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http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150807-fiction-review-circling-the-sun-by-paula-mclain.ece

CirclingtheSun_McLain_FINAL+JACKET

Aviation pioneer Beryl Markham, who in 1936 became the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, is sometimes called “the British Amelia Earhart.”

While she was, indeed, born in England, Markham moved to British East Africa, as Kenya then was known, with her parents when she was just 4 years old. She grew up in Kenya as an Anglo-African during the fading imperial age and lived almost all of her extraordinary life there.

In her new novel, Circling the Sun, Paula McLain takes Markham’s story, which the pilot herself first told in her acclaimed 1942 memoir, West With the Night, and turns it into a moving first-person chronicle of a woman born before her time.

Markham’s West With the Night was admired by Ernest Hemingway, who called it “a bloody wonderful book.” Hemingway, not coincidentally, was a central character in McLain’s previous novel, The Paris Wife, which became a best-seller.

As in The Paris Wife, virtually every main character in Circling the Sun is based on historical fact, and McLain does an excellent job of capturing their physical likenesses and moral centers. But while The Paris Wife told the tale of Hadley Richardson, a woman who is remembered because she was faithfully married to Hemingway, Circling the Sun is all about a restless woman who, despite being married three times, was never completely faithful to anyone but herself.

McLain does not attempt to channel Markham’s more mature voice as captured in her gorgeous West With the Night prose. This is the story of young Beryl Clutterbuck, an incorrigible tomboy who stayed in Kenya with her horse-trainer father after her mother abandoned them and returned to England, unable to bear the hardships of farming in Africa.

“Gradually it became harder to remember my mother’s face, things she had said to me, days we had shared,” Beryl says. “But there were many days ahead of me. They spread out as far as I could see or wish for, the way the plain did all the way to the broken bowl of Menengai, or to [Mount] Kenya’s hard blue peak. It was safer to keep looking forwards.”

Young Beryl’s playmates were native children, and she preferred throwing spears and riding horses to more traditional girls’ games. She resisted governesses and boarding schools until her father gave up on formally educating her. Instead, she followed in his footsteps and became a successful horse trainer, the first woman in Africa licensed to do so. Like her father, she reveled in horse racing: “I had always loved all of it — even what couldn’t be controlled or predicted.”

Beryl’s taste for unpredictability made her helpless to resist her famous lover, the aristocratic big-game hunter and aviator Denys Finch Hatton. When Beryl met him, he was already involved with Karen Blixen, the Danish-born baroness who would become known as Isak Dinesen, author of the memoir Out of Africa.

But Finch Hatton, who was 15 years older than Beryl, belonged to no woman. Charming and brilliant, he “was most himself in wild places,” Beryl says. “More than anyone I’d known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend.”

So until its tragic, inevitable end, the three of them were a love triangle: Beryl, Denys and Karen. “We had done a painful dance and lost a lot, we three, hurting one another and ourselves. But extraordinary things had happened, too. I would never forget any of them.”

Beryl Markham lived another 50 years after becoming world-famous, but Circling the Sunconcentrates only on the first part of her life, all the years leading up to her historic flight across the Atlantic in September 1936. McLain doesn’t even show Markham learning to fly until the final few chapters of her novel.

By then, the reader knows her very well, this tall, angular woman with the pale flyaway hair and the sharp profile. The mostly solitary life she led would not have been possible for most Englishwomen of her time, and even today it would be a difficult existence for a woman alone in Africa. McLain skillfully succeeds in portraying the inner life of a singular figure, painted vividly against a vast continent that was the only place Beryl Markham could ever belong.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

 

Circling the Sun

Paula McLain

(Ballantine, $28)

 

Plan your life

Paula McLain will appear at two events Wednesday:

At 1 p.m., she’ll have a short speaking engagement and book signing at the North Richland Hills Public Library, 9015 Grand Ave. Free. A noon reception, which includes a copy of the book, is $40. Details at library.nrhtx.com.

That evening, she’ll appear at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, as part of Authors Live! The 7 p.m. lecture is free; a 6 p.m. reception, including a signed copy of the book, is $30 and must be reserved at least two days in advance by calling Highland Park United Methodist Church at 214-523-2240 or going to hpumc.org/authorslive.

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Sarai Walker’s novel Dietland is, not to put too fine a point on it, subversive and even shocking. It is discomforting to read, exploring as it does unsettling themes of body shaming, misogyny and hypersexualized mores. This is an unflinching look at a society that is very much our own, although it feels as if the novel is set perhaps 15 minutes in the future.

Walker’s protagonist is Plum Kettle, who is 29, depressed and miserable. Plum has spent her whole life struggling with her weight and with the pain of being stared at, judged and bullied because she is fat.

No diet, not even “Waist Watchers,” works for Plum. She has never had a boyfriend; she has acquaintances but no real women friends; and she hates her job, working from home answering letters from despondent teenage girls for a glossy Manhattan-based teen magazine called Daisy Chain. Thanks to an absentee cousin, Plum does have a nice apartment in Brooklyn. But she lives for only one thing: the promise that someday, if she spends $20,000 on weight-loss surgery, she will be smaller.

“I wanted to become smaller so I wouldn’t be seen,” Plum confides. “If I was smaller, they wouldn’t stare. They wouldn’t be mean.”

One day, Plum notices that she is being observed by a young woman wearing bright-colored tights, combat boots and raccoon-like eye makeup. Instead of being mean to Plum, the young woman, whose name is Leeta, turns out to be an emissary from Julia, another employee of Daisy Chain’s huge, Conde Nast-like media conglomerate. Julia, in turn, introduces Plum to a women’s collective named after the Muse of eloquence — Calliope House, owned and run by Verena Baptist.

Verena is independently wealthy, having inherited millions from her mother, who made a fortune selling horrible diet meals and shakes to women and girls like Plum, who as a teenager bought into the Baptist Weight Loss Plan. When her parents died, Verena shut down the company and later wrote an exposé called “Adventures in Dietland,” detailing all the ways that her mother had damaged her daughter’s spirit and exploited the women who, like Plum, believed in her diet sales pitch.

Meeting Verena launches Plum’s journey through a series of difficult challenges that will forever change her. Verena is determined to help Plum reach self-acceptance, and that means not going through with her plan for weight-loss surgery. Verena’s “New Baptist Plan” includes a makeover mentored by a former TV star, meant to raise Plum’s consciousness about how difficult, expensive and painful it is for a woman to maintain the quality of attractiveness that we’ll politely call desirability.

At Calliope House, Plum finally finds friends, and she finds herself as well. “I was pleased that I no longer needed voluminous amounts of food to feel satisfied,” Plum realizes. “I was learning to listen to my body’s hunger cues and desires, which helped me know when I needed to eat, and what, and how much. … I would never restrict myself again or do math before eating.”

In the meantime, strange things are happening in the world. A guerrilla group calling itself Jennifer has begun targeting those who exploit and abuse women’s bodies.

The Sun, a British tabloid famous for its daily pictures of topless “Page Three girls,” gets blackmailed by Jennifer into printing photos of nude men instead. “Lad mags,” racy men’s magazines, likewise are pressured into acquiescence.

The world’s most famous porn star is murdered in broad daylight; more than a dozen rapists are kidnapped, tortured and killed. A famous European film director, clearly modeled after Roman Polanski, suddenly vanishes; so does a Super Bowl athlete accused of raping two women. Suddenly, there is a price to be paid for the exploitation of women, and the media world is on edge, half admiring and half fearful.

Jennifer is the world’s most-sought criminal, but who is this elusive ghost of a guerrilla leader? It turns out that Jennifer is someone not too far removed from Plum herself. “Jennifer had made up seem like down, had left us all spinning and dizzy, had set the world on fire, and she was still out there,” Plum says.

Jennifer hasn’t magically changed cruel jerks into gentlemen, of course. The difference is in Plum, now a wiser woman who, in the words of Maya Angelou, refuses to be anyone’s victim.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150424-women-who-beat-long-odds.ece

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS

Special Contributor
Published: 24 April 2015 10:49 PM

Three historians at three North Texas universities are responsible for organizing Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives. While one might expect that this book would come from a Texas university press, editors Elizabeth Hayes (University of North Texas), Stephanie Cole (University of Texas at Arlington) and Rebecca Sharpless (Texas Christian University) explain in the preface that the University of Georgia Press already had a history series called Southern Women: Their Lives and Times, a natural fit for the book they wanted to write.

Texas Women is written as a clear, concise narrative, starting in colonial times with chapters on the influences of American Indian women who lived in what would become Texas; Mexican women who settled in Texas when it was still part of New Spain; women of the Texas Republic; enslaved women of antebellum times; and Texas women of the late 19th and early 20th century, with emphasis on the struggle for women’s suffrage, legal rights, health care, access to education and professional standing.

Under Spanish law, which carried over to Mexico when it became independent, “Spanish women had rights,” writes Jean A. Stuntz of West Texas A&M University. “Indeed, even a poor servant woman had the right to file suit. Her marital status was not mentioned because it was not important.” One key difference between Spanish and English cultures: “Spanish women did not take their husbands’ names upon marriage. … A woman’s name and her legal identity did not disappear upon marriage, as they did in Anglo America.” Castilian imperial law followed the Spanish conquest into Mexico and thence to colonial Texas.

Dallas readers will be particularly interested in “Latinas in Dallas, 1910-2010,” by Bianca Mercado, a UNT postgraduate and a doctoral candidate at Yale who is completing a dissertation on Mexican communities and urban redevelopment in Dallas. This chapter includes stories of Anita N. Martinez, Adelaida Cuellar, Maria Luna, Faustina Martinez, Lena Levario, Diana Orozco and other women who pushed beyond cultural barriers and helped bring their families to prominence in Dallas business and politics.

Two other Dallasites merit their own chapters in Texas Women: Julia Scott Reed and Hermine Tobolowsky.

Reed was an experienced journalist who in 1967 became the first African-American writer hired full time at a major daily newspaper in Texas. She was a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. W. Marvin Dulaney, history department chair at UTA, tells how Reed brought a new breadth and depth to The News’ coverage of the black community in Dallas. Her column, “The Open Line,” ran three times a week from July 1967 until December 1978, when a stroke ended her career. She wrote “more thorough coverage of people, events and issues in the local African-American community than most of the nation’s newspapers had previously provided,” Dulaney writes. “In short, she presented a view of Dallas’ African-American community of which most whites had no awareness or understanding.”

Tobolowsky, a Dallas lawyer, was a driving force behind the Equal Rights Amendment. According to historian Nancy E. Baker of Sam Houston State University, “Unlike the majority of states that ratified the federal ERA, Texas had a vigorous pro-ERA movement dating back to the late 1950s, thanks in large part to Hermine Tobolowsky” and the Texas Business and Professional Women’s efforts to obtain a state equal rights amendment. While Tobolowsky “avoided the appearance of radicalism at all times,” she emphasized that legal sexual equality would benefit everyone, men as well as women.

Other prominent Texans profiled in Texas Women include politician Barbara Jordan, astronaut Mae Jemison, peace activist Casey Hayden, and the Houston Post’s Oveta Culp Hobby, who led the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II and was appointed the first secretary of Health, Education and Welfare by President Dwight Eisenhower. It is astonishing to realize, by the way, that there is no full-scale biography of Hobby, who was probably the most influential Texas woman of the mid-20th century. (The only biography of her that is available is one written for younger readers.)

Texas Women is heavily footnoted, but it isn’t ponderous. For anyone interested in the real women who built Texas while struggling against long odds, it is revelatory reading.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives

Edited by Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Stephanie Cole and Rebecca Sharpless

(University of Georgia, $32.95)

 The late writer J. California Cooper granted few interviews, according to her obituary today in the New York Times. But 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a day with her at her home in Marshall, Texas, where she lived for seven years and wrote three of her books. This story appeared as the cover of the Sunday High Profile section of The Dallas Morning News, on July 24, 1994.


This enigmatic Texas writer is no open book

J. California Cooper

By JOYCE SAENZ HARRIS

Staff Writer

MARSHALL – One of America’s great writers works right here – but
almost nobody knows it.

Which suits J. California Cooper just fine.

For the past seven years, Ms. Cooper has lived quietly in an
unpretentious neighborhood in the small East Texas city of
Marshall. Her house is bright green, like the tall old trees that
arch overhead.

“If you pay attention to nature, you know God loves color,” the
writer muses. “And if you were his favorite color you might be
green, because I know he loves green. Everything in the world is
green, almost.” Her smile is richly knowing, beatific as a
cafe-au-lait Buddha.

This corner of Texas has proved an oasis of peace and
productivity for Ms. Cooper. Her second novel, In Search of
Satisfaction (Doubleday), will be published in October. Her fifth
collection of short stories, Some Love, Some Pain, Some Time, will
follow in the fall of 1995.

Her previous story collections – A Piece of Mine, Some Soul to
Keep, Homemade Love and The Matter Is Life – won Ms. Cooper a
reputation as a gifted teller of tales. Her first novel, Family,
published by Doubleday in 1991, was bought by the Literary Guild
and helped to give her a wider, more mainstream audience.

J. California Cooper

But without Alice Walker, Ms. Cooper says, “this stuff could
still be sitting in the drawer.” Ms. Walker, a novelist who is
perhaps best known for The Color Purple, saw Ms. Cooper’s plays and
urged her to try writing stories. Ms. Walker then published A Piece
of Mine through her own company, Wild Trees Press.

“In its strong folk flavor, Cooper’s work reminds us of Langston
Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston,” Ms. Walker wrote. “Like theirs, her
style is deceptively simple and direct. …It is a delight to
read her stories.”

Their creator likewise is deceptively simple and direct, wearing
a veil of mystery even when she seemingly bares her soul.

She is “the ultimate pragmatist,” says daughter Paris Williams
of Oakland, Calif., who calls her mother “compassionate,
imaginative, practical and very loving in more ways than I can
describe.”

“One of the greatest compliments I ever received came from
her,” Ms. Williams adds. “She once said, `As long as I’ve known
you, I’ve never known you to be intentionally hurtful to anyone.’

“But that’s because I’m her child. That’s the kind of values
she raised me with.”

You know, I am a grown woman of some considerable character and
an excellent education. Which age, I am not going to tell you. I
mean, how important is age? Just try to live, I say, with wisdom
and concern for others. But by living this long (not too long), I
have learned a few things.

– “Friends, Anyone?” (from The Matter Is Life)

Ms. Cooper, who laughingly calls herself “a semi-recluse,” is
intriguingly eccentric. She writes her stories in bed, in longhand,
usually in the early-morning hours. She says she is “a bed-crazy
person,” and that writing by hand “is the only way I can get these
people (the characters’ voices) to come.” Later, she will “fill out
the skeleton” of narrative as she transfers her work to a computer,
to be printed out in manuscript form.

“I don’t know how to write,” she says disarmingly. “I just do
it.”

Her occasional public readings are vivid events marked by a
natural flair for drama, and she can hold a cafeteria full of
restless high-schoolers spellbound. But she doesn’t go out of her
way to seek publicity, preferring to let the media find her – when they can.

She’ll talk about her work while letting many things about
herself and her personal history remain deliberately vague. “She
guards her privacy,” says her daughter.

For example, Ms. Cooper appears 60-ish – but “a woman who will
tell her age will tell anything,” she quotes with a laugh. Her
years show in the tranquil, seen-it-all lines around her lively
eyes. But her hands are amazingly smooth and youthful, like those
of a 25-year-old.

Her given name, Joan, now is shortened to the initial “J.” Ms.
Cooper doesn’t usually reveal what the “J” stands for, but Alice
Walker mentioned it in the introduction to A Piece of Mine. The
adopted name “California” is after her home state; she spent most
of her life in Oakland, Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay Area.

But her father, Joseph C. Cooper, came from Marshall, and when
she was 12, she spent a year in his hometown, living with an aunt.
Later, Ms. Cooper often returned to visit. Thus she has never
forgotten her Texas roots or the gritty realities of country life,
such as picking cotton for a penny a pound.

Ms. Cooper wrote 17 plays before publishing any of her fiction,
and she was named San Francisco’s Black Playwright of the Year in
1978 for Strangers. In 1988, she was given the James Baldwin Award
and the American Library Association’s Literary Lion Award.

In 1989, Ms. Cooper won an American Book Award for Homemade
Love, and the honor brought her a flood of attention. Some of it
was the sort most struggling writers would kill to get, but much of
it she found exasperating.

It was “the only time I’ve seen her become disagreeable,” says
Reid Boates, the New Jersey literary agent who has represented Ms.
Cooper for the past eight years. “A private atmosphere is very
important to her.”

“When you win an award, all kinds of people want to talk to
you,” says Emma Rodgers, co-owner of Black Images Book Bazaar in
Oak Cliff’s Wynnewood Village. “They take your time – and your time
belongs to you and no one else.”

By 1987, Ms. Cooper had already lit out for the territory: “I
think she idealized the country life,” her daughter says. At any
rate, Ms. Cooper found solace and more of the solitude she craved
in East Texas.

Her place was goin to be nice. She furnished it with the best of
things, tho she never lowed no one in them special rooms. She
didn’t much go in em herself cept to go sit and look round at what
was hers. Hers.

– from Family

In Marshall, California Cooper lives in an idiosyncratic,
inconspicuous but densely textured sanctum of her own devising.
Here, she has her pair of goldfinches and her two cats: one
neurotically shy to the point of invisibility, one aggressively
sociable. She also has eight chickens, all named, who provide her
with fresh eggs to eat and give away. She surrounds herself with
shelves of books and music, with hanging plants, manuscripts and
works of art in progress.

This is her world, but be warned: The welcome mat is not out.

She doesn’t mind the occasional public reading, book-signing or
a good chat over lunch in town. Occasionally she will sit and visit
in the shade of her trees. But she rarely invites guests into her
home, and she discourages drop-ins.

“I DON’T WANT ANY COMPANY,” she says sternly.

She says visitors disturb her “vibes,” the quietude that lets
her listen to the vivid characters’ voices inside her head. Even
her chickens or her old pecan tree, she says, can tell her a story.
Hers is a creative process that can best be described, perhaps, in
one word: “organic.”

“The stories arrive full-blown,” says Mr. Boates. “That’s their
magic, really.

“Her writing process is listening to her characters, and it’s a
very special way of working. That’s what lets her write in the
voice of a cocky, narcissistic young man in one story, and in the
next as an old woman, remembering some incident with her daughter
50 years ago.”

Says Ms. Rodgers, “She talks like people talk.”

Oh, and how her characters do talk.

Vigorous, melancholy, malicious, tormented, joyful, nostalgic,
headstrong, and most of all human – California Cooper’s people talk
like real folks.

Her mostly first-person narratives flow “partly from experience
and partly from observing,” says her daughter, Ms. Williams. A
typical Cooper story is like a parable whose moral often can be
summed up: What goes around, comes around.

In Ms. Cooper’s universe, evil is punished, “integrity always
triumphs,” and the eternal verities – God, love, family, justice –
stand in stark contrast to human foolishness and conceit.

When her characters do or say thoughtless things, Ms. Cooper
says, “I love it, because I don’t like a fool. I really don’t like
a fool! All my life I’ve prayed, `Don’t let me be a fool.’ ”

She likes people with get-up-and-go. “Make a mistake,” she says
firmly. “But let it be a mistake where you’re reaching and you just
reached a little too high.”

However folksy her stories might be, there is nothing naive or
innocent about them. They can be funny, sensual or uplifting – but
they may also make a reader squirm. In the story titled “Vanity,”
for example, a beautiful woman’s narcissism leads her into a life
of utter degradation, rendered in grim, unflinching detail.

And her characters’ tragedies become her own. “Me, when I get a
chance to cry, I cry,” Ms. Cooper admits. “I cry at my own stories,
right on the stage. I try not to, but when I’m reading, I hurt.”
She cries when she writes her stories, too, “because I’m living
them.”

Ms. Cooper’s previous novel, Family, portrays that most American
of institutions in a struggle to survive. The saga begins with
Clora, the matriarch, a woman born into slavery. Despair drives
Clora to suicide, and the book is told by the voice of her spirit,
watching over a beloved daughter named Always.

While Family is in a sense more Always’ story than her mother’s,
it is Clora’s voice, disembodied and eternally weary, that echoes
in the reader’s mind:

Some people say we was born slaves . . . but I don’t blive that.
I say I was born a free human being, but I was made a slave right after.

Ms. Cooper says she is proud to be who she is, a black woman who
has prevailed. But she also believes, as the title of one of her
Homemade Love stories puts it, that “happiness does not come in
colors.”

Neither does kindness or goodness, evil or misery. Though her
narrators most often speak in the vernacular of black America,
there is no color line drawn between Ms. Cooper’s heroes and her
villains. Family’s story of Clora, Always and their kin is a
universal one, encompassing not only the African-American
experience but the family of mankind.

Family is “the nucleus of life,” Ms. Cooper says. “If you think
about it, what else is there in the world?”

You know, I’m just a kid, but I got nerves, and sometimes
grown-up people just really get on em! Like always talkin about how
kids don’t have no sense “in these days.” Like they got all the
last sense there was to get. Everybody with some sense knows that
if grown-up people had so much sense the whole world wouldn’t be in
the shape it’s in today!

– “How, Why to Get Rich” (from The Matter Is Life)

It all started with paper dolls.

Maxine Rosemary Lincoln Cooper – “Mimi” – was an independent
woman who “wanted to be a pioneer or a gun moll.” Mimi’s youngest
girl was known as the one who made up stories. She put her cast of
paper dolls into homemade plays, creating drama from pure
imagination.

Which was adorable at age 6 or 8 – but at 18?

Mimi appreciated her daughter’s lively imagination, but enough
was enough. You are too oooold for this! she ruled. Time to put
away childish things, like those paper dolls.

“My mother took them away,” Ms. Cooper says. “But the next year
I was married and was getting ready to have a baby.

“She should have left me alone with those paper dolls! But she
took them away – and so I began to write stuff out.”

She had always loved fairy tales. “Imagine a diamond mountain
and a lemonade lake and a golden apple!” Ms. Cooper marvels. “Who
would think of a pea under a mattress?”

Real life, of course, didn’t always have a happy ending. Ms.
Cooper “was married a couple of times, but they’re dead.” But if
marriages did not last, motherhood did. So “my child,” as she
affectionately calls Paris in the dedication of every book, is her
pride and joy.

Ms. Cooper is possessed of both earthy practicality and a
certain childlike ability to live in her imagination. “And I am the
most grateful person in the world that I haven’t lost it,” she says.

“People used to say, when I was grown and had a daughter, `She
just crazy. She ain’t never gonna grow up.’ Because the way I
thought and the way I acted – I carried my daughter around in my
bicycle basket! She never got hurt; we did fine. But lots of things
I did, people thought they were juvenile.

“They were not juvenile,” Ms. Cooper says softly. “They were
innocent, I think.

“And I still like paper dolls.”

My mama say Time is like an ocean tide. It just keep rollin on,
bringin new things for a person to try to sift through. You don’t
never know what’s comin! Or what ain’t comin!

– “Sisters of the Rain” (from Some Soul to Keep)

California Cooper “is probably the pre-eminent African-American
short story writer today,” says John R. Posey of Fort Worth,
publisher of The African American Literary Review. “She seems to
have a way of connecting her characters to African-American women
all over the United States today.

“She gets huge turnouts for her readings,” Mr. Posey adds. He
recalls that at one such event at Black Images Book Bazaar, “I was
one of maybe five men there. …She’s a legend among African-American female readers in Texas.”

Indeed, Emma Rodgers says that until Terry McMillan’s Waiting to
Exhale came along, Ms. Cooper was the best-selling author at Black
Images. Ms. Cooper’s work now is being anthologized, is turning up
in American high school and college literature courses, and is read
and respected in Europe.

Fame and success have their uses, because they allow Ms. Cooper
the freedom to arrange her life as she chooses. What she does not
like is the assumption that success makes her a public property.

“I meet a lot of people who want to hug me and kiss me,” she
says. “You cannot hug and kiss all these people. What makes them
think that – that you belong to them?”

She remembers walking down a hallway at her publisher’s and
seeing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a Doubleday editor, coming
toward her. “I had on some black pants and a pretty orange knit
sweater, and she looked me up and down in a split second,” Ms.
Cooper reminisces. “Then she looked at my face, and she smiled. I
saw her, and I smiled and nodded, and we kept going.”

Yes, she would have loved to meet Mrs. Onassis. But that’s the
kind of fandom Ms. Cooper prefers: respectful, not presumptuous,
not overly familiar.

She is humbly grateful, she says, for every reader who enjoys
her work. But owning California Cooper’s books, it is clear, does
not mean owning her.

“Nobody really knows me,” she says softly, “and I’ll tell you
why. Because I am really extra special private for some reason I
don’t know.

“My daughter knows me more than anybody. But I don’t know of
anybody else, except my mother, and she’s not alive.” Her voice
drops down, sadly: “Oh, I hate that. Now, when I have enough money
to take her somewhere.”

Ms. Cooper has dealt with many losses in her life, the most
recent being that of her only brother last January. But “her
biggest, most important loss was her mother,” says her daughter,
Ms. Williams. “She’ll never get over that. It’s been about 12
years, and it’s still a very big wound for her.”

Time’s passage is an essential element in Ms. Cooper’s art. She
is acutely aware of the encroachments of age. “I just hate to see
this time pass,” she frets.

She has done much in her life – traveled the world, reared a
child, worked as a manicurist, a waitress, a secretary, a loan
officer. She says she even joined the Teamsters and drove buses and
trucks in Alaska. “Oh, what a place, what a place! Mountains,
mountains, just glaring in the sunlight – diamonds, diamonds! And
just as pure and clear.”

She loves to tell stories, but she likes to do, too. “I don’t
believe people hate to grow old so much as you hate to grow past
your opportunities,” Ms. Cooper says. “The way life looks to me is,
you can do different chapters.”

In her next “chapter,” she plans to move back to Oakland for at
least part of each year, to be closer to her daughter. And she
doesn’t plan to be writing books forever, because she wants to do
so much more: take art classes and learn to paint pictures. Perhaps
even train as a practical nurse and take flying lessons, so that
she can take medical care to people in remote places of the world.

Meantime, she stays tuned in to the follies of the human heart,
observing, laughing, wondering and always aware.

“I tell people: You’d better watch what’s going on around you,”
Ms. Cooper says. “Because this is life.”