Saturday, February 26, 2005

Mind Candy

I ran into a friend at the health club today. I had just worked out on the elliptical machine and was carrying my reading material: Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Blink, and the latest issue of People Magazine.

“How come you never talk about People Magazine on your blog?” she asked me.

I can’t get that question out of my head. The simple answer, of course, is that if I admit I read People Magazine, I’m admitting that I am not well read or intellectually curious. A magazine like People, or In Style, or Real Simple, suggests a lack of seriousness. When I carry around a New Yorker, or Harper’s, or the New York Times Magazine, in contrast, I look smart.

But I love People Magazine. I even occasionally write for it. And I consider myself literate and somewhat intellectual.

I think there is room to read books and magazines that are mindless because they give us mental room later on to read works that are challenging. I look forward to Fridays when People arrives in my mailbox. I usually devour it in 30 minutes. That is a half-hour of candy, the super sweet, low quality kind, the kind that leaves you sort of sick, but in a good way. And after I’m done with my snack, I reach for my nutritious food, the stuff that gives my body sustenance, like Blink.

The United States has many different cultures and the low brow and highbrow words don’t often seem to talk to one another. But I think it’s a valuable skill to be able to travel back and forth between those worlds, to understand what the intellectuals in the New York-Washington axis are thinking about as well as those who prefer glossy celebrity centered news. (A little secret: People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and now even the Star are edited in New York by very smart, intellectually gifted people who are a lot like those who put out the Atlantic.) I like that I can talk about Jane Mayer’s recent New Yorker article about the torture system established by George W. Bush and the recent adorable pictures of Julia, Finn and Hazel that adorned a recent cover of People.

But like all cheap candy, glossy magazines get tiresome after a while. I just let my subscription to Real Simple lapse, in part because I was overdosing on mindlessness. But I’m not giving up my People magazine. It fits neatly in the stack next to my bed, right on top of Shirley Hazard’s Great Fire.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


I stayed up late last night to finish Ian McEwan’s amazing new book Saturday. I think this is the first, true, post-911 novel, a book that is infused with the Western world’s new fears of terrorist annihilation.

The book centers on Henry Perowne, a 48-year old successful London neurosurgeon who lives a perfect life. He is still madly in love with his wife, Rosalind, inordinately proud of his 18-year old son, Theo, an accomplished blues musician and his 20-ish daughter, Daisy, whose first book of poetry is about to be published.

The action in the book takes place in one 24-hour period – a Saturday. Perowne wakes up unexpectedly around 3 a.m. filled with an inexplicable euphoria. He goes to the window and looks out onto the square fronting his house. While he observes the people who inhabit the park in the wee hours of the morning, he spots a plane crossing the horizon and soon realizes the plane is on fire. Is this just a mechanical problem? Or is this an airplane-turned- missile that will destroy part of London, just as the two jets destroyed the twin towers in 2001?

Within a short time, Perowne realizes there will not be a catastrophe, but he can’t shake his feelings of foreboding. We follow him throughout the rest of the day as he makes love to his wife, gets ready to play squash with one of his medical partners, and watches as hundreds of thousands of people gather to demonstrate against the United States’ threat to invade Iraq. McEwan is a master at this, at detailing the minutia of life, the objects that repel us and give us pleasure.

The novel asks the question of how we balance our responsibilities to our own lives and the world at large. Perowne has mixed feelings about invading Iraq – he once treated an Iraqi exile who had been tortured by Sadaam Hussein’s government. Perowne is a neurosurgeon who saves lives daily. Surely on a Saturday he is entitled to a day of rest, a respite from the world? Part of him just wants to be free to play squash and shop for fish for the stew he plans to make or a family dinner. But he can’t stop thinking about how the world has changed, how the threat of terrorism now pervades his consciousness.

A minor car accident brings Perowne into contact with Baxter, a clearly unstable low-level gangster. As Baxter’s minions start to attack, Perowne diagnoses him with Huntington’s disease, and taunts the man in front of his friends. Perowne leaves the scene of the accident slightly bruised and beaten, but at that point in the day his world is essentially intact.

I don’t want to reveal later developments, but McEwan soon shows that there are still more immediate threats to our lives than the danger from radical Muslims intent on exploding car bombs in London and other cities. He is not dismissing the problem, but shows how those fears have overtaken the way many westerners now regard the world.

Of course, McEwan has had personal experiences that have imbued his perception of the world. In April 2004, on his way to deliver a lecture in Seattle, he was detained in Vancouver for 36 hours because the United States would not permit him entry – even though he had had lunch the previous fall with Laura Bush and had won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Atonement.

Saturday will not be released in the United States until late March. How, then, did I get to read an Advanced Reader’s Copy? Well, an owner of my favorite bookstore – and now I will name it – A Great Good Place for Books in the Montclair District of Oakland – read my blog and took pity on me. I had described how bereft I felt at not being allowed access to ARCs, and she said she would lend them to me on one condition --- that I write reviews for her store newsletter. I didn’t have to think twice. Thanks, Debi.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Book Addict

There are 11 hardback books from the library stacked up beside my bed. On top is Alice Munroe’s Runaway, followed by Emily Raboteau’s The Professor’s Daughter, and Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubenstein. I’ve barely dipped into most of them and I already have to return a batch.

I think I have book addiction. It’s an affliction that affects incorrigible readers, people whose antennae are always tuned to the book of the moment. Its symptoms are recognizable:

1. An inability to pass by a bookstore without peeking in, just for a second.
2. A lust for the books that were just highly praised in the San Francisco Chronicle or New York Times.
3. Membership in more than one library system.
4. A working knowledge of the lives and works of favorite authors.
5. More books in the house than you can read.

I can’t say for sure when my addiction started. I have always loved to read. When I attended an all-girls school in San Francisco, I had a terrible reputation. It was the kind of place where the students wore green plaid uniforms and addressed their teachers respectfully. I had the bad habit of talking too much – and too bluntly -- like the time I put my hand on my third grade teacher’s curving belly and asked if there was a baby inside. I was frequently sent to the principal’s office. (The school officially asked me to leave after seventh grade.) But when I went to the school library my reputation didn’t matter. Miss Fletcher, the librarian, was always happy to see me and always took time to help me find new books.

The summer after my father died, the summer I was 16, my mother and stepfather moved into an apartment right across the street from the Marina public library on Chestnut Street in San Francisco. I visited there almost every day, and took my discoveries back home, where I would grab a bag of dried apricots from the cupboard, and park myself on a sunny balcony to read. Hours would pass when I didn't think about my father, 45, dying of a heart attack on the ski slopes.

I started to write down the names of books I read starting in 1995. That year I had a six-month maternity leave from the San Jose Mercury News and in between feedings I managed to read 43 books. The next year I read 25. Then 41. Then 38. My average has hovered close to 40 ever since.

I have membership in five library systems – Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda County, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Mechanics Library, a 150-year old private library in San Francisco. I work the systems, too, when looking for my book of the moment. If it’s not in the Berkeley library, I have other places from which I can request it. And of course, there’s my favorite bookstore, the one that rents out the bestsellers.

Why do I do this? There is no possible way I can actually read all the books I acquire. Still, I want them near me, available if the mood hits, if time unexpectedly stretches before me. I do most of my reading at night, before I fall asleep or when I wake up at 3 in the morning. (Last night I spent more than an hour reading Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday.)

Can I stop? Do I want to stop? Am I hurting anyone? Never mind. I’ll think about it later – after I figure out where I am going to get a copy of the book reviewed on the cover of yesterday’s New York Times, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, by Judith Warner.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Sedge Thomspon, left, the moderator and host of West Coast Live, Oscar Villalon, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, David Kipen, book critic for the Chronicle, and Heidi Benson, publishing reporter for the Chronicle, at a panel discussion that benefitted the Larkspur Library. Posted by Hello

Read This Book!

It was Ladies Night Out on Wednesday, and this time the talk was all literary.

My writing group, North 24th, went to Larkspur in Marin County to eat at the restaurant Left Bank. After a wonderful dinner of vegetarian risotto, Salade Nicoise, onion soup and bouillabaisse, we crossed the street to the Larkspur Café Theater for a panel discussion featuring the editor and critics of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. My dining companions were mostly writers, one with a book coming out in April, another with a book set to be released in 2007, others with books in progress, so naturally we wanted to learn what piques the interest of the reviewers.

The evening’s moderator was Sedge Thompson, whose deep, melodious voice is featured weekly on the radio show “West Coast Live.” The panelists included Oscar Villalon, the book editor of the Chronicle, David Kipen, the paper’s book critic, and Heidi Benson, the reporter who covers the publishing industry.

The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review is one of the most respected in the country. Its best-seller list is decidedly more literary than that of the New York Times. On the list for February 13th, for example, the Chronicle listed Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, and Sight Hound by Pam Houston. The Times, in contrast, only had one literary title in its top ten, I am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe.

As a West Coast writer and reader, I am often frustrated by the East Coast-centric nature of the literary world. It was clear Wednesday night that those on the book review are too.

“There’s this fallacy that all these things are going on on the East Coast,” said Villalon. “People are cultured to look back East to see what’s happening.”

But that East Coast dominance is losing its grip, he insisted. Even Sam Tanenhaus, the new editor of the New York Times Book Review, acknowledged in a recent interview that the cutting edge writers are now coming from the West Coast. This region’s blend of multiculturalism and openness to new ideas has produced lots of wonderful authors.

“It’s no surprise the country should be turning their eyes here,” said Villalon. “It’s where all the great things are happening.”

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is an example of a multicultural book from the Bay Area that has become a national bestseller. The book tells the story of a young boy in Afghanistan who reveres his father and has a close relationship with the son of a servant. There are currently 70 holds on the book in the Larkspur Library.

But David Kipen, the Chronicle’s critic, gave the book a mixed review and said it exemplifies a crass commercialism in the publishing industry.

“I think the Kite Runner is an example of where a publisher said get me a warm body who can write about Afghanistan,” said Kipen. “They got one, he had a manuscript and they sold the bejezus out of it. It taught me a lot about the history of Afghanistan and about the Afghani community in Fremont, but as a novel, it was only passable.”

It is a daunting task to get reviewed in the Chronicle, which is ranked as one of the top five reviews in the country, along with those from the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times.

Villalon says he gets 200-300 galleys a week. How does he choose what to review? He likes to look for local authors, seek out good writing and interesting subject matter.

Kipen likes to review books that are relevant to West Coast culture and history, among others. He delights in finding new authors from small presses. It’s a lot more thrilling to feature them than the latest “hot” author put forward from a New York publishing house, he said.

Oscar Villalon, the book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, and David Kipen, the Chronicle's book critic, at a reception before the panel discussion on the Chronicle Book Review. Posted by Hello

Jill Storey, a member of North 24th who has published in Salon, and Katherine Ellison, whose third book, The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, at Left Bank Restaurant. Posted by Hello

Julia Flynn, whose "House of Mondavi,: will be published by Gotham Books in 2007 and Katherine Neilan, who is workng on a book about her life as a doctor. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Hottest New Titles

I am addicted to Advance Readers Copies. You know, those flimsy paperbacks that preview upcoming books, that ostensibly only get sent to book reviewers and book sellers.

Specifically, I am addicted to what’s new in the publishing business, what’s got the buzz, what’s hot. It’s not that I only read the most-respected up-and-coming literary authors, but that I like to have read the books that are currently being discussed in book reviews and on blogs.

A few ARCs I’ve been lucky to read in the last 2 years include Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson (a compelling non-fiction book about a pair of scuba divers trying to identify a sunken WWII submarine); Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (he needs no introduction); The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, and California Crossing by Adam Langer. (I kept thinking it would be about California, but it was about Chicago.)

Somehow, I enjoyed each of these books more by knowing I was reading them before they were formally published. It’s as if I had been admitted to an exclusive club. Now I realize most people aren’t interested in joining this club, but it’s one that I would pay dearly for to obtain a lifetime membership.

Unfortunately, I just got kicked out.

For the past few years, I have gotten these Advance Readers Copies at a Bay Area bookstore that “rented” bestsellers. When the store first opened, it offered copies of New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle bestsellers for about $3 a week. You could also buy a yearlong membership for about $170.

I am a fast reader and I quickly fell in love with this store. The owners love books, obviously, so when I would drop not-so-subtle hints that I had heard about an interesting book, they would order it and put it in the rental program.

Over time, the bookstore started to “rent” out its ARCs. For three years, I was as happy as I could be. I would hear about a promising book, and chances were good that the bookstore already had it. I became the first among my friends to read books like All Over Creation by Ruth L. Ozeki (I preferred My Year of Meats) or The Quality of Life Report by Megan Daum. (Amusing). Whenever an acquaintance would want to know about a book, my friends would say “Ask Frances.”

But this year, my favorite bookstore went straight. Book reps who came into the store would look disapprovingl at the ARCs on the shelves. The owners realized that it wasn’t entirely ethical to loan out the ARCs, even if they weren’t selling them. They decided to revert back to their original concept – only “renting out” published bestsellers.

Despite this change, I renewed my membership in December. At that time, there were a lot of good books on the bestseller list, and the first book I took out was The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle. (great book) But since then, I haven’t really been excited about America's top books. The New York Times bestseller list is heavy with John Grisham, Michael Crichton, and the like. I regret my membership at times. It’s particularly difficult because I can look from the store into the back storage room and see a cart loaded high with ARCs – all off limits to me.

I still have plenty of books to read. Now I’ve taken to reserving the “hot” books through the library. I’ve already requested March: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks (publication date March 3, 2005) and The Position by Meg Wolitzer (publication date March 8, 2005). But they are not immediately available. I have to wait like everyone else. I’m going through book withdrawal, and it’s not pretty.

Celebrating Authors

More than 250 people crammed into the Berkeley Public Library the other night, dressed in sequins and silk, denim and well-worn suits. They were there to celebrate authors - the books they write, the worlds they create, and the libraries set up to futher their existance.
Berkeley and the Bay Area must have one of the highest concentrations of writers in the world, and this benefit showed the incredible variety of people who labor away to get their words in print. There were a few "hot of the moment" writers, such as Andrew Sean Greer, the author of "The Confessions of Max Tivoli," and Karen Joy Fowler, who wrote "The Jane Austen Book Club." But there were others who have written fantastic books, like David Mas Masumoto, who writes about growing organic peaches and grapes in California's Central Valley and Elizabeth Partridge, the granddaughter of famed photographer Imogene Cunningham and the author of "This Land Was Made for You and Me," a children's biography of Woody Guthrie.

As a person who gobbles up books -- I read the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times book reviews each week and then rush to my computer to reserve ones that sound good from the library -- it was great fun to mingle with the authors. I sat at the table of Alice Medrich, the noted cookbook author whose old chocolate store, Cocolat, is still talked about in Berkeley. Alice had called up many of her cook friends and arranged for them to donate desserts to the event and those at her table got to hear her thoughts on the explosion of new chocolate stores in the Bay Area. People approached her throughout the evening to tell her how much they enjoy cooking her chocolate treats.

The Berkelely Public Library's budget was cut by $300,000 this year, and the benefit made a small dent in that deficit. But as the host, TV reporter Bill Schechner pointed out, what ocould be more perfect than an evening devoted to books, authors and the library.