Monday, November 28, 2005

Debi Echlin

Every since I started this blog, I have been writing about Debi Echlin and her fabulous bookstore, A Great Good Place For Books in the Montclair section of Oakland.

Debi created a community in her tiny space, a place where readers and writers came together to celebrate a love of books. When she first opened the store, she rented out books from various bookseller lists. That was enough to get me hooked. I could read and read the latest books to my heart’s content, all for a flat yearly fee.

Debi was a true book enthusiast. She fell in love with Brad Newsham’s book, Take Me With You: A Round-The-World Journey to Take A Stranger Home. She sold 700 hardback copies of that book from her 1,000 square-foot store. Debi was so excited about the book that customers couldn’t resist buying it. There were other books that Debi loved, and her customers soon learned about them

This year she decided to transform the annual Books By The Bay festival into a non-profit venture to raise money for literacy programs around the state. Once again Debi recruited friends and customers to support her vision, and the festival donated thousands of dollars to help kids learn to read.

I have been working on my book for a number of years, and I frequently fantasized about giving a reading at A Great Good Place for Books. I knew Debi would support me in every way possible.

You can see where this is going. Debi Echlin is dead. She passed away in her sleep on Thanksgiving. She was 52.

I am in shock. She was such a vibrant force. She had a huge smile and a determination to make her store the best it could be. And she succeeded. A Great Good Place for Books is not only a beautiful, comfortable place to hang out, it is a community. It is more than a store, it is a place where people felt connected to something bigger than themselves.

I will miss you, Debi.

A Women In Berlin

I have just finished one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read: A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous.

This book is based on a diary kept from April to June 1945 as Russian troops flood into Berlin. It opens with the anonymous author, a 34-year old journalist and author, hiding in the basement bomb shelter of her apartment house . The residents of the apartment building have grown close in the final days of the war and rely on one another for survival. But then the Russians come and begin to rape and pillage and suddenly the defeated Germans must find new ways to survive. The author looks unflinchingly at her own behavior, which included cozying up to Russian officers in exchange for food and protection. Her lacerating critiques and evocative descriptions illuminate the lengthes people take to adapt and survive.

When the book was published in Germany in the early 1950s, (it actually found an American publisher before a German one) it was criticized for dishonoring German women and soon went out of print. The author died in 2001, paving the way for this new edition.

This is Ursula Heigi’s take on the book, from the Washington Post Book Review:

“A Woman in Berlin is an amazing and essential book. Originally written in shorthand, longhand and the author's own code, it is so deeply personal that it becomes universal, evoking not only the rapes of countless German women in 1945 but also the rape of every anonymous woman throughout war history -- the notion of women as booty. The book's focus is not on the Nazi rampage across Europe but on its aftermath, when 1.5 million Red Army soldiers crossed the Oder River and moved westward. More than 100,000 women in Berlin were raped, but many of them would never speak of it. "Each one of us will have to act as if she in particular was spared," Anonymous writes. "Otherwise no man is going to want to touch us anymore."

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Impossible-to-put-down reading

Don’t tell me after today that newspapers are losing their relevance. Both the New York Times and Los Angles Times ran compelling magazine features, beautifully written stories that taught me something.

Barry Bearak wrote a lengthy and poignant article on Banda Aceh, the Indonesian city hardest hit in last year’s tsunami. More than 90,000 people were swept out to sea, never to be seen again. The piece is the longest article the New York Times Magazine has ever printed, and conveys the randomness of the tsunami and its unimaginable aftermath.

Matt Bai, who usually writes for the New York Times Magazine, has a compelling piece in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times Magazine about his wife’s Japanese-American family, who was interned in an American concentration camp during World War II. The story considers the price of secrets, and comes to some surprising conclusions.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Motherhood and Book Tours

Susan Ito, an Oakland author, writes movingly about having to abort her son to save her own life in the new anthology, It’s A Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons.

“This is what it was. A drug, injected into my womb, a drug to stop his heart. To lay him down to sleep, so he wouldn’t feel what would happen the next day, the terrible terrible thing that would happen. Evacuation is what it is called in medical journals.

Evacuees are what the Japanese Americans were called when they were ripped from their homes, tagged like animals, flung into the desert. Evacuated, exiled, thrown away.

I lay on my side pinching the pillowcase. I wondered if he would be startled by the drug’s taste, if it was bitter, or strange, or just different from the salt water he was used to. I prayed that it wouldn’t be noxious, not like the magnesium sulfate, that it wouldn’t hurt. That it would be fast.
John sat next to the bed and held one hand as I pressed the other against my belly. I looked over his shoulder into the dark slice of night between the heavy curtains. Samuel, Samuelito, jumped against my hand once. He leaped through the space into the darkness and then was gone.

All gone.”

The new anthology, put together by Andrea Buchanan, looks at the joy and ambivalence these mothers felt about raising what to them at first seemed like an alien species: boys.

Buchanan is also taking a new approach to selling this book. She has lined up about 50 bloggers who write about parenting to feature her book.

What I found in the course of promoting my book was that the traditional bookstore reading wasn't such a great way to reach my audience. What mother wants to get out of the house at 7:30 on a Tuesday night? Wait, let me rephrase that: what mother can arrange with her partner or babysitter to take over at the crucial bedtime hour so that she can leave for an evening of having someone else read to her, only to return to home to her still-sobbing children, who have refused to go to sleep without her there? Okay, now you see what I'm talking about.”

These blog book tours are relatively new and New York publishers are just catching on to them. Kevin Smokler, the San Francisco writer, puts together something he calls The Virtual Book Tour, which gets authors before thousands of book lovers.

Friday, November 25, 2005

JR Moehringer's The Tender Bar

We finished eating the turkey by 6:30, the dishes were done by 7:30 and I had an entire unscheduled evening before me. I spent it in the company of J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times. His memoir, The Tender Bar, has gotted spectacular reviews. Janet Maslin of the New York Times called him “the best memoirist of his kind since Mary Karr wrote The Liar’s Club.” It’s the story of a boy growing up in straightened economic circumstances. His father is gone so he finds male companionship wherever he can, including the corner bar in his home town of Manhasset, New York.

The book doesn’t open with a bang, but by page 50 I was hooked. Moehringer can write. I just wanted to share this description from page 77:

“Within minutes the Cadillac was crammed with a half ton of men. I thought we were going to the beach, but we had enough muscle to pull a bank job. Uncle Charlie introduced me formally, stiffly, to each man. Pleased to meet you, kid, said Joey D, a giant with a tuft of gingery hair atop his spongy orange head, and features glued to the head at odd angles. He seemed to be made of spare parts from different Muppets, like a Sesame Street Frankenstein – head of Grover, face of Oscar, thorax of Big Bird.”

There are all sorts of little gems like this throughout the book. Moehringer forms the oddest alliances. He starts to work in a bookstore in the mall, where the manager and assistant manger spend most of their time in the storeroom, smoking and reading. They decide he needs education, and go around the store, ripping covers off paperback books and giving them to Moehringer. (Stores return books by sending their covers back to the publisher) That’s his introduction to great literature. They also give him a future by convincing him to apply to Yale.

(He talks about writing the book here.)

It was a great way to end Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


I think I am going to join some of my fellow bloggers and take a brief vacation. Maybe if I clear my head some I can better understand all the controversy over Google Print.

In the meantime, I am going to reread this Heidi Benson article in Tuesday's Chronicle . It's about Brewster Kahle who has nothing to do with Google but who is scanning books in the public domain to create a virtual library.

Happy Turkey Day.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Hard-To-Believe Stories

Talk about trampling free speech.

Read this fascinating Washington Post piece on how the head of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus hijacked the career of an author who wrote unflatteringly about his father.

Kenneth Feld paid $2.3 million to a former CIA agent to divert Jan Pottker from writing a book that would reveal his father’s closeted homosexuality. Feld even went so far as to pay a spy to pose as Pottker’s business partner and divert her attention from the book she wanted to write about the circus. Feld then set up a company to pay a $25,000 advance to Pottker two write a different book. Now the two are battling in court. (via Shaken and Stirred)

Here’s another interesting tale of the author of Dear Zoe who couldn’t find a publisher for his book. After repeated rejections from New York publishers he decided to prink the book himself. A day before it went to press, Viking called. Now the book is a big hit.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Fighting Back

Knight-Ridder reporters are fighting back. They aren’t going to stay silent while one of the nation’s best newspaper chains cuts staff levels and quality journalism. They have written a letter of outrage and circulated to media outlets around the country.

"We have watched mostly in silent dismay as short-term profit demands have diminished long-term capacity of newsrooms in Knight Ridder and other public media companies. We are silent no more. We will support and counsel only corporate leadership that restores to Knight Ridder newspapers the resources to do excellent journalism. We are prepared collectively to nominate candidates for the Knight Ridder board. We wish to reassert John Knight’s creed."

Some of the signers to this letter, which was distributed to reporters today, include Buzz Bissinger, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and the author of Friday Night Lights; Thomas Kunkel, a former managing editor of the Mercury News, a biographer of Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker and the dean of the school of journalism at the University of Maryland; Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times; and more.

Way to go.

In related news, Mercury News reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Pete Carey decided at the last minute not to take his paper’s buyout offer.

And former Mercury News reporter Joanne Jacob’s new book on a charter school in San Jose, Our School, received a glowing review Thursday in the Wall Street Journal, pushing it to # 683 on Amazon.

The Temporary Bancroft Library

One of the joys of historical research is feeling the gravitas of the past. There’s a thrill to holding a yellowing letter and trying to decipher old-fashioned 19th century handwriting. Sometimes you lean in real close to a word to see if you can interpret it, and sometimes you hold the page as far back as your arm will allow – all in a futile attempt to understand the writing.

I’ve been researching 19th century California for six years now for my book on my great great grandfather, Isaias W. Hellman, and in that time I’ve been to some of the state’s most beautiful libraries – the Huntington, with its acres of gardens, UCLA’s rare reading room, with dark carpets and dim lights, and of course, my all time favorite, the Bancroft Library at the University of California, with its huge windows looking out on Cal’s clock tower.

Sitting in the Bancroft reading room is like sitting in a holy place – at least for people who love history. The room is quiet, with only a low murmur from scholars conferring with the reference librarian or asking for new material. A walk around the room reveals people flipping through ancient French texts, illuminated manuscripts, Gold Rush maps and papers from the WPA projects of the Depression. That’s another thing I like about the Bancroft – it’s an egalitarian place. After filling out a form and showing some picture identification, anybody can walk in and look at the materials. The Huntington, in contrast, demands a lengthy application and two letters of recommendation from professors or others with PhDs.

The Bancroft building on campus is not seismically sound and now is being retrofitted to withstand a major earthquake. That’s a good thing. But the library recently moved off-campus to a smaller building on Allston Way in downtown Berkeley, and now all the magic is gone. The new building is much smaller, and can only accommodate about 20 researchers at a time, which means people have to wait to get inside. But that’s not the bad part.

The problem is that most of the book are now stored off-site. This means is you find a book or manuscript you want to look at, IT WILL TAKE TWO DAYS TO REACH THE LIBRARY.

Now I know the Bancroft is doing the best it can under the circumstances, but having to wait so long to look at most materials kills the spontaneity of historical research. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book and found a fact I wanted to follow up. I would then look at the footnote and bibliography and go get that book. The line of inquiry is critical to investigation.

The Bancroft’s current constraints mean this spontaneous research won’t happen as easily. I am sure it will frustrate many scholars working on their dissertations. I have done most of my research for my book, so I can cope with the delays, but I don’t like them. Historical research takes a long time already, and the Bancroft’s new configuration will slow scholars down even more.

There’s no one to blame here. Just seismically-active San Francisco.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Joan Didion Brings Home the Prize

Joan Didion won the National Book Award in non-fiction for The Year of Magical Thinking on Wednesday night. And in a move that will surely make this guy and this guy happy, William T. Vollman won the award for his 800-page novel Europe Central.

W.S. Merwin won the poetry prize for his collection, Migration, and Jeanne Birdsall won in the youth fiction category for The Penderwicks.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Goodbye Mercury News Reporters

Mark Friesen, who runs the blog, has a sad account of the recent buyouts at the Mercury News. Even before Knight-Ridder put itself in play to be sold, the Mercury News asked for – and received – voluntary retirements to cut costs. I haven’t worked at the Mercury for almost six years (and now I’m glad to have gotten out) so I don’t recognize all of the names of the 52 who are leaving. But I know enough of these reporters to know the Merc will be a lesser paper for their loss. There are many stellar reporters who are leaving, reporters with years of knowledge about Silicon Valley, the intelligence community, the Vietnamese community, and so on.

It wasn’t that the Mercury News didn’t make money. It’s that it didn’t make enough money. Wall Street now expects newspapers to earn 25-30% profits a year, not 15 %. This is capitalism at its worst.

Here are some of the reporters who are leaving:

Dan Stober (an expert on Livermore and Los Alamos labs)
Larry Slonaker (great writer)
John Hubner (one of the paper’s stars. He has a book out, Last Chance in Texas, on the juvenile justice system in Texas)
Leigh Weimers (sort of like Herb Caen leaving)
Pete Carey (who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Phillippines)
Betty Barnacle (has worked at the Mercury News for a long time)
Nora Villagran (art and culture writer)
Michael Zielenziger (an expert on Japan whose has a new book, Shutting Out the Sun)
De Tran (editor of the Vietnamese edition of the paper)
Sheila Himmel (restaurant reviewer)
Charles Matthews
(feature writer and book reviewer)
Marcia Gordon (stellar librarian and researcher)

The Los Angeles Times’ new editor, Dean Baquet, announced Monday that he was eliminating the Outside section. (via LA Observed). It was a wonderful section about nature and the wilderness. David Lukas, who leads naturalist hikes every year at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, is one of the section’s main writers. He is co-author of the Sierra Nevada Natural History guide published by UC Press.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Bee Season

I saw a screening of Bee Season Thursday night and it’s as dark as Myla Goldberg’s book. I would give the movie a solid “B.” The acting is good and the movie does an admirable job of recreating the novel's mysticism (the protagonist is a specialist in Kabbalah), but there are so many plot lines they jumble around themselves. Also, the family is supposed to be Jewish and as much as Richard Gere waves his arms around and hugs everybody, he just does not come across as a member of the tribe.

However, the movie is worth seeing just for its footage of the East Bay. The cast and crew spent months in Oakland in 2004 (my family and I spied on Juliette Binoche at the pool at the Claremont Hotel one day) and the movie is full of great shots of Berkeley streets, Oakland’s Lake Merritt, UC Berkeley, and the San Francisco skyline. The opening scene of a helicopter carrying a massive letter “A” across the bay is magnificent.

The Bay Area has never looked better.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Celebrities and their "Books"

Rake’s Progress calls this the best laugh he’s had all week. He’s referring to the opening chapter of Nicole Richie’s novel, The Truth About Diamonds.

Rake’s right. It’s among the worst prose I have ever read.

“Chloe Parker would be a terrible role model if she were famous. Trouble is that she was about to be.

It started innocently enough, or as innocent as you can get on the dance floor of one of the hottest clubs in L.A.

The nightclubs of L.A. are like soap operas, except they're not Days of Our Lives; they're more like Passions -- crazy stuff happens, and no one bats a fake eyelash. There's always some bizarre drama that plays out every night, and everyone in the cast -- I mean, everyone -- is great looking, stoned, and/or drunk. It's like a traveling freak show that stars the youngest and hottest in Hollywood. It's about fun, and sex, and pseudo-danger. "

She makes Paris Hilton look good.

Getting Your Book Published

Anyone interested in publishing a book may want to go to UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism tonight. Five editors from various publishing houses will talk about the changing landscape of books and how to get yours into the marketplace. The event is put on by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. It costs $5 and will be at 7 pm in the school’s library, located at the corner of Hearst and Euclid.

Here’s who will be there:

* Roger Freet
Senior Editor, HarperSF

* Alan Rinzler
Executive Acquisitions Editor, Jossey-Bass

* Jason Gardner
Senior Editor, New World Library

* Lindy Hough
Founder and Copublisher, North Atlantic Books

* Mark Weiman
Founder and Director, Regent Press Printers and Publishers

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Death As a Bestseller

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking now has 300,000 copies in print, according to the Wall Street Journal. When I first read an excerpt in the New York Times Magazine, I thought the book would open up a new dialogue about death in this country, a topic we tend to ignore. The numbers suggest this may be happening.

Didion herself thinks the book speaks to an issue people have been thinking about.

"I think a lot of it is demographics. There is that huge bubble of the population that is now hitting an age where their parents are dying. They're looking at mortality themselves in a way they hadn't. I think that right now the country is more receptive to thinking about death and dying. I also think there's a lot of anxiety abroad in the land. And this is a much more accessible subject than I usually write about."

The Disappearing San Francisco Chronicle

Alan Mutter, the former #2 guy at the Chronicle and a CEO of various Silicon Valley start-ups, said much of the paper’s circulation drop may have been deliberate as the paper shed readers in far-off places like Redding. Some of the drop probably came from “Yahooglong,” as he puts it, which makes sense since the Bay Area is so computer-centric. But perhaps the managers at the Chronicle are trying to reposition the paper:

“As the world moves rapidly to focused and empirically verifiable advertising, newspapers have come to understand, albeit belatedly, that they can and must become targeted media. Accordingly, they are paring their circulation rolls to concentrate circulation on the demographics and geographies that advertisers want to reach.”

One thing missing from this discusssion: SFGate, the Chronicle’s web presence. It gets hundreds of thousands of hits a day and is one of the most visited newspapers sites in the country.

I just keep wondering how long we will be reading the Chronicle Magazine and Book Reviews sections ……

(via Romensko)

Monday, November 07, 2005


Salon has started a new blog called Broadsheet, defined as a “cheeky new women’s blog.” Its title is a play on the definition of broad—both slang for women and the idea of a place that looks at a whole bunch of issues:

“Broadsheet started, as many things at Salon do, over e-mail. A member of the staff would pick up on a piece of news about women that was funny or horrifying or exciting but was not getting many column inches in the rest of the press. Sometimes those e-mails turned into stories, but often the item would be small enough that it wouldn't merit its own feature at Salon, either. Still, the staff comments -- hilarious, angry, shocked, pleased -- would zing back and forth by e-mail chain. Without realizing it, we'd begun our own internal blog, with a circulation of about a dozen people, that paid attention to the newsworthy triumphs and travails of what we used to call the fairer sex.
So here we are, carving out a new niche in our ever-evolving publication. Our aim is to cast a spotlight on news that puts women in the center, because while we've come a long way, a quick scan of bylines and stories in most major newspapers will show you that women are still not always being seen -- or read. Broadsheet will be taking the ladies seriously, whether that means tracking news about how our rights are holding up, how well we're representing ourselves politically, or how the advertising world has decided to address us, what kinds of health advances are ahead of us -- all the news of our (usually) two-steps-forward, one-step-back march to equality.”

Broadsheet is fun so far. It’s the place where women and men who like both the New Yorker and chick lit can find something.

Monday Tidbits

I like the way Lawrence Ferlinghetti thinks:

Q: As a symbol of the 50's counterculture, do you care about winning establishment prizes like the lifetime achievement award you will be receiving from the National Book Foundation this month? Is it gratifying?

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: I hate to use a word like "gratifying," which sounds so fatuous. But it's wonderful to receive honors. And it's high time we honored this endangered species.

Q:Which endangered species is that? Poets?

Ferlinghetti: No, the literarians in the world, and there are millions of them. They are not considered the dominant culture in this country. What's called the dominant culture will fade away as soon as the electricity goes off.

(From an interview in the New York Times magazine)

Kenneth Turan of the LA Times finds lots of good bookstores in the gold country.

Bad news for newspapers: The San Francisco Chronicle's daily circulation has dropped 16.5% to 400,906. It's Sunday circulation also declined. It's down 13.5% to 467,212. The Mercury News declined 3.9% to 249,090 daily and dropped 5.2% on Sunday to 278,420.

The dinner on Saturday night in Bolinas for Prince Charles apparently also included Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation. Somehow I can't imagine George W. Bush inviting Schlosser and Michael Pollan to the White House to hear their views on the state of American eating habits. President Bill Clinton couldn't even agree to plant an organic garden at the White House. Give credit to Alice Waters. She keeps trying. Prince Charles will visit the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley today.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Prince Charles

Michael Pollan, the author of Botany of Desire and a professor at Berkeley’s Journalism School, had dinner Saturday night with the Prince of Wales and his wife, Camilla. It was the second dinner for Pollan and the prince; Charles apparently is a big fan of Pollan’s articles on organic food.

The private dinner was held at Manka’s Inn in Inverness, a mystical hotel/restaurant set deep in a grove of trees. The interior is all beams and wood, illuminated by numerous fireplaces. It feels like a medieval banquet hall, though on a more intimate scale. The restaurant is renowned for serving wild meats like boar and venison.

Saturday’s dinner, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, included leek soup, smoked salmon, duck legs braised in wine over cassoulet, a frisee salad, a cheese course, and tarte. Wine from Bolinas winemaker Sean Thackery was also on the menu.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Joan Didion's Magical Thinking

When Dave Eggers interviewed Joan Didion at City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco Tuesday night, one might have expected them to talk about grief. After all, Eggers lost both his parents before he was 20 and Didion has just published a book, The Year of Magical Thinking, that focuses on the year after her husband’s death.

But grief was curiously absent in the vast, ornate chamber of the Herbst Theater. Instead, Eggers asked Didion to describe her partnership with her husband John Gregory Dunne, a man she was married to for 40 years. Eggers was clearly fascinated by Didion and Dunne’s extraordinary relationship. They were both writers who worked at home, who were each other’s first readers, and who partnered on screenplays.

“I wanted to talk as much as possible about your life together because this book is a portrait of a marriage,” Eggers said.

And what a life. Didion, who was born in Sacramento, was working at Vogue magazine in New York when a friend brought Dunne over for dinner at her apartment. He was writing for Time, and the two were just friends for years. It wasn’t until Dunne took Didion home to Hartford, Connecticut to meet his Irish Catholic family that she realized he might be the husband for her. His family had their doubts because Didion was an Episcopalian, and no Protestant had ever crossed their threshold. Regardless, Didion and Dunne were married in January 1964 and moved to Los Angeles that June.

The two shared a column in the Saturday Evening Post and soon branched out into screenplays and books. Dunne helped Didion name at least two of her books – The Book of Common Prayer and Democracy. Once, Didion made notes for her own funeral and Dunne took those words and used them for a funeral scene in his novel The Red White and Blue.

“Where you each others first readers?” asked Eggers.

“We were absolutely each others first readers on everything. First, and certainly in my case, first and last.”

For a writer, that kind of support is remarkable, and may help explain the sheer volume and quality of Didion’s writing. The couple spent their days next to one another – or at least in nearby rooms – and could rely on an astute, yet sympathetic critic to look at their work.

Eggers also has a partnership with a writer, although their working habits did not come up in the lecture. He is married to novelist Vendela Vida, and both she and their less-than-a-month old baby were in the audience.

“You seemed to the outside world like the couple that squeezed every last drop out of every last day,” said Eggers.

Didion started writing A Year of Magical Thinking just nine months after Dunne dropped dead of a heart attack while eating dinner before a fire in their New York apartment. They had just come home from the hospital where they had been visiting their daughter Quintana, who lay in a mysterious coma. (Tragically, Quintana died recently)

Didion knew her husband was dead but couldn’t quit believe it. She also found that society had its own notions of how long it is appropriate to grieve, notions that didn’t match Didion’s timeline.

“Grieving isn’t something we do very much of in this country,” she said. “I found myself wishing I could be in mourning (dressed in black for a year) not out of respect for the dead, but to protect myself. The fact that people in mourning are not entirely stable, they go a little crazy, is something we don’t really acknowledge.”

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Fall Books

I’ve just finished a spate of books, so here is my fall review:

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami. Lalami is the author of the blog Moorish Girl. She was born in Morocco and left at 22 to study in Britain and the United States. Her first novel is a collection of linked stories about Moroccans who try and flee to Spain for work and a better life. Some make it; others are caught by police almost as soon as they reach the shore and are deported back to Morocco.

This is a wonderful book. Lalami creates distinct, believable characters and shows readers an aspect of the world that most are unfamiliar with. We meet Murad, a unemployed college graduate who leads tourists to Paul Bowles' old haunts; Halima, who has few choices to escape her abusive husband; Faten who becomes a devout hajib-wearing Muslim when her attempts to rise in society falters; and others. The book is a window into poverty and the risks it forces people to take.

Dream of the Blue Room by Michelle Richmond – Richmond, a San Francisco resident, writes about Jenny, who is taking a boat up the Yangtze River in China to dispose of the ashes of her best friend and sometime lover, Amanda Ruth, who had been murdered 12 years earlier. Jenny is accompanied by her estranged husband, David, but instead of reconnecting, each finds solace in other passengers. Jenny takes up with Graham, an Australian suffering from Lou $Gerhig’s disease, and recovers a passion she thought she had lost. The entire book has a dreamy quality, as Jenny remembers her summers with Amanda Ruth, and ponders what led to her death. Richmond presents China as a place of squalor – overcrowded, polluted, and inhabited by drone-like people who parrot the government line. The combination creates an environment tht doesn't seem quite real, a place where time and action dont' bear their usual consequences -- sort of like traveling. The writing is beautiful and Jenny's choices are understandable.

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich. This progressive reporter tries to recreate the magic she brought to Nickel and Dimed, which explored the working world of those earning a minimum wage. This book, which focuses on white-collar workers, doesn’t succeed nearly as well. Ehrenreich spent nine months looking for a job in the PR field, and when she didn’t find work soon enough to fit in with her book contract, she explored the businesses that have popped up to support job seekers. But stories about career counseling groups, resume writers, job fairs, and wardrobe consultants just aren’t that interesting. Still, Bait and Switch makes the point that job prospects are gloomy for middle-aged people, even those who have been successful at earlier points in their lives.

Mozart in the Jungle: Sex Drugs and Classical Music by Blair Tindall. I had high hopes for this book. I heard Tindall speak at Books By The Bay in San Francisco this summer and I was captivated by her stories of excesses in the country’s symphonies and orchestras. While Tindall’s book is filled with scenes of sex – between Tindall and fellow oboists and between teachers and students – Tindall sort of lists what has happened to her rather than create any kind of compelling narrative arc. She comes off sounding bitter, learning little from her experiences. The book does show, however, the grind of life for most classical musicians, who are paid litle compared to top symphony adminstrators or star performers like Itzhak Perlman, Michael Tilson Thomas.

Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger – Don’t bother.