Monday, October 31, 2005

Anorexia Nervosa

When I was growing up in San Francisco, one of my mother’s best friends was a woman named Carol Becker. She had glossy blonde hair, a brick house bigger than anything I had ever seen before, a son named John who was my best friend, and anorexia nervosa.

For a short period Carol was plump, with round cheeks set off by a bob that ended right below her ears. Then, seemingly overnight, she lost weight and became a stick figure, a kind of walking Holocaust victim. She was still funny and loving, but scary to look at.

My mother explained to me (a child of 8) that Carol had a problem with food. It was a psychological condition, my mother said, one probably caused by her familial relationships. Every time Carol went to Menninger’s, the famous medical clinic, my mother would tell us she was on a journey to get well.

It now appears I knew more about Carol’s condition than her children did. Her youngest son, Daniel Becker, has written a poignant memoir, This Mean Disease, that describes what it is like to be young and know your mother is ill, but have it be so secret it affects everything else in your life.

Daniel grew up in that big house on Washington Street in San Francisco, a mansion he calls The Castle, and always felt partly responsible for his mother’s illness. His family’s silence on her condition meant he never quite understood why his mother was so skinny and frail. It also made him angry, feelings he did not come to terms with until years after his mother’s death.

“For all I knew we were a happy family with one atypical feature – that Mom was sick and had to go away, sometimes for long periods of time,” Becker writes in his memoir. “Nobody acknowledged that this was unusual or made us special in any way.”

It’s strange to read a book that describes events you are familiar with. I read This Mean Disease in a few hours – but have been unable to write about it for two months. When my mother read the first sentence, “Mom’s ashes are surprisingly heavy. Is it possible that they could weigh more than she did when she died?” she started to cry. The tears didn’t stop all night.

The book’s publisher, Gurze Books, which specializes in periodicals on eating disorders, says Becker’s book is the first memoir of a son’s view of his mother’s anorexia. I’m not sure if that is true, but it looks like Becker has been working toward this book all his life. After getting two master’s degrees – one from Columbia and one from Stanford – he earned two certificates in non-fiction writing from the University of Washington. And the book, in part, traces this journey. At the end of This Mean Disease, ten years after his mother’s death, Becker has finally come to term with anorexia. He has recreated himself through an extended network of friends and a new wife. He has closure.

“Over the previous years, I reclaimed much of the joy I missed out on the first time around,” Becker writes in the epilogue. “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Next Big Thing

I’m one of those people who is a trendsetter without even knowing it.

In the 1980s, I lived a wild life in New York and San Francisco, clubbing and dining the nights away. I prowled for a husband. Soon after I was married, chick lit books like Bridget Jones' Diary became popular. (Please note it never occurred to me to write about my experiences.)

I had my first child in 1992, my second in 1995, and POW! A few years later books about having children were all the rage. Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions became a ubiquitous baby shower present. (Note #2: I did not write one of these either)

From then on I vowed to pay closer attention to my life so I could capitalize on my natural angst. Therefore, I am happy to announce that the next trend is MOTHERS WRITING BOOKS. (Yes, I know that Camille Peri and Kate Moses already have edited a number of excellent anthologies on that topic) Evidence for my declaration: two deals announced this week in Publisher’s Marketplace.

“Christina Katz's WRITER MAMA, showing how moms can launch a successful and productive writing career while taking care of the kids, to Jane Friedman at Writer's Digest Books, by Rita Rosenkranz at Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency.”

“Hip Mama series creator Ariel Gore's HOW TO BECOME A FAMOUS WRITER BEFORE YOU'RE DEAD, an irreverent guide for aspiring writers to self-promotion and becoming buzzworthy, detailing the real ways that authors go from obscurity toliterary success, to Katie McHugh at Three Rivers Press, at auction, by Faye Bender”.

Now I just have to shove the kids aside and get to work.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Computer Woes

There’s nothing like a computer meltdown to focus one’s priorities. My computer crashed Tuesday morning and after scurrying around to the computer fix-it-guy I got the worst possible news: my hard drive was dead.

This is the hard drive that has all my files for my book, the last two years of my family photos, all the e-mails I archived, including those containing articles from the historical database of the Los Angeles Times. In short, everything that mattered to me.

The good news is that I had backed up the files for my book a few weeks earlier. Unfortunately, I lost the chapter I had been slaving over, the one I felt had a few breakthrough passages.

I am trying to be philosophical. It doesn’t come naturally. I know, I know. Everyone even a bit computer literate is supposed to back up their files regularly. But I never thought it would happen to me.

On a happy note, our television is broken, too. So with no Internet access and no other diversions, I actually got a lot of writing done!

Monday, October 24, 2005

What me Worry? Publishing a Book

Hilarious essay by Elizabeth Royte in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review about the many stages of ….. not grief, but publishing a book.

“For any writer, the publication of a book, labored over for years, is an exciting event. But excitement is a fleeting emotion, and the business of publicizing the book, so that it sells and the author can earn out his advance, quickly displaces any initial euphoria. The writer then embarks on a tortured journey toward acceptance of the fact, several months after publication, that his book isn't going to vault him into the empyrean of fame, or even improve his life. At the intersection of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's stages of grief and Stendhal's stages of love, the contemporary author trudges along a predictable path that can only be described, in hindsight, as self-induced misery.”

It starts with euphoria, it ends in self-hatred. In short, writers are pathetic.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

In Her Shoes

I went to see “In Her Shoes,” Saturday night. It was great. The movie is adapted from Jennifer Weiner’s third book about two sisters who are as different as can be. It’s been advertised as a chick-lit movie with heavy emphasis on Jimmy Choo shoes. But it’s much more than that. It’s a story about love and envy and trust. It features many elderly actors, which was astonishingly refreshing for a Hollywood film.

Curtis Hanson is the director. He also directed “L.A. Confidential” with Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger. In short, the movie is excellent. My husband, who had threatened to duck out and see Nicolas Cage in “Lords of War,” instead, said it was one of the best movies he had seen in years. There were lots of tears in the audience.

I have to say I hadn’t read the book, so I came to the movie without any preconceived notions. I did read Weiner’s first book, Good In Bed, but I haven’t read any of her other novels.

I love her blog, though. It’s called Snark Spot, and recently she’s been talking a lot about what it’s like to have a novel transformed into a big budget Hollywood movie starring Cameron Diaz, Shirley MacLaine, and Toni Colette.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The De/Merits of Blogging

I’ve been working hard on my book this week, which hasn’t left much time for blogging. I will be speaking about blogging on Sunday, however, on a panel at Black Oak Books in Berkeley. Here’s the blurb:

Sunday, October 23rd @ 7:30 pm

Authors and literary bloggers
Laila Lalami, Kevin Smokler,Michelle Richmond, andFrances Dinkelspiel
will discusswriting, blogging, and publishing

Authors and literary bloggers Laila Lalami, Kevin Smokler, Michelle Richmond, and Frances Dinkelspiel will discuss writing, blogging, and publishing in an age of electronic media.

Laila Lalami is the author of a new book of fiction, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, about four characters linked by their desire to emigrate from Morocco to Spain. She is also the author of the popular lit-blog Moorish Girl. Kevin Smokler is the editor of Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, a collection of original essays by young authors about writing in the twenty-first century; he is the author of the lit-blog Where There's Smoke. Michelle Richmond's novel Dream of the Blue Room, tells of a woman's trip up the Yangtze River to grieve and scatter the ashes of a friend murdered twelve years before; she writes the lit-blog Sans Serif. Frances Dinkelspiel is the author of the forthcoming book Towers of Gold: Isaias Hellman and the Creation of California, the story of her great-great-grandfather, the Pacific Coast's premier banker in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; her lit-blog is called Ghost Word.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Book Deals Worth Noting

Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice was flat-out my favorite non-fiction book on 2004. Boyle, a historian at Ohio State University, wrote a gripping account of racial tension in Detroit in the Jazz Age. It won the National Book Award in 2004. Publisher’s Lunch reports today that Boyle has just sold his next book, The Splendid Dead: The Saga of Sacco and Vanzetti in America. It’s an account of the pursuit and trial of the Italian anarchists who were charged with murder and robbery in the early 1920s, but who were really tried for their radical political convictions.

On an entirely different matter – and on an entirely different scale – Holly Peterson has sold her novel, The Manny, an account of a harried Park Avenue mother who hires a male nanny – for a reported $1 million. The sum doesn’t include foreign or film rights, which also sold. Peterson, an editor at Newsweek, is the daughter of financier Pete Peterson (and, full disclosure, the stepdaughter of my agent) so she travels in this rarified milieu.

I will probably read, and enjoy, both books. But once again I am struck by the vagaries of the publishing world. I know I risk sounding naïve, but Boyle’s book probably sold for 1/10 of Peterson’s book, if that, and will probably take 5 times as long to write. It will probably make a lasting contribution to our understanding of the conflict between the working and capitalist classes in early 20th century America, and be a good read as well.

On the other hand, Peterson’s novel will be fun, fluffy, shed a beam of light on the worlds that fascinate most of us – the rich of New York and the media elite – and will be quickly consumed by the reader and then left behind. It will probably sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and that’s why Dial paid so much money for it.

If I am any way typical, enjoying both serious nonfiction and lighthearted chick lit, I should rejoice in America’s ability to juggle both genres successfully. But these deals actually depress me. It’s a reminder of how this culture values entertainment above everything else. Yes, I know that sales of books like Peterson’s make sales of books like Boyle’s possible. Yes, I know there is room for both. But I am waiting for the day when a publisher pays $1 million to a historian.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Bust of Hubert Howe Bancroft being moved to new library. Posted by Picasa

Bancroft Library

It's a good day for scholars.

The Bancroft Library, which shut its doors months ago as part of a seismic retrofit project, reopens today. For the next three years, the Bancroft will be off campus at 2121 Allston Way in Berkeley. Most, but not all of the collections, will be available.

The move was a carefully choreographed event. You can see pictures here of boxed books, crated sculptures, and rolled up mats.

The picture is a sculpture of good ole Hubert How Bancroft himself being moved to the new site.


I know I am a slave to literature, so it was heartening to see so many other book addicts on Saturday night at the 6th annual Litquake. Hundreds of people milled around in the Mission District of San Francisco, in a kind of literary pub crawl. You could wander from art gallery to furniture store to bar and listen to dozens of writers read their work.

The level of talent was extraordinary at the reading by the members of the Grotto, the writing collective in the city. I hadn’t heard of most of the writers, so I was stunned by the quality of their work. Marianna Cherry, who is best known for her erotica writings, read a story about a period of celibacy, where she tried to repress sadistic fantasies she had of her father. That might not sound like a palatable topic, but Cherry’s story was moving, as she explored learning to reach out to others despite terrible childhood secrets.

Alex Wellen is clearly accomplished, as he is a screenwriter, producer, and the author of the book Barman, about his law school career. I had never heard of him, but he had me laughing at his description of his family’s reaction after he took the bar exam. Now I have to read the book.

The theme was writing about one’s parents, and Jason Roberts wrote hauntingly about his father, a ne’er do well who won a Pulitzer Prize for photography on a fluke. His father had always been convinced of his own importance, to the detriment of his family’s heath. It was a powerful story.

There were other notable readings: Xandra Castleton on her heart murmur; Po Bronson on promises to his newborn son; and Josh McHugh on a family trip to Florida to swim with the dolphins. The emcee was Tom Barbash, who set a nice tone for the evening.

The evening ended at 9:40 and some of my friends headed over to the new DeYoung museum, which was open all night to accommodate everyone who wanted to see the fancy new digs. I had to pick up my daughter, so I ran into the nearest burrito place I could find on Mission Street, picked up a fiery hot chicken burrito, and headed to the East Bay. I was so jazzed. This is the best part of living in the Bay Area, I thought. The writers I heard inspired me to reach deeper in my own work and reminded me of the importance of listening to what others have to say.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

National Book Awards

Berkeley author, Mother Jones founder, and UC Berkeley Journalism professor Adam Hochshild’s book on the international movement to end slavery has been nominated for a National Book Award. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, is a nominee in non-fiction, along with Joan Didion’s, A Year of Magical Thinking; Alan Burdick’s, Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion; Leo Damrosh’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius; and Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn’s, 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers.

There are some big names in the fiction category. E.L. Doctorow’s The March, is a nominee, as is William T. Vollman’s European Central; Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica; Rene Steinke’s Holy Skirts; and Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance.

I will admit I have not read a single one of these books. So much for thinking I was slightly well read.

Fisticuffs and Literary Prizes

Ed Champion does it again in this funny spoof of Swedish Academy member Knut Ahnlund’s diatribe against Elfriede Jelinek, last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I suspect his complaints have been getting so much press because people agree with his assessment of Jelinek’s minimalist literature as pornography. The Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced (supposedly, there is no firm timeline) on Thursday, Oct. 13.

Perhaps it’s a good thing when controversy roils literary prizes. It extends their news cycles. In another round of author bashing, booksellers and critics in Britain are complaining that John Banville’s The Sea, won the UK’s highest literary prize, the Booker. Now, I have never read any of Banville’s work, but the main objection seems to be that it is somewhat inaccessible and cold. Regardless of the complaints, Brits respond to literary prizes. Sales of The Sea soared after it got the Booker.

The nominees for the National Book Award will be announced this afternoon. Last year, the nominees for those awards were eviscerated because they were all female authors with novels regarded as “slight” compared to “big.” Lily Tuck won in 2004 for The News From Paraguay.

San Francisco’s Lawrence Ferhlinghetti will be honored by the NBA on November 16 with the First Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

Another thank you to Ed for pointing out these glorious pictures from SFist of San Francisco’s newest independent bookstore, the third branch of Cody’s, which just opened on Market Street. I haven’t made it there yet, but am definitely looking forward to it.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Authors' Dinner Extraordinaire

The Northern California Independent Booksellers Association held a dinner Saturday night and it was an all-out authors’ fest.

Each year the organization invites 12 authors to come to dinner and to go from table to table to talk about their new books. The booksellers get to know the authors, hear about their work, and be charmed by their tales of writing and publishing. The meet and greet puts a face on a book – which hopefully increases the author’s buzz.

T. Jefferson Parker regaled one table with a description of the main character in his new mystery, The Fallen, which will be released in March. The book features a homicide detective from San Diego who has synesthesia, a neurological condition where the senses get mixed up.

Parker’s last book, California Girl, was a bestseller that won the Edgar award. The longer he writes, the faster he becomes, he said. His first book took him five years; his next two books took three years each; and that span was whittled to two years. Now he writes a book a year in an old airline hanger 75 feet from his home in Fallbrook, California. His goal is to write five pages a day.

“My commute is a cup of coffee and the junk in my briefcase from the day below. I get my dog out of his kennel and I write from 7 in the morning until 5 at night. I don’t work on Saturdays and Sundays.”

Rachel Manija Brown was working as a television write in Los Angeles when she read Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. She was so moved by the book that she wrote Burroughs a letter, briefly describing her own crazy childhood. When she was seven, her parents suddenly decided to move to an ashram in India.

“I was living peacefully in Los Angeles with my pet rat, Ratsi, and all of a sudden my parents said we were moving,” said Brown, whose memoir, All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, just received an “A” from Entertainment Weekly magazine. Burroughs wrote back and told Brown she had the makings of a book – as long as she wrote it in the engaging, informal style of her letter.

Brian Strause is also a Los Angeles television writer made good. His first novel, Maybe A Miracle, centers around Monroe Anderson, an 18-year old boy who is on his way to the prom. He decides he needs to get high first, and while going to his backyard he spots his sister floating in the pool. He rescues her, but she is left in a coma and an extreme religious experience follows. Stause’s book was a Book Sense pick for October.

Many of the writers at the event are already best-selling authors and don’t need a big push from individual bookstores. Mary Roach, whose last book Stiff, was a New York Times bestseller, was there to promote Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Janet Maslin of the New York Times already gave the book a positive review and booksellers at the dinner said they expected it to sell briskly. Roach will be leaving on a month-long book tour after she participates in the Litquake Festival in San Francisco.

Julie Powell is in the middle of a book tour and a reported million-dollar publicity campaign for her memoir, Julie and Julia, one of Little, Brown’s big fall books. (The publisher has taken out full-page ads in the New York Times Book Review). The book is based on a blog Powell wrote where she tested every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Lily King, whose previous novel, The Pleasing Hour, won all sorts of awards, was at the dinner to talk about The English Teacher. King’s last book was a Book Sense pick , a Times Notable Book, and the winner of the Barnes and Noble Discover award. She lives in Maine and is missing prime leaf season on this tour – and her children, 4 and 6 years old.

The dinner was an opportunity for lesser-known authors to promote themselves as well. Laila Lalami has already made a name for herself in the literary world with her blog, Moorish Girl. Her novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is a Book Sense pick for November. Daniel Olivas gave it a glowing review.

Julia Scheeres, a San Francisco author, has a memoir describing her life living with her fundamentalist parents. Jesus Land focuses on Scheeres and her adopted brother David. It was an October Book Sense pick.

Jon B. Eisenberg was an attorney for Michael Schiavo, and his book Using Terri: The Religious Right’s Conspiracy to Take Away Our Rights, has just been released. Eisenberg details the legal showmanship in the fight to remove Terry Schiavo’s feeding tube – in court, in the Florida legislature, and in Congress.

Kim Wong Keltner has just written Buddha Baby, her second novel featuring the Asian-American pop culture heroine Lindsey Owyang. Keltner lives in San Francisco and will be signing books Oct. 20 at 7:30 pm at Books Inc in Mountain View and Oct. 27 at 7:30 at Books, Inc in Alameda.

Three of David Carkeet’s previous novels have been New York Times Notable books. His latest is a memoir, Campus Sexpot, and it deals with Carkeet’s hometown of Sonora, California, which became infamous in 1962 when it was the setting for a steamy potboiler written by a local high school English teacher.

At the end of the evening, those attending the dinner got copies of all of the various books, which the authors graciously signed. The evening showed clearly how it is no longer enough just to write a good book. In a world where thousands of books flood the market each day, a writer must now know how to smile and charm and connect with both booksellers and readers to get his or her work noticed.

Mary Roach was all smiles as she signed copies of "Spook." She is heading out on a month-long book tour.  Posted by Picasa

Julie Powell, who wrote the memoir, Julie and Julia," waves in the middle of her extended book tour. Posted by Picasa

Laila Lalami, who writes the blog Moorish Girl, holds up a copy of her just-published novel, "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits." Posted by Picasa

Lily King signs copies of "The English Teacher." Posted by Picasa

Jon Eisenberg, who wrote "Using Terri," and Debi Echlin, the owner of A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, ham it up at the NCIBA dinner. Posted by Picasa

Friday, October 07, 2005

What Is It About Those Book Sales?

What is it about book sales that is so alluring? God knows I already have too many books. I haven’t read about a third of those sitting on my shelves.

Yet there I was, a few minutes before 9 am on Friday, on a small street off Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, one of the first in line for the annual sale of the University of California Press. The books they publish usually sell in the $35-40 range, but were drastically reduced: $10 for hardbacks and $5 for paperbacks.

I was not the only eager beaver. Dozens of others came out in the fog to grope, review and buy.

I headed straight for the history table and immediately spotted a winner: Richard Orsi’s new book on the Southern Pacific Railroad, which usually sells for $35. Orsi, a professor emeritus at California State University of the East Bay, spent 35 years researching Sunset Limited. The book debunks the widely-held notion that the railroad was only motivated by greed. I’ve been waiting for my reserve copy from the library for months. Now I can read it at my leisure.

The day’s cost? A mere $35.

I’m not the only one affected by this bug. Scott Esposito recently returned from the Friends of the Library sale, a benefit for the San Francisco public libraries. Look what he bought.

Buyers at the sale Posted by Picasa

The books I bought from the sale at UC Press Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Judith Miller Acts Heroically (Not)

Judith Miller apparently has sold her story for $1.2 million to Simon & Shuster. The catch? It means she might not write about it for the New York Times, the paper that has stood behind her despite her atrocious reporting on WMD and her curious behavior in the Valerie Plame case. Instead, Miller will save her explanation for those willing to pay for her book.

She sort of explains herself to the paper:

"I'm sure I did many things that were not completely perfect in the eyes of either First Amendment absolutists or those who wrote every day saying 'Testify, testify, you're covering up for these people,' " Ms. Miller told a gathering of her colleagues in the newsroom. "The pressures were enormous. I did the only thing I could do. I followed my conscience, and I tried to follow the principles that I laid out at the beginning."

In news we can rally around, Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park will reopen on Saturday, October 8. Fans of the historic store rallied over its closure and a new $500,000 investment will keep it going.

The annual Litquake Festival – an amazing weeklong celebration of books and authors – will start with a howl, I mean a bang, this year. Dozens of authors will read poetry on Friday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first public reading of Allen Ginsburg’s famous poem, Howl. The Oct. 7, 1955 event marks the unofficial start of the Beat Movement. The Chronicle’s Heidi Benson writes a retrospective on Howl.

The Friday event is called Howl Redux, and features Lemony Snicket, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, Michael McClure, Amy Tan, and others.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Stacks of the new Boulevard cookbook Posted by Picasa

Tuna Tartare Posted by Picasa

Boulevard tidbits Posted by Picasa


There are book parties, and then there are book parties.

Boy, did I go to a great book party Sunday.

It was a celebration of the release of Boulevard, a cookbook written by the chefs of the acclaimed San Francisco restaurant. I am fortunate to be friends with Pamela Mazzola, the chef de cuisine at the restaurant. She wrote the book with Boulevard’s owner, Nancy Oakes.

Most book parties have decent wine, a nice platter of cheese, maybe some chicken sate if it’s really a special affair.

This one had tuna tartare, little scallops, buttermilk fried chicken, prawns in saffron rice, … and much much more. Did I mention the champagne?

No wonder 600 people showed up.

Boulevard is one of San Francisco’s most popular restaurants. Its patrons constantly vote it one of the city’s greatest places to have a meal. More than 1.9 million people have eaten lunch or dinner there since it opened a decade ago.

The cookbook, Boulevard, published by Ten Speed Press, is a work of art itself. It has beautiful glossy pictures that make the reader salivate. Pamela and Nancy write about their partnership, why they like particular recipes, what they strive to create at the restaurant, and tips on how to recreate some of their delicacies at home.

There were stacks and stacks of the book at the party. I saw one woman buy five copies. And at $50 each, that is a testimonial to the quality of the book.