Rating: 3.9* of five
The Book Description: In A California Childhood Franco plays with the concept of memoir through personal snapshots, sketches, paintings, poems, and stories. "I was born in 1978 at Stanford Hospital and spent my first eighteen years in a single house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Palo Alto," Franco writes in his introduction. Steve Jobs's daughter and the grandson of one of the Hewlett-Packard founders may have both been in his graduating class, but just across the freeway from his home turf lay East Palo Alto, which in 1992 had the highest murder rate per capita in the country. For Franco, the terrain of his upbringing is fraught with the complication of a city divided. But within that diversity, universal aspects of adolescence rise to the surface, and those are the subjects at the heart of Franco's work.
Ultimately this is a portrait of a childhood brightened by California sunshine, but with trouble awaiting in the shadows. At turns funny, dark, and emotional, the journey of this book delivers an undeniable immediacy. And at the end the reader is left wondering just where the line of Franco's art ends and where his true life begins.
My Review: I reviewed on GoodReads Franco's debut collection of short stories, [Palo Alto], last year, and gave it some good props. I liked Franco's storytelling, and I liked the take he brought to being a kid in a place and at a time of great change.
Back we go to the same well, childhood in Palo Alto, for this more multimedia experience of being young and beautiful in Paradise. Photos, photos, gawd did this kid have photos taken of him! For this many to have made it past his own, his editor's, and the book designer's critical eyes, there must be heaps the size of minor Himalayas in boxes on his mom's garage floor. It's no surprise, I guess, since the aforementioned beauty is much in evidence.
So what does this memoir offer that a troll through the Googleverse doesn't? Gorgeous production values, for one, the Chinese have outdone themselves printing this book. The four-color images are lush to the point of humidity, and the black-and-whites are process printed, too. This wasn't a slapped-together job. Thought and care went into making these images ready for the page. The author's paintings are to one's taste or not, I'm on the lukewarm side, but they're very very well presented in design placement, separation, and printing. The choice to use endsheets printed with the author's journaling (his handwriting looks *exactly* like I'd expect it to) was wise, it sets a tone the rest of the book delivers on; the dustjacket is almost obscene it's so luxurious, let me just say Savonarola would reserve a special bonfire for it; but one of the nicest touches, and one most buyers won't ever pay attention to, is the printed, matte-coated casewrap. It's a detail from one of Franco's paintings. It's beautiful. The book qua book is sumptuous and delightful.
Part I is the photo-album-esque visual record of growing up slightly off in a world of identities that don't quite fit. Smiles and happy faces, brothers loved and mothers adored, fathers who look like movie stars, friends of a kid who is marked out in some weird way and so is more, better, extra. Notes and jottings from the middle-aged man that kid is now. (Yeah, 35 is middle age, sorry.) Flip through and sigh. Open up and study the random image you land on. What comes across? What, in this medium of optical illusion presenting the highly mediated imagery of a past you can't know, is your place in the text? Reader, viewer, voyeur, stalker.
But you have permission.
Then it gets personal in Part II. The stories that Franco writes are not stylistically adventurous, thank goodness, but they aren't wimpy-simpy Look Ma I'm A Writer bores. They're Sherwood Anderson-y pieces about people you know that you know. "Friend of the Devil" should resonate with the under-40s. I found it touching, and I remember it...but I would, I'm the old guy who remembers people on his block by the cars they drive. Makes others crazy. "Oh, the orange Rubicon guy." "She's the RAV4 in the ugly house."
They're stories, that is to say explicitly fiction. Part I, well, make up your own mind, and I suspect Franco is still making up his. Maybe about all of it. He's got depth, this man, and he's got smarts, and he's been educated.
But I still like him. I expect one day to run into him at the Strand, shopping for something in the biographies. If I can work up the nerve (beautiful men make me shaky), I'll fetch a copy of my soul-mate book (Islandia) and by it and thrust it into his basket. "Here," is probably about as eloquent as I'll manage to be. Then stump away before I make a fool of myself by blushing or having a stroke or something.
Then I can imagine Franco not throwing it away, taking it home, bumfuzzled by the weird old guy who dropped a book on him...opening it, browsing it, getting sucked in to its nineteenth-century pace and its gorgeously egalitarian Utopia...and thinking maybe old weird guys are just as young as they ever were, if they can love like this.
"I'd make the claim that this is fiction, but what isn't nowadays?" asks Franco in the Introduction.