Friday, April 29, 2005

Blogging Addiction

I knew there was a reason I spend way too much time blogging:

Says Andrea Curtis, a Toronto writer:

"I’m sure I’m not the only writer for whom cruising the lit blogs is a bit like eating a chocolate bar — it seems like an innocuous enough treat sitting among its kind on the convenience store shelf, but even as you take that first bite, you know you’re going to regret it. You can’t possibly stop with just one section, so it’s going to be a spiral into gorging on the whole thing, feeling squishy, undisciplined and, just to amplify the misery, the deep lowdown of a sugar crash.

When I take a break to check out Bookninja or Bookslut or Bookangst 101 (not to mention Buzz, Balls & Hype, Maud Newton and Babies are Fireproof), I know that only an act of enormous willpower will prevent me from spending the rest of the day hopping from author interview to gossip about who got a book deal to the Guardian newspaper’s list of top 10 books for six- to eight-year-olds to a literary bitch session, sinking deeper and deeper into the endless possibilities of internet procrastination. Plus, I’ll spend an inordinate amount of my so-called break wondering how it is that these by-and-large funny, talented and enthusiastic bloggers have the time and mental space to create their blog and maintain careers as freelance writers, poets, novelists, editors, etc., while I can barely squeak out 1,000 words before collapsing into bed at 9 p.m.

And yet, it’s infinitely appealing for a person who loves to read and aims to write to slip through the wardrobe into a parallel world where other people actually care about books; where Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem aren’t just boldface names but animated superheroes forced to face the wrath of supervixen Candace Bushnell (check out the comic strip Patricia Storms of Booklust has created to take the mickey out of Chabon and Lethem’s obsession with comics); where people, lots of people, get exercised, really exercised, when someone complains that women writers are boring and too focused on the domestic. Many of the lit blogs are also unusually well written and even nice to look at (two qualities the blogosphere is not generally known for). They’re like mini-magazines with attitude and quirk to spare — and they actually provide time and space for new writers who may not have a forum elsewhere. (Though with news of blogger book deals plugging up the bandwidth, this is becoming less and less the case.)

There’s no question poking around the lit blogs makes me feel less isolated, as if I’m part of something larger than my 10 x 10 room. "

(Via Maud Newton)

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Don't Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater

Katherine Ellison overturns common perceptions of mothers in her new book Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter. Having children actually increases brain synapses, makes women more efficient, better at forming friendships, and learning new things. Here are some excerpts from a Time magazine interview:

“Every mom has a story that could support the notion that child rearing turns a woman's mind into mush: putting milk in the pantry and cereal in the fridge, losing the thread of a conversation in midsentence, misplacing the car keys for the 10th time. So widespread is the belief that babies make women brainless that when a satirical website released a fake study showing parents lost IQ points when their first child was born, MSNBC picked it up. But Katherine Ellison, a Pulitzer-prizewinning reporter and mother of two, doesn't believe in the dumbed-down mom. In her new book, The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter (Basic Books; 279 pages), Ellison lays out the scientific evidence for a baby-boosted brain. She explained her thinking in an interview with TIME.

Q: Surely sleep deprivation and demanding toddlers are an intellectual distraction, not an asset?

A: As a mom myself, I would never deny that children challenge parents' mental resources. And of course sustained sleep deprivation can have a serious impact on your thinking, which is why you have to be smart enough from the get-go to negotiate for naps with your partner, spouse or mother-in-law. My argument is that there are many surprising and fundamental ways in which, despite all the boring time you now have to spend picking up Lego bits from the floor, the experiences of having and rearing children can stimulate and enrich your brain and make you smarter.

Q: Are there concrete changes to the brain during motherhood?

A: Craig Kinsley and Kelly Lambert, two Virginia neuroscientists who have done truly pioneering work, have dissected rats' brains and found that during pregnancy there was a tremendous blossoming of what are called dendritic spines--the parts of the neurons that reach out and form synapses, necessary for new learning. Dr. Kinsley compares it to a computer acquiring extra bandwidth to help it run more than one program at a time. There has also been some intriguing recent research on the impacts of two hormones important to motherhood, oxytocin and prolactin, on mental functioning--specifically, learning and memory and the reduction of fear and anxiety.

This is Ellison’s third book and she’s already getting a lot of press about its findings. Last week she appeared on the Early Show on CBS and then did dozens of satellite interviews with stations around the country. I asked her what the whirlwind media tour was like.

“I was fairly petrified until roughly 9:05 a.m. Wednesday, when I realized that a) the Early Show appearance was over and b) I hadn't completely stuck my foot in it. But after that was done, I started truly enjoying New York. I hung out with a good friend from my Rio days, dropped by the new Moma, and turned in early because on Thursday I had about 30 local TV interviews by satellite, from Pennsylvania to Alabama to California (Santa Rosa and San Diego).

We had to be there at 5:30 to get settled and do makeup; it was grueling, but by the end I suspected I may have actually vanquished my panic about TV. The high point of the trip was a phone conversation with Sara Ruddick, a philosopher who wrote a book called "Maternal Thinking" in 1989, which really inspired me. She is very ill now, unfortunately, but has been very supportive, and I loved sharing this experience with her. Any time I start getting a swelled head, it helps to keep in perspective how many great people have been part of this book.”

I saw Ellison at Cody’s in Berkeley Tuesday night. You can catch her Monday, May 2 on KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny, where she will be talking on a panel with other mother/writers.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

In Defense of Oprah

Ed Champion, who writes the frequently funny blog Return of the Reluctant, has concluded that it is better that Oprah not resurrect her book club. In responding to the Open Letter put out by 150 mostly female writers, Ed writes:

"But with nearly every selection you picked, your book club championed safe middlebrow titles that avoided the realities of life and were largely devoid of literary experimentation. They soothed rather than provoked. They spoon-fed readers instead of challenging them. While that might go down well over coffee and pastries in a New Hampshire suburban home, if people are going to throw down their hard-earned money for a book they'll never read, certainly their money should be siphoned off to people like David Markson, Kazuo Ishiguro, William T. Vollman, Stephen Dixon, Jeanette Winterson, A.L. Kennedy or Gilbert Sorrentino.
So I beg you, if you have any sense of decency at all, not to revive your book club."

He also points out that most of the signatories to the letter were “midlisters hoping for a big break.”

Now, I am not a New Hampshire suburban resident, pondering the complexities of an Oprah book over coffee and pastries. But enough of those characterizations, if tweaked a bit, could fit me. (I live in Berkeley, which is sort of a suburb, I have two children, so I am sort of the type that will watch Oprah on occasion, and I do like coffee and pastries) But the implication is that Oprah only selected books that comforted, not challenged, so they didn’t contribute much to the literary canon.

I went back and looked at Oprah’s list of recommended books. It turns out I have read 15 of the 49 she recommended before she turned to the classics. And while I didn’t like all of them, there were plenty of books on that list that made me think, and cry, and didn’t comfort me at all. I thought Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, besides being a page-turner, was a heartbreaking story of abuse and betrayal through the generations. I thought Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek, the story of a young, struggling pioneer family, was one of the best books I had ever read. Ditto for The Map of the World, by Jane Hamilton.

Many of the books on the list weren’t experimental or important. But THEY WERE GOOD READS.

Maybe this is a male/female thing. Ed likes William Vollman. I have never read him, but I have the impression he’s a testosterone-laden writer who lives on the edge. It’s obvious Oprah is wildly popular with women, even if they all don’t agree with her. Maybe people like Ed, and Jonathan Franzen, just don’t get what Oprah was doing. They just hear her platitudes, and miss the fact that she's inspiring millions to read.

Another thing I must take issue with: there is nothing wrong with being a midlist writer. We all know how the publishing business works these days – there are a handful of big writers and many handfuls of small writers. Ed understands this. He is part of a new cooperative of literary blogs that have banded together to promote 4 books a year – SMALLISH books that might otherwise not get the attention they deserve. So don’t dis midlist writers. They are the backbone of our country’s literary canon – and among my favorite authors.

Literary Leftovers

Kazuo Ishiguro was in town the last few days, giving readings at Cody’s and other bookstores to promote his new novel, Never Let Me Go. On Monday, he also met privately with a group of booksellers from independent bookstores, as part of a new push by publishers to get books “hand sold.”

When Sean Wilsey was in town a few weeks to promote his forthcoming book, Oh the Glory of It All, he also met with the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association at their offices in the Presidio. Elaine Petrocelli of the Book Passage says she gets invitations to five prepublication events a week, although she usually only accepts two. Newsweek says its all part of a new trend.

The Bancroft Library on the UC Berkeley campus is very crowded these days. By late afternoon, there often is a line of young scholars crowded into the library’s anteroom, waiting their turn to enter the large reading room.

The Bancroft Library is preparing to retrofit its walls in case of a major earthquake. To do so, the library has cut its hours in half as the staff prepares to move to temporary quarters in downtown Berkeley. The change means there are days when patrons have to take numbers to use the collections. If you’re not there by 1 p.m. – when the doors open – you might not get in easily.

Library overcrowding might be considered a good problem. But it can also cause grumpiness, as evidenced by this recent article on the overcrowded British museum. It turns out that the venerable British institution, which until recently had imposed strict standards on who could do research, has recently opened its doors to the 100,000 students of London University. They grab the good seats, plug in their laptops, and talk on their cell phones. Scholars are squawking. (via Booksquare)

Be sure to catch Katherine Ellison tonight at Cody’s Books on Fourth Street in Berkeley. She’s the author of Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter. I plan to go and leave feeling much smarter.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Reading, Writing, and All That Jazz

What would you do if you wrote a book that was well received – but then two good friends wrote one that was an international bestseller?

They appear on Oprah three times, while all you get is an appearance on Leeza Gibbons – not even on TV, but on her radio show.

If you are former Sex and the City writer Cindy Chupack, author of The Between Boyfriends Book: A Collection of Hopeful Essays, you write about it for the New York Times Book Review. You don’t exactly slam your friends, the authors of He’s Not That Into You, but you point out – politely – the virtues of your predicament.”

“I used to be known as the writer from “Sex in the City,” who wrote a book," writes Chupack. "Until two other writers from “Sex in the City” wrote a book “He’s Just Not That Into Your,” and then I became known as someone who actually knows the people who wrote “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

Read the hilarious piece here.

The Happy Booker reports today that Oprah is hinting she may choose contemporary fiction for her next book club. The Happy Booker, aka Wendi Kaufman, is one of the 150+ writers who sent an open letter to Oprah last week asking her to reinstate her literary fiction book club.

I have subscribed to the New Yorker for years. It makes very nice piles around my house. Apparently, I am not the only one who regards the weekly as decoration. (via Bookslut)

Saturday, April 23, 2005

All Those Books ... In Los Angeles?

This is a weekend I wish I lived in Los Angeles …

I can’t say that often, but today it’s true. The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is this weekend, and its bigger, better, more glamorous, more literary than anything I’ve ever seen in the Bay Area. There are dozens of panels, authors, and BOOKS galore. I like the Books By the Bay in July a lot, but for sheer size and scope the Festival of Books sets the standard for the West Coast.

Mark Sarvas of the literary blog The Elegant Variation attended the Los Angeles Times Book Awards on Friday night and he covered it with a live blogcast. Sarvas does a thumbnail review each week of the Los Angeles Times Book Review and he is generally unimpressed. He reports amusingly on meeting Steve Wasserman, the editor of the book review. Wasserman, like Tom Wolfe, apparently is known for a certain white suit.

“As we headed out to call it an early night (we have a 7a.m. bike ride ahead of us), we were stopped short by the apparition of The Man in the White Suit. We couldn't resist, and we marched right up and introduced ourselves to Steve Wasserman. He was extraordinarily genial, said he admired our "passion" and that he hoped we'd find more to be enthusiastic about in the Book Review ... We told him we planned to attend his panel on Sunday (to give him a fair shot at barring us at the door) but he seemed pleased at the notion ... We admit we were slightly disappointed to not even perceive a narrowing of the eyes, a slight hand movement toward his holster ... Instead, he did make sure that we knew that the White Suit had been purchased in NY, not LA, and that fifteen years later, it still fits. Duly noted.

On the way out, SF Chronicle critic David Kipen accused us of being swayed, of going soft and falling under the spell of Wasserman's charm ... We assured we were the same uncorruptable, smart-mouthed ruffian we've always been. Then we ate some more of the L.A. Times' food, and called it a night.”

In another interesting blog, Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading provides an interesting perspective on the Open Letter to Oprah, signed by dozens of mostly female authors. I was never a critic of Oprah’s Book Club, in part because I thought she chose entertaining books with a literary bent. I understood the coffee clatch aspect of the book club. That clubbiness with a quasi-corporate bent (Oprah is a billion-dollar brand) irritated many, including Jonathan Franzen, who refused to allow The Corrections to be a book club selection.

Here’s Scott take on why the world doesn’t need Oprah’s stamp of approval:

“So there are many factors for a decline in fiction sales, but I am sure Oprah was one of them. However, if it is really true that nowadays Oprah's "readers have trouble finding contemporary books they'll like," then I can't agree that Oprah really generated readers. Buyers, yes, but readers no.

If it's true that as soon as Oprah stopped making picks these readers stopped looking around for living authors to read, then I must question how good of readers these people were. I must question how many of the 650,000-1.2 million copies bought of each book actually got read. What's clear is that Oprah generated sales, but if these people were really at sea without Oprah to guide them, then I don't think Oprah generated readers.”

So is Oprah going to respond to this open letter asking her to choose literary fiction for her book club? I can't see her doing it on TV or in her magazine. But she can't remain silent, can she? Stay tuned....

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Inside Skinny on the Book Business

Another one of my secret addictions is to the website Publisher’s Marketplace. It’s put out by Michael Cader, whom I think is a former publishing company executive, and it is an indispensable compilation of book deals around the world.

The website and daily e-mail digest have become must reads for agents, publishers, editors, authors, and those hankering for a book deal. You can go to the site numerous times a day and see who sold what, who paid what, and who has had the same book idea as you.

I’ve been subscribing to Publisher’s Marketplace for the last 3 years, ever since I decided to write a book. By reading about various deals, as well as Cader’s daily digest of book news, I’ve learned a lot about the publishing industry. The site has a searchable data base, so if you’re looking for an agent, you can see who he or she represents and what kinds of books that person has sold. You can figure out which publishing houses put out a lot of women’s literature or how-to books. As my agent circulated my book proposal, I looked at which kind of books interested those editors.

Today set a record. When I went onto the website there was a note that there were 47 NEW DEALS since I last visited. 47! In less than 24 hours. (As I said, I’m kind of addicted to this site and I check it a lot) What is going on here? The weather’s been good in New York the past few weeks, so maybe spring fever has put everyone in the book business in such a good mood they’re buying and selling like crazy.

Here is just a taste of what was revealed today:

"Jack Kerouac's BEAT GENERATION, an unpublished, unproduced play that was written in 1957 (the same year On the Road was released) butunknown until last year, when Sterling Lord found it while sorting through Kerouac's old files, with an introduction by A.M. Homes, to John Oakes at Thunder's Mouth, by Sterling Lord at Sterling Lord Literistic (NA). Canadian rights to Harper Canada."

"Yale grad Diana Peterfreund's CONFESSIONS OF A (SECRET) SOCIETY GIRL, following the irreverent and intrigue-filled adventures of an average college student who just happens to be a member of one of the most notorious secret societies in the world, to Kerri Buckley at Bantam Dell, in a significant deal, at auction, by Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency (NA). Film rights are with Matthew Snyder at CAA."

"Star of Subway TV commercials and spokesperson for the American Heart Association, Jared Fogle's JARED, THE SUBWAY GUY, using his unusual but effective weight loss plan -- a diet of nothing but Subway sandwiches, on which he lost 245 pounds -- to provide inspiration and advice to others fighting obesity, to Elizabeth Beier at St. Martin's, in a nice deal, by Al Zuckerman at Writers House ."

And how could I fail to share this:

"Salon columnist and author of the forthcoming LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS Ayelet Waldman's WINTER'S END, a novel about contemporary motherhood, marriage, and women's lives, in which a woman struggles with what appears to be the perfect life...a successful husband and a bevy of healthy and happy children, but her inner dissatisfactions take on new vitality when she meets a recently widowed artist and her entire world turns upside down, to Phyllis Grann at Doubleday, by Mary Evans at Mary Evans (NA)."

The website charges a fee, $15 a month, but Cader puts out a weekly list of deals for free. Check into it here.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Why Can't People Figure Out Books To Read on Their Own?

A group of female authors, including Jennifer Egan, Beth Gutcheon, Mary Gordon, Ruth Ozeki, Amy Tan, Lily Tuck and Meg Wolitzer has written an open letter to Oprah Winfrey, asking her to reinstate her book club.

The authors argue that fiction book sales have plummeted ever since Oprah started recommending classics, rather than contemporary fiction.

"A country in which ordinary people flock to bookstores to buy the latest talked-about work of fiction is a vibrantly literate country. Every month your show sent hundreds of thousands of people (mostly women, who are the largest group of literary fiction readers) into bookstores. The contemporary books you chose sold between 650,000 and 1,200,000 copies apiece. Each Oprah selection gave readers a title to investigate and a subject to explore. Importantly, your Book Club also gave readers a chance to see these authors on the air and to hear their words. Not only books but the writers themselves became accessible to everyone, inviting all readers into the community of literature.

Few people have taken advantage of the extravagant scope and power of television to do good. But you have. From the start, you used your role in the media to encourage literacy, thought and intellectual curiosity. You made yourself a champion of contemporary fiction. You tempted publishers to take chances on new writers, for whom you became a beacon of hope. First novelists and literary authors felt emboldened to write because of the outside chance that an editor would see their work as potential Book Club material. You dared to take contemporary literary fiction seriously, and your daring enabled a new generation of writers to appear.

We'd also like to make a request: We'd like to ask that you consider focusing, once again, on contemporary writers in your Book Club.

The American literary landscape is in distress. Sales of contemporary fiction are still falling, and so are the numbers of people who are reading. Readers complain that, although daunting numbers of new books are published, too few of them are brought to the public's attention in a meaningful way. Readers have trouble finding contemporary books they'll like. They, the readers, need you. And we, the writers, need you. America needs a strong voice that addresses everyone who can read, a voice that will say, "Let's explore the books that are coming out today. Let's see what moves us, what delights us, what speaks to us in a way that only fiction does."

Oprah Winfrey, we wish you'd come back."

But maybe the book club would conflict with Oprah’s newest, sure-to-be-a-hit project: publishing content from her magazine in book form. Would that be considered contemporary fiction?

It’s amazing that one woman has this much power over American reading tastes. It’s depressing that people who clearly like to read – Oprah inspired hundreds of thousands of women to buy her recommended books – can’t find good ones on their own. (via Publisher's Lunch)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Ayelet Does Oprah

Ayelet Waldman’s celebrity quotient shot up considerably Wednesday after she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to talk about her provocative New York Times article on loving her husband more than her children.

Looking well-coiffed and made up – her red curls bounced sprightly and her makeup was both subdued and flattering – Ayelet explained how she really does love her children – but the relationship she has with her husband, Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon is primary.

Oprah reduced the meaning of Ayelet’s article to one fact – that she has a sizzling sex life – despite her four children. That’s a contrast to all those tired mamas who refuse to put out for their husbands. (There was one woman on the show who admitted she watched television – Oprah or the Price is Right – while her husband "did his business.") It seems Oprah put Ayelet on the show to argue the importance of maintaining an intimate relationship with your significant other.

BUT THAT argument was not what infuriated mothers around the country. (Apparently, even Star Jones of The View took Ayelet to task). What women objected to was Ayelet’s insistence on ranking her love. Instead of saying she loves her husband and children differently, Ayelet declared that she loved her husband more. Ayelet even wrote that she could imagine continuing life if all her children had been killed, but not a life without Chabon.

But Ayelet may have had a change of heart. During the show, she admitted that she could not say out loud to her 10-year old daughter that she loved her husband more.

“I started to say (to her 10 year old) that I wrote about how I love Daddy more than I love you – because I say that in the piece – and there was this catch,” Ayelet explained on television. “When I started to say that I realized I didn’t want to say those words to her because at 10 I don’t trust that she can understand that…

In that admission, Ayelet acknowledges why her piece provoked so much controversy. Is it necessary to say out loud all our secret thoughts? Isn’t discretion necessary at times, particularly to shelter our children?

But not to worry. Ayelet continued, “But I do trust she (Sophie) knows she is loved. She knows absolutely and profoundly how much I love her. I have made many mistakes as a mother but one thing I know is I do make sure my children know how much I love them. They are absolutely secure about that.”

Books I Couldn't Put Down

Some books I have enjoyed lately:

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

We all want to be remembered when we die. As human beings, one of our greatest fears is not leaving a mark on this world, not contributing to it in any significant way.

Krauss’ unlikely protagonist, Leo Gursky, a Holocaust survivor who is living an isolated, lonely life in New York City, commits outrageous acts on a regular basis to make sure that he is noticed. When the Chinese deliveryman brings him dinner (four nights out of seven) Gursky makes a big point of finding his wallet. When he’s in a crowded store, he drops his change, and makes a production of crawling on the floor to pick up his nickels and dimes. He even poses nude for a drawing class.

Gursky acts like this because every previous act of his life has been erased. His family was wiped out in the Holocaust. His son thinks another man is his father. And his manuscript was lost in the turmoil of post World War II Europe.

Or was it? It turns out that Gursky’s book was published – but under someone else’s name. This is the central mystery of Krauss’ book. So Gursky has made his mark on the world, although he doesn’t realize it. The History of Love tells his journey of discovery, his search for significance.

The Company You Keep by Neil Gordon

Set against the turbulent background of the 1960s and told through a series of modern-day e-mails, Gordon’s book explores how the decisions of our past shape our future and those around us. Jason Sinai, a member of the Weather Underground, abandoned his six-year old daughter Isabel and went into hiding. Now in the 1990s, he has resurfaced and is trying to explain to his daughter the events of his past. Sinai’s former colleagues also send e-mails to Isabel, presenting a Rashomon-type explanation for why well-educated, dedicated student activists turned to violence to protest the Vietnam War.

This is a page turner, particularly if you are fascinated with that era, as I am. I liked it so much I read another of Gordon’s books, The Sacrifice of Isaac. I was very disappointed with that one. He is the literary editor of the Boston Review.

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle

This was probably the best book I read last year. I’m not the only one who thinks this, because it won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I learned so much from this book. I thought I was well educated on the difficulties African-Americans faced after the end of slavery. I knew about Jim Crow, lynching, the difficulty that blacks had in voting. But I didn’t realize how deep the antipathy toward integration went, and not that the north was as culpable as the south in repressing blacks.

Boyle tells the story of Ossian Sweet, the grandson of a slave and an up and coming black doctor in Detroit. Sweet had been born in the south and had overcome numerous hardships to become a doctor, and didn’t view himself as overtly political. He married, had a child, and did what most Americans want to do – buy a house.

But Sweet bought a house in a white neighborhood and on the first night of his occupancy in 1925, a white mob gathered outside. Sweet had asked a group of friends and business acquaintances to keep his family company that night, and protect them from violence. The situation escalated, and someone inside the house – not Sweet – fired into the mob, killing one man and injuring some others.

Sweet, his wife, and his friends were put on trial for murder. None other than Clarence Darrow defended them – and turned the trial into an indictment of race relations in the United States. Sweet was acquitted, but not before his family fell apart and his life was ruined.

Boyle does an excellent job of capturing the tensions in American society in the 1920s during the Jazz Age. He describes the competing ideologies that existed in the NAACP, and why whites were so fearful of integration. He documents how the rise of the Ku Klux Klan influenced big-city northern politics, particularly in Detroit. Boyle is a historian at Ohio State University, and in Arc of Justice he has managed to write a fascinating, important book.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Our Cup Runneth Over

It’s a great week to be a book lover in the Bay Area. There are so many interesting author events in the coming days that rushing around to see them could cause a serious case of disorientation.

High on the gossip scale is an event Wednesday night at the Acqua Hotel in Mill Valley. Ayelet Waldman, who wrote the recent provocative piece for the New York Times on how she is a bad mother because she puts her love life with her husband before her relationship with her four children, will talk about her essay. It is part of the anthology Because I Said So. That book’s editors, Camille Peri and Kate Moses will also be there. Call 415 388 4956 for information.

Jonathan Safer Froer is in town this week to promote Extremely Loud and Incredibly
Close. He’s at Book Passage Monday at 1 p.m. and at City Arts & Lectures Tuesday evening. Meg Wolitzer, whose new novel, The Position, is terrific, will be at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on Tuesday. Philip Fradkin, who has a new book on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, speaks tonight at a Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, Kepler’s on Wednesday and at the Mechanics’ Institute on Thursday. Asne Seierstad, the remarkable Norwegian journalist whose Bookseller of Kabul revealed the inner workings of an Afghani patriarchal family, will talk about her latest book on the Iraqi war at the World Affairs Council Wednesday at 5:30.

And I haven’t even mentioned: William T. Vollman at Booksmith on Haight on Wednesday; Wesley Stace, (aka John Wesley Harding) at Book Passage Wednesday at 1 p.m. and at Cody’s at 7:30. (His book, Misfortune was discussed in Monday’s Chronicle). That still leaves room for more Wednesday events, including ZZ Packer at USF Lone Mountain campus at 7: 30 (415 422-6066); Mark Kurlansky at Black Oak Books, and the 25th anniversary celebration of ThreePenny Review at the Herbst Theater with Wayne Thiebaud and Wendy Lesser.

Thursday brings Liz Smith to Book Passage at 1 p.m.; Anne Perry at Stacy’s at noon; and Camille Paglia at Diesel at 7:30 p.m. On Friday, Dave Eggers and Michael Lewis will be at the Herbst (415 863-3762); Ira Glass will be on the Peninsula 408-961-5858; Sue Miller will be at Kepler’s in the evening; and Richard Parker and Robert Reich will talk about John Kenneth Galbraith at Cody’s at 7:30 p.m.

Gee, wouldn’t it be fun just to take a day and see how many of these events one person could attend. But which day to choose …..

Friday, April 15, 2005

That New York Electricity

I just spent four days in New York, a whirlwind trip of eating, walking, talking, taking cabs, and peeking inside the high-powered worlds of journalism and publishing. It was fantastic and fun and I must report, with dismay, something obvious that those of us living on the West Coast know but try to repress: the action is there.

The most high-octane moment came Wednesday at the National Magazine Awards. Thousands of journalists, publishers, publicists, and writers crammed into a massive three-tiered ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue. My brother Steven Dinkelspiel is publisher of San Francisco magazine, which had been nominated for an award in the public interest category. Nina Martin wrote an disturbing piece, Innocence Lost, about how as many as 1,500 innocent people sentenced to life in prison have much less of a chance of exoneration than those on death row. There are many people who fight to free the innocent on death row, but spend less effort helping those with just long prison terms. The editor, Bruce Kelley, and his wife Susan Kelley, were also there. The magazine didn’t win, alas, but lost to Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker articles on Abu Ghraib.

It was a star-studded event and the Bay Area was well represented. While New York may be the center for publishing, this region clearly produces excellent work. Two local magazines won for general excellence in their respective circulation categories – Dwell and Wired. Dwell’s editor-in-chief, Allison Arieff talked about how when she was growing up she had always dreamed about being editor of Time Magazine, prompting Time managing editor James Kelley to quip, when he accepted his award, that he had always dreamed of being editor in chief of Dwell.

Of course, the big buzz came when Martha Stewart, fresh from prison, unexpectedly took the stage to accept an award. She was humble and gracious, and dressed in a black leather coat, her version of convict chic. David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, had so many awards to carry at the end of the afternoon (5) that he could only hold 2, and left the remaining Ellies to others to carry. The most ironic moment came when the Atlantic won in the fiction category, just days after it announced it was eliminating fiction from its pages.

Cutler Durkee, the managing editor of People magazine, is a Bay Area native, although he hasn’t lived in the region for decades. He was seated at a People table in the front of the room. (Those of us from San Francisco magazine didn’t really mind that we had to lean around a pillar to see the stage) Other Bay Area people included Roger Cohen, the former editor of Mother Jones, who is now teaching at Berkeley’s journalism school and Katie Tamony, the editor of Sunset Magazine. Other west coasters included Kit Rachlis, the editor of Los Angeles Magazine, which had been nominated for 2 awards. It didn’t win.

I didn’t go to New York for the awards; I went to meet an editor who is interested in buying my book on Isaias Hellman. I had lunch with her, met with my agent, and then asked: Who is this person? I didn’t recognize myself. When you toil and labor on a book project for years, you dream of having an agent and editor. It seems like an unattainable goal, something that happens to other people. When it happens to you, it’s exhilarating and slightly unreal.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Katherine Ellison, author of Mommy Brain: How Mothering Makes Us Smarter Posted by Hello

Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter

When I arrived at the San Jose Mercury News, I had already heard of Katherine Ellison. She was one of the Merc’s overseas reporters and part of a trio that had won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Philippines’s dictatorial rulers, Fernando and Imelda Marcos.
I always admired her stories: they were full of telling details and context.

Our paths never crossed physically at the Mercury News. She left. I left. I heard bits and pieces about her through the years. I knew she was doing a lot of science writing.

But a few months ago, we met through a mutual friend. I was delighted to learn that Kathy, the mother of 2 sons, had written a book that argued that women actually get smarter through parenting. It is a revolutionary thesis, one based on scientific evidence. I’m not the only one who thinks her book is provocative; her publisher is putting a lot of marketing muscle into its promotion.

I asked Kathy to share with Ghost Word readers and me what it’s like to have a new book on the market. Her book will be released April 12 and she will appear on the CBS Early Show April 20.

“I finished writing "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter" last winter, just under the wire to make the deadline to get it on the shelves by Mothers Day. I feel like I'm still recuperating from the last go-round with the copyeditor, as the publicity around the April 12 launch is now starting to take off. Time Magazine sent a photographer over to my house today, Sunday afternoon. He spent three hours in all, including setting up and winding down and snapping more than 100 shots. My two kids and their playdate stood behind him making faces to see if I'd look especially dorky.

I just got back last Friday from a day in Washington DC doing "media training" that a good friend arranged as a favor, since I'm set to be on the CBS Early Show April 20. And after that, a "satellite tour" of at least twenty cities, where I go into a booth and do them all on the same day. I bought a new jacket that cost more than half what the Netherlands paid for the Dutch rights plus chopped off my hair so I don't look quite so much like I've been doing what I did all last year -- writing alone in my converted garden toolshed all morning and cleaning house and shlepping my kids around in the afternoon.

It all seems vaguely like it's happening to someone else. I've written three previous books. (One was never published). This one is the first that a publisher has decided to really help promote, and it also seems to be the most commercial topic. Oddly enough, this book was also the most fun to write. Or perhaps not so oddly. I wrote a book I really wanted to read, and it looks, at least so far, like a lot of other mothers feel the same way. Especially now. We seem to be a kind of tipping point in the motherhood literature where people are tired of the confessional, mournful memoirs and are ready to hear something more encouraging. My fondest hope for the book is that it gives mothers more confidence in ourselves as we negotiate for a better deal -- from our spouses, bosses and society at large."

I'm off to New York for a few days. Radio silence for a while.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Great Beginnings

When you open the cover of a book, how do you know if you are going to finish it? What propels you past the first pages into the heart of a book?

For me, it’s the voice. If the author has created a credible character, one whose thoughts and dilemmas intrigue me, I continue. I don’t have to be immediately swept into a complex plot or ethical dilemma; I just have to feel that the author eventually will carry me into another world.

I have just started to read Nicole Krauss’ new novel, The History of Love. Krauss is the wife of the novelist-of-the-moment, Jonathan Safran Foer. His new book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has just been released and he has been interviewed, profiled, reviewed and debated in numerous publications. Both Krauss’ and Foer’s books play with the presentation of words, not necessarily presenting them in a linear fashion. Sometimes there are just a few words on a page. Other times, there are so many words that they crowd and overlap at the end, becoming unreadable. These similarities have led some on-line columnists to wonder if the couple wrote the same book.

Krauss’ book won’t be released until May 2, but it has already gotten favorable advance publicity. It was named Book Sense’s #1 Top Pick for May. (Krauss’s book was nominated by Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park and she will speak there June 9.)

From the moment I started on the first page, I was drawn in. Here is the beginning:

"When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT. I’m surprised I haven’t been buried alive. The place isn’t big. I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, kitchen table and front door. If I want to get from the toilet to the front door, impossible, I have to go by the way of the kitchen table. I like to imagine the bed as home plate, the toilet as first, the kitchen table as second, the front door as third: should the doorbell ring while I am lying in bed, I have to round the toilet and the kitchen table in order or arrive at the door. If it happens to be Bruno, I let him in without a word and then jog back to bed, the roar of the invisible crowd ringing in my ears."

Now can’t you just imagine this guy? Caught in his own clutter, in an old apartment that probably smells musty? He’s a pack rat, someone who has lived in the same place for decades, followed the same routines for much too long and is probably caught in a rut.

I liked the voice so much that even when I got slightly tired of the man, say around page 20, I kept going. I ignored the critic in my head that asked if I could sustain interest for another 230 pages in a man with no seeming future. Since I trusted this narrator, I continued. And sure enough, the next chapter introduced a completely new character that suggested a plot twist. I was drawn into the book even further.

That’s the secret of a good book. A contract between author and reader that starts on page one and continues until “The End.”

Friday, April 08, 2005

Those All-Powerful Blogs

Nobody really knows the power and reach of literary blogs. Are they read mostly by other bloggers? Or are there thousands of book-loving fans out there who troll book blogs regularly just because of their admiration of the written word?

Well, we’re about to find out. A group of the best-known literary bloggers has formed a co-op where they plan to highlight 4 books a year and see the impact of their laser beam. It's called the lit-blog co-op. (no capitals)

“What this venture ultimately amounts to is a group of book lovers who, because they’ve managed to establish a platform for discussing the books they love, have joined together to call attention to a few (four times a year) that might otherwise be buried in the deluge of the newly-published. …. It’s a worthy attempt to counteract the rush to commercial mediocrity so much of American publishing has become.”

In other words, the group won’t be reviewing “The Plot Against America,” or “Saturday.” I applaud a place that tries to bring attention to the works of lesser known writers. There are so many books I've read and loved that never even break 100,000 in the Amazon rankings.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

The rush on 100-year anniversary books on the 1906 earthquake is officially on. Last year, fiction writer James Dalessandro came out with 1906, a novel with both real and fictional characters. I found it a peculiar book, as he wrote descriptively about the earthquake and fire and used historical figures to illustrate the events of those days. But then he fictionalized some other historical figures – like the notorious political boss Abe Ruef – and gave them new names and actions.

Thursday's San Francisco Chronicle had a big story on Philip Fradkin’s new book, The Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906. I am in the middle of reading this book, so I can’t offer any deep analysis at this point. But Fradkin shows the breakdown of civil authority, the brief rise of the Committee of 50, a powerful group of men who illegally took charge of the recovery, and the racial and social prejudices that prevailed.

I’ve read a slew of books about the earthquake, in part because I am a native San Franciscan and in part because the people I am writing about, Isaias Hellman and his son, played major roles in the rebuilding of the city. (The elder Hellman helped reopen the banks after the disaster and the younger served on the controversial Committee) My favorite book on the topic is still The Earth Shook, The Sky Burned by William Bronson. Then comes Disaster! The Great San Francisco Fire and Earthquake of 1906 by Dan Kurzman, a former Washington Post reporter. It’s a riveting account of the disasters and when I read it a few years ago I couldn’t put it down.

Disasters definitely translate into best-selling books. Publishers have already announced the release of two books on the Dec. 25 tsunami, one by Erich Krauss who was living in Thailand at the time of the epic tidal wave and a young adult book by Richard Lewis, a relief worker. In San Francisco, two well-regarded authors are also writing about the 1906 earthquake: Dennis Smith, the New York City fire chief who wrote about the Twin Towers and Simon Winchester, the British historian who wrote Krakatoa, the Day the Earth Exploded: August 27, 1883. The Chronicle will be also coming out with a book. It's a crowded field, a challenge that Winchester acknowledges:

"It's probably the most difficult book that I've ever done, in that it's telling a story that been told 10,000 times before," Winchester told the San Jose Metro.

"Somehow, I've got to do it better than it's ever been done. I think the 100th anniversary deserves a really good book. And to write that really good book, to get it all in, getting it all right and putting in its proper context, is a formidable task."

In the Chronicle, Fradkin bemoans the insignificance of history. “We have very short memories in California and history is almost a nonexistent word,” he said.

He touches on this subject again in his acknowledgements:

“Unfortunately, history is not a commodity that is valued greatly in this state. It may be someday, and it is for that time we toil.”

You can catch Fradkin Thursday, April 21 at the Mechanics Institute.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Amazing Literary Lions as Superheroes

Check out this hilarious comic on the literary superstars Lethem and Chabon. (via Bookdwarf and Return of the Reluctant)

Society Scandal

Sean Wilsey got the star treatment in the San Francisco Chronicle today, a 3-page spread on his book, Oh The Glory of It All, his father Al Wilsey, his mother, Pat Montandon, and his stepmother, Dede Wilsey.

The Chronicle rolled out the article to coincide with the New Yorker’s excerpt of Wilsey’s book, set to hit newsstands this week. Wilsey and his publisher, Penguin Press, were looking for articles to coincide with the book’s May release, not to come out now, and declined to cooperate with the reporter, Carolyne Zinko.

The Chronicle normally doesn’t give 3-page spreads to first time authors. (In fact, a big weather map now occupies most of the back page of Sunday’s book review section). But Wilsey comes from what counts as San Francisco society, and his book scathingly portrays Dede Wilsey, his stepmother. That’s the same Dede who raised more than $150 million to build the new De Young museum in Golden Gate Park.

“I don’t think you can overemphasize the size of the mushroom cloud that will appear over Pacific Heights,” author Armistead Maupin told the Chronicle. He based one of the characters in his Tales of the City on Pat Montandon. “There hasn’t been a wicked stepmother like that since Cinderella.”

Will this book divide San Francisco society? Zinko asks. I don’t think so. Wilsey may excoriate his stepmother, and her detractors will delight in her comeuppance. Her friends will glance through the book, decide it’s all made-up, and never bring it up in her presence.

The funny thing is, in person, Wilsey doesn’t seem like a bitter or angry guy. He had a tough childhood, had to fight for attention from all his parents, but he’s grown up into the type of person who laughs and smiles a lot. It took him five years to write this memoir. Maybe the slug of researching and writing all those personal details got the vile out of his system. He acknowledges this in an interview in the New Yorker:

".. I wrote this because I had to write it, and there was no getting around it. It was the story that I just needed to get out of my way. I’m definitely going to write other things. I want to write about something that has nothing to do with my past. But, who knows? Maybe I’ll just be dogged by some kind of memoir curse."

Monday, April 04, 2005

Winning Pictures

Two years ago, this gentle, damaged boy from Iraq came to my daughter’s school. His name was Saleh, and he had picked up a land mine in Iraq, thinking it was a toy. His older brother grabbed it just as the mine went off, dying instantly. Saleh survived.

Saleh was brought to a makeshift American hospital in southern Iraq, where his zest for life so impressed medical personnel that a doctor arranged for him to be brought to Children’s Hospital in Oakland for treatment.

After enduring 32 operations to repair his damaged abdomen, eye and hands, Saleh entered Park Day as a third-grade student. Although his English was limited, his spirit and ebullient personality crossed any cultural divide he encountered. Within days Saleh was hugging his new friends and having a great time on the playground. He now attends fourth grade twice a week, and his presence at the school has taught kids much about war and forgiveness.

The San Francisco Chronicle followed Saleh around for months, taking pictures of him in the hospital, at home, at school, and making his way through American life. When his mother and younger siblings fled Iraq earlier this year, the Chronicle was there to record the reunion.

On Monday, photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice won the Pulitzer Prize in feature photography for her pictures of Saleh.

Here are the other winners.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

West Coast Journalism

I got to schmooze with the big shots on Saturday at the top of the Bank of America building. It was a clear day, and from 52 stories up, the views of San Francisco and the bay were exceptional.

The gathering was the annual Bay Area get together of alumni from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Every year in April, the dean of the school makes a western trip to talk to alumni and meet those who have just been admitted to the school. Wine, cheese and other hors d’oeuvres are de rigueur, as are conversations about the state of the media.

The reception is an interesting reflection of the demographics of American media. The nerve center of journalism still rests in the New York-Washington D.C. axis and reporters who make their homes on the West Coast knowingly give up opportunities to excel in their careers. They live in the Bay Area because of its climate, beauty and tolerant attitude. They may get their work in the New York Times, in Time Magazine, or on ABC News occasionally, but mostly on a free-lance, not staff, basis.

Still, there were a few notables at the reception. Nicholas Lemann, the New Yorker writer and dean of Columbia Journalism School served as host. Some of the illustrious alums included Marko Kounalikis, ’88, a former foreign correspondent and the publisher of the Washington Monthly. (Surprisingly, he is able to run the magazine from San Francisco by commuting frequently to Washington D.C.) Other executive types included Larry Jinks, ’56, the former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, and Bruce Brugmann, ’51, the publisher of the Bay Guardian.

Spencer Michaels from PBS’ Newshour with Jim Lehrer was there, as was Joe Rodriguez, a reporter for the Mercury News and Julia Flynn, a reporter (and writing buddy) for the Wall Street Journal. I am sure there were others I did not recognize. William Wong, '70, the author and former Oakland Tribune columnist was supposed to show -- I saw his preprinted name tag -- as was John Oppedahl, the former publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The question of bloggers and community journalism came up obliquely. Lemann said there are 200,000 journalism students in the United States at any one time, and 200 at Columbia. The medium of journalism keeps changing and it is Columbia’s role to train future leaders who can then figure out how to grapple with an evolving industry. While Columbia is a place “where the conversation is taking place,” the school cannot figure out the reasons behind various trends, like the decline in readership of newspapers among young readers.

“We’re best suited to training people to be as survivable as possible as journalists.”

I took notes during Lemann’s comments and he and a person in Columbia’s alumni and development office noticed and asked me what I was doing. I explained about my blog and to their credit – and who should be surprised given that it was a gathering of journalists – they didn’t seem to mind.

It's the least East Coast journalists can do for their compadres.

Why Bloggers Blog

I've only been at this for a few short weeks, but here's an interesting group interview with bloggers on why they blog. It's a mystery, really, with the long hours, low pay, and little or no recognition. That's why there are now around 7 million blogs, with a new one being created every few seconds. Go figure. (via Conversational Reading)

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Past is the Future

I was in the Bancroft Library yesterday doing some research on early California. In a book first published in 1863, I found a remarkable description of the state. John Hittell, a 19th century historian, characterized California as a land of openness and tolerance where social distinctions didn’t matter. It’s striking how many of those characteristics hold true today.

“In no place is society more free and cordial, and ready to give a friendly reception to a stranger, than California. The new-comer is looked on with favor, nobody cares whether he belongs to a distinguished family, has moved in fashionable circles or possesses wealthy or influential friends or relatives. The great question is, “Is he or she well educated, polished, and entertaining?”

Of course Californians are not entirely above such considerations as govern society elsewhere, but they are influenced by them far less than people in other states. …. Those who were rich in older States, and received a thorough education and a polished training, may here be poor, while those who come hither poor and ignorant may now be rich. Besides, the changes are so rapid that our neighbor who is poor today may be poor tomorrow….

The millionaire in Europe may treat his tenant as an inferior; in California the wealthiest landowner is expected to treat his tenant as an equal.”

Hittell’s book, The Resources of California Comprising the Society, Climate, Salubrity, Scenery, Commerce and Industry is available on-line. Another great place to find early state documents is the Library of Congress.

The mindset of the early settlers of California intrigues me because of the book I am writing about my ancestor, Isaias Hellman, a Jewish German immigrant who came to Los Angeles in 1859. Two years after he settled in the dusty pueblo, record rains hit the state, causing widespread flooding and destruction. (kind of like what is happening this year) Another German Jewish traveler, Benjamin II, described the period in his book Three Years in America:

“The rain poured down without stopping; the streets were flooded and a number of stores and dwellings ruined – these were built of stucco in the Mexican fashion. The storm was so fierce the bells fell from the Church tower.”

I write about how Hellman was caught in the deluge in today’s Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.