Growing Up Californian
City Lights: 248 pp., $16.95 paper
Cris Mazza is more than a little miffed by the rest of the country’s persistent misperceptions about Southern California: land of dudes, babes and convertibles. “You sure you’ll be able to leave all the beaches in California?” she was asked when she applied for a teaching position elsewhere. “I tried to make long intellectual statements,” she writes in her signature dry style, “that meant, ‘I need a job.’ ”
Mazza grew up in Palos Verdes and San Diego County. Her father, a physics professor, raised five kids on $10,000 a year in the 1960s and ‘70s. The family hunted pheasants and other small game, raised rabbits and quail for quail eggs and ate the figs, fruits and vegetables their parents grew in their tiny terraced garden. They spent two weeks each summer camping in the eastern Sierra. Mazza worked as a nurse’s aide and with disabled children before settling down as a writer and professor.
She remembers her Aunt Marie, who spent much of her life in Camarillo State Hospital, where she was dubiously treated for schizophrenia. She remembers her own sexual coming of age and its many parallels with the sex life of her dog, Vixen. She writes about her sexless marriage to a musician and her divorce. These are plain lives, plainly told, and with a humble style Mazza reveals a normality beneath the California myth that seems all the more dazzling and exotic with the passage of time.
A Woman Wanderer in Africa
Vintage Books: 336 pp., $13 paper
Tanya Shaffer’s year wandering and volunteering in Africa was inspired by her boyfriend Michael’s desire to get married: “I figure it’s my life, and if I want to run from it, I can.” You like her already, don’t you? But that doesn’t mean you aren’t rooting for Michael, back in the States. Somebody has to bring this free spirit down, right? Wrong. Shaffer begins her trip in Morocco, works on a few projects in Ghana, then heads for Mali. She is 26, alone, but very sociable, describing several friendships and love affairs with other volunteers and people she hooks up with (somewhat fearlessly, but I am not her mother). She has a wonderful light touch with black-white relationships. She is one of those people who makes all conflict seem so childish and unnecessary. She walks through the world, catching planes, hopping on buses, with the most delightful, open fluidity, falling in love with women and men. But what about Michael? Well, with a girl like this, no one’s heart could ever be completely safe.
Growing Up Right
in the Wrong Place
Mariner Books: 272 pp.,
“I don’t care that expensive scientific studies claim there is no definitive proof that Hanford caused cancers. I don’t care about judges and lawyers who ping-pong evidence in and out of court .... I just care about my father, and he is only one of thousands of people probably, and quite tragically, affected by activities during the Cold War.” Born in 1953, Teri Hein grew up on a 1,000-acre wheat farm in eastern Washington state that was homesteaded by her great-grandfather in the late 1800s. The Hanford nuclear plant was 100 miles south of the farm. One by one, people in their neighborhood, adults and children alike, began dying of various cancers. Her own father had repeated episodes with thyroid cancer and brain hemorrhages. “Atomic Farmgirl” is the story of her very average childhood against the backdrop of something evil and dangerous: the party line that everyone listens in on, the school bus, the basement and burlap that is supposed to protect the family in the case of nuclear attack or accident. Hein, who has taught children undergoing bone-marrow transplants at a cancer research center for 17 years, wrote this memoir three years ago, and we are glad to see it back in paperback. The book has a neon quality: a warning, mixed with irony and loss.