, but also into dangerous clubs where captivating jazz music provides a backing score to a world of crime and drugs. Half a century later, journalist Rose Lewin moves into the Barbizon’s new condos, and finds herself intrigued by the woman who lives below her: a “Miss McLaughlin,” one of the few “leftovers” from the hotel days.
Rose is fascinated by the history of her building, wondering “what had it been like, when the exclusive address housed hundreds of pretty young girls? Several had gone on to great fame: Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, Candice Bergen; the list went on and on.” She’s drawn to investigate rumors of a violent, deadly struggle long ago in Darby’s former apartment, and is shocked by what she finds. Publishers Weekly says “Davis’ impeccably structured debut is equal parts mystery, tribute to midcentury New York City, and classic love story,” and it’s a fitting love letter to a city in constant flux.
3. The Outside Lands by Hannah Kohler ($22): We head back to San Fran for this week’s final novel, set in the 1960s, where the ground may not be shaking but the entire social landscape is in a state of disruption. Jeannie (20) and her brother, 14-year-old Kip, find their lives in turmoil after their mother’s death in a cable car accident the day before President Kennedy’s assassination.
Like Darby McLaughlin, Jeannie’s “out” from spending her days “waiting for the hands on the clock to move” seems to come in the form of secretarial school. She soon ditches this potential career, however, for a waitressing job and then a more domestic life as a parent and with a doctor for a husband. Kip isn’t so “lucky,” and when he’s caught trying to rob a liquor store, is told that he can avoid jail by either getting a high school diploma or his military papers. Jeannie is shocked when Kip chooses the latter, particularly with the knowledge of their father’s experiences in the Second World War.
As Kip realizes the depth of his mistake during his time with the Marines in Vietnam, Jeannie joins the anti-war movement, takes a critical look at her staunchly conservative husband and begins to realize her own stance. Both siblings find themselves in terrible trouble as they risk their lives for their convictions, while finding they may not have chosen the right allies. Alice Adams, author of Invincible Summer, says, “This book is full of visceral human truths, and… is going to win prizes.” You might want to check it out before it does.
East or West Coast? NYC or SF? What books show your loyalties? Tag us in your next urban read @BritandCo.
(Featured photo via Getty)