Thursday, December 21, 2006

More Best of 2006 lists

It’s remarkable how personal reading can be. When I surf through the lit blogosphere I am constantly amazed at the number of fabulous writers I have never heard of, writers who have small but dedicated followings. Take, for example, this list of underappreciated writers. I am unfamiliar with most of them, yet clearly they are doing exemplary work. It’s like everything else in contemporary American culture: certain authors are lauded by the media and they are the ones who sell books. The others have to overcome this huge silence that accompanies their work.

Which is why I am delighted to share four separate Best Books of 2006. (You can see my list here.) These lists were compiled by very different readers with very different tastes. Yet all of them adore books. I respect their taste. I am delivering their thoughts in their raw form so you may see their musings.

Elaine Smith is a woman with one of the most highly developed aesthetic senses I have ever met. She’s a designer of sorts, or more accurately a decorator who appreciates the one-of-a-kind. She also has a dry sense of humor and makes the best waffles I have ever eaten. She lives in Oakland.

Here are the books I most enjoyed reading and/or greatly admired this year:

Donald Antrim "The Afterlife"

David Mitchell "Black Swan Green"

Dan Chaon "You Remind Me of Me"

Jonathan Ames "Wake Up, Sir"

Knut Hamsun "Growth of the Soil" & "Mysteries"

All random choices . . . there are explanations if you want any. The Knut Hamsun ("Growth of the Soil") was given to me by an interior designer. I was so baffled by her giving it to me, I had to read it.

Then bought "Mysteries". Both so odd, but interesting.

My mother insisted I had to read You Remind Me of Me -- and again, so bewildered I had to read it.

Excellent. Excellent.

"Wake Up, Sir" I found in my purse. An old friend passing through town had given it to me; I forgot about it for months and then just started reading it.

Read it like snorting a gram of coke with a similar effect: insanity; uncontrolled laughing all by myself -- in bed in the middle of the night.

Black Swan Green was narrated by a stutterer. Had read a book narrated by an autistic and another by a Tourettes sufferer. Figured it was time to give the stutterer a voice. It was beautiful.

The Donald Antrim just gave me faith in the reality that there are writers out there who can craft a perfect sentence, not wallow in self-involvement, yet still examine their own feelings and get into the complexities of others' (in this case his mother.)

Dan Chaon's book -- one more thing -- blew me away in terms of the writing, and again, very painful story; his similies were astonishing; the story was rough, but compelling. I love books about (apparent) losers.

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, in contrast, a book about a bunch of hyper-privileged people in New York -- annoyed me. Couldn't feel much sympathy or interest for any of the characters. And it didn't impress me that her writing was so precise she NEVER EVER EVER split an infinitive.

Cindy Snow is a world traveler who spends her down time reading and working at A Great Good Place for Books in the Montclair section of Oakland. What I love about Cindy is that she appreciates both highbrow and lowbrow literature. She loves a mystery as much as she loves literary fiction. (And since I am a secret reader of chick lit, I can relate)

Hi Frances, here is my list. Not in any order.

The Emperor's Children, Claire Messud.

By a Slow River, Phillipe Claudel

What is the What by Dave Eggers (and i am not an Eggers fan-and i was tired of it by the end but i would include it)

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta

I also really enjoyed Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle although i don't think it was one of the BEST books.

Betsy Blumenthal works for Kroll Associates, a security consulting firm that works on some interesting cases. Everyone tells me I am a voracious reader and know a lot about books (which I do.) However, when I met Betsy and we started talking about books she kept bringing up fabulous tomes that I had never heard of. She reads a lot of non-fiction. I already plan to read some of the books she recommends here.

I read Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, the acclaimed English children’s author with my son. It is great for 5-7th grade. A historical novel about WWI. 2 brothers and their lives in England and in combat. I do not want to ruin the punch line however it is worth noting that the author was inspired to write this book because approximately 300 British men were executed by the British for insubordination during the war. As my son said, “but they are on the same team.”

This prompted many questions about WWI and so I then read Barbara Tuchman’s, The Zimmerman Telegram. A page turner which spells out what the US finally did get involved in the war. A fantastic book which read like a thriller.

Another oldie but goodie that I reread was Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl. The 4 short stories each have a bizarre twist which catches you by surprise. A fun read.

I read Tom Nagorsky’s Miracles on the Water. A true account of the ship The City of Benares and its ill-fated voyage in 1940 from England to Canada. A third of the 400 passengers were children evacuees whose parents anguished over whether or not to take advantage of their lucky lottery draw and put them on a ship across the Atlantic and have them live with strangers until the war was over OR keep the children in England and pray they survive the bombing.

I read the book in 15 hours; I could not put it down and sobbed during much of it.

Lastly, The Looming Tower,by Lawrence Wright. A very well-structured and researched book on the personalities and personal history of the Al Qaida leaders. Who knew for instance that Omar Sharif grew up in the same enclave in Cairo as Zahawi? In many ways he makes the world very small, perhaps too small.

Lastly, Chin Up Girls! A book of women’s obituaries from The Daily Telegraph. A charming, inspiring book which you can put down and pick up at leisure.

Nancy Chirinos is the kind of reader publishers love: when she hears of a good book she’ll rush out and get it in hardback instead of waiting for the paperback edition. As her friend, I love this inclination because she’s also generous and passes books on! Nancy is an educator by profession and a voracious reader. You can see she mixes up classics with contemporay literature. Here is her list:

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt (Shakespeare bio)
Desert Queen by Janet Wallach (bio)
March by Geraldine Brooks
Northranger Abbey by Jane Austen
I Married a Communist by Phillip Roth
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safran Foer
The Keep by Jennifer Egan
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Russia is (once again) a Hot Topic

Could there be a new trend brewing in the world of international non-fiction? One that doesn’t involve books about Iraq?

In the last few days publishers have purchased a slew of books dealing with Russia. The Cold War used to be one of publishing’s hottest topics, but the countries of the old Soviet Union have been downgraded to B-status in recent years with all the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The murder of Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive polonium-210 seems to be responsible for this turnaround.

Here are the deals listed recently on Publisher’s Marketplace, including one by the murdered spy himself:

NYT London bureau chief Alan Cowell's SASHA'S STORY: The Life and Death of a Russian Spy, documenting Litvinenko's life and death, the ensuing police investigation, the reaction from Vladimir Putin and others, and the implications of this case for nuclear proliferation and international terrorism in the future, to Charles Conrad for Doubleday, by Michael Carlisle at Inkwell Management.

WSJ reporter Steve Levine's examination of the Alexander Litvinenko affair -- from the polonium poisoning of the former spy in London to the investigation currently underway throughout Europe, including the shadowy underworld of Putin's Russia, to Will Murphy at Random House, by Tom Wallace (world).

NPR foreign correspondent Lawrence Sheets's EIGHT PIECES OF EMPIRE, a panoramic yet intimate look at the former Soviet Union, written in the style of Ryszard Kapuscinski and Rebecca West, drawing on Sheets' 15 years of reporting from every region of the unraveling empire to paint a larger portrait of the nature of empire building and collapse, to Rachel Klayman at Crown, in a significant deal, at auction, by Gillian MacKenzie of Gillian MacKenzie Agency (NA).

Bulgarian rights to Matrena Rasputin's MARIA RASPUTIN'S DIARIES, the colorful memoir by the daughter of the infamous Rasputin psychic, which was found in a trunk in Paraguay in the 60's and is published for the first time ever, to Ciela Publishing House, in a nice deal, by Ana Milenkovic of Prava I Prevodi, on behalf of Barbara Zitwer Agency.

Murdered former spy Alexander Litvinenko's BLOWING UP RUSSIA: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror, written with Yuri Felshtinsky, to Martin Rynja at Gibson Square, for publication in January 2007.

My (Paltry) List of the Best Books of 2006

This has not been a great year of reading for me. I’ve been preoccupied with writing my book and teaching journalism, which means I’ve read a paltry 18 to 20 books this year. That is way below my average of 40-45. And I can’t even claim to have read a lot of magazines in the interim.

But that won’t stop me from declaring my favorite books of the year. God knows, I am never short of opinions. To round things out I have once again asked a crew of some of the most voracious readers I know to weigh in on what books they enjoyed this year.

My list, in no particular order:

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – This graphic novel about a young gay woman and her closeted dad was delightful for the pathos it evoked and all the literary references it managed to squeeze in. I’ve already given it as a present and plan to buy a whole bunch of copies for friends when it is released in paperback.

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn – By examining the particular way his great uncle’s family was killed in the Holocaust, Mendelsohn gets at the heart of the question of how something so horrific could happen. He takes readers on a meandering journey across continents to a small town in Poland, all along revealing truths about himself. This was a very powerful book.

The Most Famous Man in the World: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate. In preparation for writing my biography, I have delved into the genre. I’ve read about the Vanderbilts, the Mellons, and the Hearsts. Applegate’s book took her more than a decade to complete, and she creates a fascinating portrait of a religious man and the world he created in the 19th century.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I’ve blogged about this provocative book numerous times. Let’s just say it changed my mind about the food I eat.

I only have one novel on my list. How can that be? It’s Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. It’s the story of a boy with a privileged background who runs away to join the circus. He finds out about a world he never knew existed. Gruen creates a brutal, yet captivating world of a traveling circus.

Tomorrow I will share the lists from my crew of ravenous readers.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Trend after the Trend after Chick Lit

Lizzie Skurnick, who writes the blog The Old Hag, has an article in today’s New York Times Style section. It says that chick lit has now morphed into mom lit, or yummy mummy lit. As young female writers age, they naturally want to write about issues they know about. So as they are having babies, they write books about the world of Bugaboo strollers.

“They are written in the wry voices of a generation of women who came of age after feminism, and they have a newly competitive, higher-end set of woes: $10,000 pacifier consultants, nanny-swiping and Harvard-like nursery school applications.”

Okay, everyone knows publishers love trends. The current hot trend is books about mommies. If I start now, maybe I can capitalize on the next hot trend: sag lit, the genre of women’s fiction that deals with the post-baby realities of wrinkles, sagging stomachs, and flapping underarms.

Friday, December 08, 2006

If You Think Getting Service is Bad in the US .....

Laila Lalima, the author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is spending nine months in Morocco on a Fulbright scholarship. She wrote a funny account of her anguish and frustration about getting a fast Internet connection.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Mercury News Layoffs

Final layoff numbers at the Mercury News: 28

16 in editorial

12 on the business side

In addition to the names I already posted, I heard that Rick Martin, a photographer, was let go, as was Veronica Villafane, a convergence journalist who did television feeds for the Mercury News.

Others include support clerks in news and sports, a graphic artist, one news research librarian, and one sports page designer.

The mood on Ridder Park Drive in San Jose must have been grim on Tuesday.

At Least Seven Mercury Staffers Out -- Layoffs less Draconian Than Expected

The early news out of the Mercury News is that about seven editorial staffers lost their jobs this morning. They include long time movie reviewer Glenn Lovell, education reporter Louis Zaragoza, and feature writer Steve Marinucci. Sports writer Gary Hoh also got cut, along with another sports writer and two editorial clerks.

Nervous staffers had been ordered to wait by their phones from 8 am to 10 am this morning. At least one reporter declined to cooperate and left home: “I’m not going to wait by the phone to get laid off. Let them find me.”

Apparently, management was bluffing when it initially said it would lay off 69 workers in the plant, including 40 from editorial. When the Newspaper Guild bargaining team refused to capitulate to the paper’s demands, management backed off their threats of draconian cuts.

The entire staff planned to meet early this afternoon to hear details about the cuts.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A Small Repreive for Mercury News Reporters

The Mercury News’ management and union reached a contract agreement today that means that only 27 – instead of 69 – staffers will be laid off by Tuesday. A number of reporters have already left the paper in recent weeks, so the layoff number in the editorial department may be closer to 15.

That’s still bad news for the reporters and editors of the paper; no one yet knows who will be fired and for what reason. They still have to wait by their phones on Tuesday between 8 am and 10 am to hear if they have lost their jobs.

The management also dropped its request to create a two-tier wage system at the Mercury. They had hoped to pay new reporters about $40,000 a year instead of the current prevailing wage of $60,000.

But management did win the right to use content from other Media News papers and to combine some advertising operations.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Mercury News Reporters Bracing for Layoffs

This is going to be a tense few days for reporters at the Mercury News. Dean Singleton’s Media News, which recently acquired the paper from the McClatchy chain, who bought it from Knight-Ridder, is going to lay off 40 editorial staffers and 60 others in the plant on Monday.

The paper apparently has told everyone to stay at home between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.ion Tuesday Dec. 5. Executive Editor Susan Goldberg will then call those who have been fired.

The East Bay Express has been following the story closely:

“Once the laid-off employees receive the bad news, they will be given a time on Saturday and Sunday December 9 and 10 to come into the office and collect their belongings. But they won’t have access to their computers. Merc managers plan to immediately turn off the laid-off employees’ computers and change their passwords. This plan has prompted dozens of staffers in the past few days to begin downloading or printing out their phone numbers, source lists, and key work they don’t want to lose. “People are e-mailing stuff to their private e-mail accounts or downloading stuff like crazy,” said one Merc source.

Merc executive editor Susan Goldberg told employees that she decided to call people at home instead of doing it at the office to avoid publicly embarrassing the laid-off employees. But her plan has some people wondering whether her real motive is to avoid possible major disruptions at the paper when staffers learn who gets the ax.”

I have lots of friends at the Merc and everyone is in jitters. No one knows what criteria will be used to lay people off. There are reporters who have angered their editors and who now fear they will be penalized for previous fights. There are reporters who applied for earlier buyout offers who wonder if that has branded them as disloyal. There are well-paid reporters who think that they will be fired to cut costs.

This is the first major step in the dissolution of a once-mighty newspaper. Who is to blame? I can think of lots of people – Tony Ridder, who didn’t try hard enough to protect Knight-Ridder from breaking up; the McClatchy board for spurning other suitors and deciding to sell fine papers to a corporation known for its cost-cutting; Knight-Ridder stockholders and other Wall Street investors who regarded anything less than a 20% annual profit level as unacceptable. And of course there's Dean Singleton, who seems to disdain newspapers with depth and content.

Yes, yes, I know there are lots of factors at play in the decline of the newspaper industry – the plethora of options on the Internet, the fact that young people prefer to read their news online, etc. etc. But the dismantling of the Mercury News feels more deliberate than just market forces at work.

It’s just plain greed.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Best Books of 2006 according to The New York Times

The New York Times has posted its list of the Top Ten Books of 2006. I am very glad to see that Michael Pollans Book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is one of the non-fiction books on the list. I thought this was a radicalizing, change-your life, kind of book written in a most interesting manner, and obviously thousands of others agree. The book was a bestseller for months. I think it may even win Pollan the Pulitzer Prize.

It’s actually an intriguing list. They named Marisha Pessl’s book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, as one of the best fiction books. (This was one of the books I took out of the library, read the first 100 pages, and returned. The first chapter was captivating, but I couldn’t get into the rest. I also had more pressing work-related books to read and the due date loomed faster than I expected.) This is a first time novelist, a very lovely young woman, and while she is a fine writer I think the choice is not evident. I don’t agree with the selection but it is refreshing to have younger writers represented.

I haven’t read any of the other books, although I have The Looming Tower out from the library and it was due yesterday. Another missed opportunity.

But I definitely will make a point to try and get to these other books. The New York Times imprimatur counts for everything in a certain part of the reading world. It’s definitely how I select gift books. Many lit bloggers hate the Times book review and its selections and its reviewers, but I am not one of those.

Here's what Danielle Trussoini wrote on MySpace when she found out her book was named one of the Top Ten books of the year:

"I am a bit tipsy on champange as I write this (so please forgive the slurs and egregiously incorrect spelling) but I have recently learned that my book has been named one of the best ten books of 2006 by the New York Times Book Review! Am I dreaming?"

If you want to read dissenting views, definitely check out Ed Champion’s take on the book review.

The New Tork Times Top Ten Books of 2006:

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud
The Lay of the Land, by Richard Ford
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
Falling Through the Earth, by Danielle Trussoni
The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright
Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick
The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart

Monday, November 27, 2006

New York Reflections

I just took a quick six-day Thanksgiving visit to New York. Not much book news to report, but there were lots of interesting things I saw:

There are two dominant styles in evidence on women all over Manhattan. One is to wear straight-legged jeans and tuck them into boots with fur trim. The other is to wear a mini, mini skirt over dark black leggings and boots. May I acknowledge that neither style works for me.

The Daily News and The Post are still in hand-to-hand combat. Each day they try and outdo one another with provocative headlines. The recent police killing of a man just hours before his wedding provoked shock and outrage in New York’s black community and those feelings were splashed all over the front pages.

The weather was better all week in New York than in San Francisco: mild and mostly sunny,

I didn’t have a book for the airplane so I ducked into this adorable books store on Madison Avenue and 93nd Street called The Corner Bookstore. It is small, with hand-selected literary and high-brow non-fiction titles. All the big fall books are out and I can’t say I found any I was eager to buy. I was most attracted to Decca, the letters of Jessica Mitford, but not for $35. What did I buy instead? Wendy Wasserstein's latest, Elements of Style. I figured it was chick lit and would be easy to read on the plane. I figured wrong.

The hottest clothing store in Manhattan is called Uniqlo. It’s a Japanese version of the Gap with prices like H & M. Very clean lines, lots of maple and glass. There are hundreds of these stores in Japan and the first one opened on Broadway in Soho on Nov. 10.

I have a new editor at St. Martin’s Press. I get a thrill every time I go to visit the publisher because its offices are in the historic Flatiron Building. I walk in and wonder just who has paced those hallways.

The Christmas windows at Macy’s were better than those at Saks Fifth Avenue. At least I think so. The sidewalks were so crowded I could barely see. That’s New York at the holidays for you.

My friend Monica gave a baby shower last week for Laura Bennett, one of the finalists in the recent Project Runway. Laura is about to have her sixth son and all the women dressed up in red wigs and black clothes in imitation of her. All the party favors were still hanging around Monica's house, so my daughters got to pretend they were there. We brought a bunch of blue gum cigars home with us.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Daniel Mendelson's The Lost

When I first started to read Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, I felt incredibly frustrated. It wandered all over the place. No sooner would Mendelsohn start a riff on the history of his grandfather, who emigrated from a small town called Bolechow in Eastern Europe to the U.S., then he would digress into another topic. And as soon as I was comfortably ensconced in that subject, Mendelsohn would switch gears again. It was all fits and starts. There was no forward momentum.

But gradually I began to see what Mendelsohn was doing, and I now recognize its brilliance. The Lost tells the story of Mendelsohn’s great-uncle Schmiel Jager, who, who along with his wife and four daughters, was killed by the Nazis during World War II. Mendelsohn grew up on Long Island hearing about Schmiel’s death, but no one in the family knew the particulars. So he set out on a quest to find out the details, a search that led him not only to the Ukraine, Scandinavia, Australia, and Israel, but to ask larger questions about the nature of good and evil, death and survival. How does one come to terms with the Holocaust, which killed so many? By focusing on the sheer numbers killed, or on the details of a handful who lost their lives?

A central figure in “The Lost,” is Mendelsohn’s grandfather who used to spin yarns about the olden days for his grandson, "in vast circling loops, so that each incident, each character...has its own mini-history, a story within a story." These were stories told in a particular, circular fashion, where forward narrative was interrupted for history and explanation.

It is this pattern that Mendelsohn recreates in his book with his fits-and-starts. Many critics have lauded this circular storytelling, with roots in the Odyssey and the Bible. As Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote in The Nation, “The Lost calls to mind a typesetter's drawer full of parentheses: a deposit of endings and beginnings.”

But I was struck by something different: Mendelsohn’s writing style also recreates a journey, that of genealogical research. For anyone who has ever tried to find out about the lives and homes of long-dead relatives, you know the search comes in tiny, parallel, increments. You find out one small detail and it may be the only information you know for months on end. Then you discover another little clue, information so incidental it seems unimportant, yet it propels your knowledge forward. It takes dozens of those sideways movements to gain a clearer picture of a life.

The Lost is Mendelsohn’s description of this back and forth research. Sometimes you can’t believe he is writing this mundane stuff. He spends pages of trying to discover if one relative was pregnant when she died, and was it by her Polish, non-Jewish lover? One survivor described that cousin as “easy.” Did that mean she had loose morals – as suggested by her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or did it refer to her fun-loving temperament? Alternatively, he spends time trying to figure out whether another great uncle emigrated to Israel because his wife was an ardent Zionist or because he was shamed into leaving by his community for selling non-kosher beef. Mendelsohn’s explorations of these topics inch along, and at times the book feels like a view into the efforts of an amateur historian.

Part way through the book, though, I realized Mendelsohn was doing this deliberately. He replicates the rhythm of genealogical research – the back and forth, sideways to sideways, mundane to mundane. Yet, like genealogical research, the accumulation of tiny facts in the book makes a bigger whole – and in the case of The Lost, a fabulous, moving account of wrestling with family history.

By moving along so slowly, and in a circular fashion, Mendelsohn makes the reader care about his particular family, and by extension to what was lost by the Nazi’s actions. This book is not a catalogue of grim catastrophe, although Mendelsohn does include ample description of the Nazi Aktions that killed most of the Jews of Bolechow. It is an accumulation of details, of decisions made spontaneously or not, that led some to live and others to die. By focusing on the small, Mendelsohn helps the reader see the vast.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

What I Learned in College

This year is marking a number of milestones in my life. No, I’m not 50 yet (give me three more years.) But I recently went back to New York to observe the 20th reunion of my journalism school class. Today, I’m heading south to Stanford to celebrate my 25th college reunion.

Yikes! I can’t believe that life has passed by so fast. How can it be that I left college so long ago? How can it be that it feels like just yesterday I started school AND so many decades ago? I think this is what life is like – time flashes and stands still at the same time and you end up 90 (if you’re lucky) feeling inside much like you did at 16.

The reunion has made me reflect on what I learned at college. Two course stand out – one on James Joyce and the other on Virginia Woolf. I was a history major, not an English major, but my love of reading led me to many classes on literature.

I took the Joyce class in my sophomore year with my roommate. The professor was James Chace and my TA was Carol Lashof. (In one of life’s coincidences, she is the now the mother of one of the girls on my daughter’s soccer team.) We started by reading Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man, then moved to Ulysses and then we read a few chapters of Finnegan’s Wake. We also read Richard Ullman’s superb biography of Joyce and a reference book that dissected and analyzed virtually ever sentence in Ulysses. People who study Joyce look for the autobiographical clues in every scene he wrote.

I adored this class for thrusting me into the world of early 20th century Dublin. Even though it took hours to read Ulysses – remember one could dissect virtually every sentence – I loved how the class forced me to focus, to look closely at Joyce’s words and what they revealed about a Europe in transition. I was an ardent feminist at the time and I delighted to finding misogynistic messages through out the book. (Joyce wasn’t very kind to Molly, the wife of the main character, Stephen Bloom.)

The Virginia Woolf class, in contrast, was a survey course on everything Woolf. We plowed through her books – A Room of One’s Own, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway – and also read portraits of the Bloomsbury crowd. While I loved Woolf’s writing, I remember being more taken with all the intrigue of Woolf’s social set – the clandestine lesbian and gay relationships, Vita Sackville-West’s magnificent garden, Woolf’s suicide and the role her husband Leonard played in her unhappiness. I drew more from her life than her words.

I don’t think I have ever taken the time since college to completely immerse myself in one author. Like most people, I have no grand plan to my reading. I pick up whatever looks interesting, averaging about 40 books a year. There is no overall design, no desire to closely study anything.

As a result, while I have read many good books, they all sort of fade away after a while. When someone asks me if I have read anything good recently, I usually answer in the affirmative and then wrack my brain to remember which book and what it was called. But just describing the Joyce and Woolf classes, I had absolutely no trouble recalling which books I read.

Maybe I should take something else away from my college reunion in addition to the joy at seeing old friends. Maybe I should set up a mini-course for myself and take the time to read two or three books by an author instead of just one. That might make me see an author in a different light – and give me the chance in future decades to remember which books I read.

Let’s see, who should I study? Joyce Carol Oates? Orhan Pamuk, who just won the Nobel Prize for literature? Margaret Atwood? Agatha Christie?

How about doing Joyce over again? Certainly, I can find more in every one of his sentences. And there’s always Finnegan’s Wake.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

I spent most of the weekend at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park. I was hardly the only one who went; police estimate that as many as 500,000 came to Speedway and Marx Meadows to hear one of the 67 bands.

Like many San Franciscans, I love this festival, but not only because of the music. I love it because it is the gift of an idiosyncratic music lover, one who gets such sheer pleasure from banjo picking that he wants to make sure other people get a chance to hear the twang.

Some billionaires give money for buildings. Some build lavish homes or buy island retreats. Some give money to fight AIDS, or illiteracy, or homelessness. Warren Hellman probably spends money on all the issues listed above, but he is best-known for spending millions of dollars each year to put on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. He’s done it for six years and plans to continue the festival long after his death.

Warren is my cousin. To be exact, he’s my first cousin once removed. He and my father were first cousins. And he and I share a common ancestor: Isaias Hellman, the man I am writing a book about.

One question that intrigues me about Isaias Hellman, who came to California from Los Angeles in 1859 and went on to play a critical role in the development of the state, is why was he so successful when others were not. Part of it was timing; he arrived in Los Angeles when it was a small pueblo and was able to get in on the ground floor of many major industries, including banking, transportation and land development.

Part of me thinks, however, that Isaias Hellman had a particular business genius, a brain that let him see the bigger picture. He rarely made a misstep business-wise, always investing his funds in industries that grew and grew. You go through his papers and see him progressing. He first owned a dry goods store, then a bank, then a water company and later a gas company, then a trolley company, then a vineyard, then lots of land, then more trolleys, then more banks and a sizeable amount of a hydroelectric company. The only industry he missed was the motion-picture business. But he died in 1920, and if he had lived longer he might have invested there as well.

Now, is that kind of genius genetic? Clearly, smart people have smart children, but can a particular attribute like business savvy be passed on.

The best argument I can find that demonstrates genius can be passed on is by looking at Warren Hellman. While he was born into an affluent family, he has made his billion on his own. He is the head of Hellman and Friedman, an investment firm that took Levi’s private, owns much of the German media, a chunk of NASDQ and many other companies. There was just an article in the paper the other day that said Hellman and Friedman had made CALPERS, the huge state employee retirement fund, more than 130 percent return on an investment, the most of any other company in the country.

Warren admires his great grandfather Isaias Hellman. He often talks about him in speeches, and holds him up as an example of a man that made money, but who was sure to donate back to his community. Warren measures himself against his ancestor. And even though Warren has made more money than Isaias Hellman, I think Warren thinks Isaias was the better businessman. After all, Isaias had to work for everything and was handed nothing.

When I am at the bluegrass festival, singing and swaying to musicians like Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett, I always keep an eye out for Warren. He tries to catch most of the acts of the festival by riding around on a cart between the five stages. He’ll hear 10 minutes here, another 15 minutes there. He looks so happy. He would rather hang out with Emmy Lou Harris than Arnold Schwarzenegger any day. And he would rather share his love for bluegrass music with hundreds of thousands of music fans than keep that money in a bank.

(The photos are of Warren playing banjo with his band, the Wronglers, at the festival. )

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Moveable Feast

On Saturday night I once again attended “A Moveable Feast,” a banquet put on by the Northern California Independent Booksellers’ Association. It’s one of the highlights of the group’s annual convention and every year a few non-booksellers get to partake.

The evening features 12 authors whose books are just launching. The idea is for the authors to make personal contact with local bookstores, so the owners can hand sell books. And the idea seems to work – the authors are generally interesting and witty and people working in bookstores enjoy hearing them talk. Of course, there are lots of freebies. Every attendee gets an autographed copy of each of the author’s books.

I was sitting at a table with people from A Great Good Place For Books, my favorite bookstore in Oakland. Last year I had been invited to this event by Debi Echlin, the store owner. I had a great time, particularly because Debi was so jazzed by the entire evening. Unfortunately, Debi died in her sleep last November. But the store’s new owner, Kathleen Caldwell, invited me to join her and the women who work in her store.

Our table got to visit with three writers and all were charming. Heidi Julavits is one of those New York literary stars who captured public attention early in her writing career. She must be in her mid-30s, and with her long blonde hair and delicate face, she is photo-ready. Julavits is a co-founder of The Believer, the literary magazine started by Dave Eggers. She is married to Ben Marcus, whom she described as an “experimental” writer. They have a young daughter, Delia.

The Uses of Enchantment is Julavits’ third book and it centers on a girl named Mary, who may have been abducted or may have made up her abduction to garner attention. Julavits said she modeled her book on Tim O’Brien’s Lake of the Woods, another book that features a mysterious disappearance. Julavits is considered a literary writer, but she said all her novels are plot driven. “I loved Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien,” she said. “It has this inexorable plot pull. I love, love, love plot.”

Julavits was a “math kid,” growing up. “I loved logic proofs. That’s what plot is for me – a logic proof.”

She doesn’t write out her plots before she begins her novels. In fact, Julavits said she generally spends a year on a book, and then throws the entire thing away and starts over. She seems to need writing that trash draft in order to reach a zone that drives her writing to a higher level. “Because when you’re in that zone, writing a novel can be as pleasurable as reading a novel.”

Julavits is still an editor at The Believer and even finds time to teach fiction writing. She said she hammered her distaste for flashback scenes into her students this spring while she was copyediting The Uses of Enchantment. Then she would return home and see, to her dismay, how often she used flashbacks as a technique to explain characters. She ended up changing her book as a result.

Julavits said she loves doing it all – writing, teaching and editing. On editing: “It’s a phenomenal job to have. I feel its dovetails so well with fiction for me.”

On teaching: “If you teach a lot it can be draining. I taught last spring. It was so important for me to talk about what I think fiction is and can do and what is happening in fiction now and articulate all these issues.”

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Readers, Get on Your Walking Shoes

It’s that time of year again: Litquake, the nine-day extravaganza of words, authors, and literary musings. I went to the Lit Crawl for the first time last year and was impressed with the sheer number of people who wanted to spend their Saturday nights listening to various authors. It made me glad to live in the Bay Area.

I can’t make this year’s Crawl, which is a big disappointment, particularly because my friend Katherine Ellison will be reading from her book The Mommy Brain. She’s part of a panel called Mommy Lit: The Pleasures, Perils, and Politics of Motherhood featuring Joan Blades, Katherine Ellison, Kate Hodson, Ericka Lutz, Polly Pagenhart, and Rachel Sarah. The emcee: Peter Hartlaub. It’s at 6 p.m. at Ti Couz at 3108 16th Street

Here’s a write-up about the week by one of my students at the journalism school at UC Berkeley.

Authors are a "Cross to Bear"

I’m late to these blog posts but an anonymous editor is now writing regularly for Gawker about the publishing industry. The posts are titled “Unsolicited,” and the latest claims that “authors are a cross to bear somewhere between 'creepy messenger guy' and 'can't even afford a new coat from H&M" on the job-dissatisfaction scale. Because, with a few glowing exceptions, authors are the craziest, meanest, strangest, cluelessest people you've ever met.”

Gee. I thought they liked us.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

We're All Geniuses Here

Jerome Weeks left his position as book critic for the Dallas Morning News rather than watch as the paper cut 111 jobs. He wrote a farewell column – which the paper declined to publish – which is a moving tribute to the written word. It also discusses the declining cultural importance of the novel.

The MacArthur Genius Awards were handed out yesterday. Somehow they missed me. But I was happy to hear that Adrian Nicole Blanc, a New York-based journalist who writes mostly about the poor and disenfranchised, won one of the $500,000 grants. She spent more than a decade following around a young woman her 2003 book, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx. The award is very encouraging. It’s a recognition that narrative non-fiction journalism is an art form, one that can illuminate social injustices.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon and New Yorker writer, George Saunders a short story writer and a Syracuse University professor, and David Macaulay, who wrote that wonderful illustrated book, The Way Things Work, also won awards.

Monday, September 18, 2006

New Cat Fight ... but this Time Between Men

This is probably the happiest day in Ed Champion’s life. Lev Grossman, the book critic for Time Magazine and a frequent target of Ed’s, wrote about their twisted, Internet-only relationship. The article’s title is “My Mortal Enemy.

“I do, however, have an archenemy,” Lev writes in the current issue of Time.

His name is Edward Champion, or at least I assume it is. That's the name he blogs under. I've never met him. I don't know what he looks like, how old he is, or pretty much anything about him (or her?). Except that every few months he calls me an idiot on his website.

Lev, take heart. It’s actually a compliment that Ed has noticed you. And it’s not really all that unusual to be called names by Ed. He does that to nearly everyone. It’s his schtick. He can be quite mean and catty. But he’s also very funny, and that’s why he gets away with it.

And it looks like this infusion of national recognition has made Ed so happy, he’s promising to tone down his invective.

Contrary to my criticisms, I don’t think Lev Grossman is a complete tool nor a total chickenhead…….In any event, as an olive branch to Lev, he’ll be getting something nice from me soon. And I will try in the future to paint less of a Manichean picture of the man.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

How to Write for The New Yorker

Cracking the top national magazine market is tough.

Editors at the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and The New Yorker are like soldiers under siege. Everyone wants access to them – their old college acquaintances, friends of friends, neighbors down the hall, even family members. Writers know that any personal connection to an editor at a top magazine, however tenuous, increases their chances of publishing an article in the magazine.

Some writers spend years trying to get published. John McPhee, for example, famously queried the New Yorker for more than 10 years before one of his stories was accepted. Now he contributes regularly.

“It’s a bunker,” according to Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s. “Getting inside the bunker is the hardest park. Once you’re in ….” His thought trailed off, but he clearly was suggesting that once you’ve written for one of these magazines, entrĂ©e anywhere else is much easier.

Penetrating the walls of the nation’s premier magazines was the topic of an unusual conference this weekend at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Titled “East Meets West,” the conference brought editors of elite publications together with 55 accomplished writers. The event was co-sponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors – itself difficult to join – so the writers in attendance all held impressive publishing credentials.

Still, the news was hard to hear.

“You don’t find the New Yorker; the New Yorker finds you,” said Dana Goodyear, a poet and writer who became an editor after working as David Remnick’s assistant for three years.

While some writers can find their way into the magazine by writing “Talk of the Town” pieces, those short articles focus mainly on New York so it is difficult for freelancers to find suitable topics, she said. But writing a number of them is one of the few ways to get assigned a larger piece

Many writers get their first New Yorker bylines when the magazine publishes an excerpt of their book. (What? I heard some members of the audience grumble. You have to write a book first and then hope a short section can appear in the magazine?)

Or you can write for smaller publications and hope you are noticed. That’s what happened to Elif Batuman, a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. She wrote a few esoteric pieces for the new literary magazine N+1. Remnick read them, called her up, and invited her to New York to discuss ideas. She’s had two articles published so far in the New Yorker. Goodyear edited “Cool Heart,” a January 16, 2006 piece on the Thai kick-boxing trainer, Bunkerd Faphimal. Batuman’s voice and take on the subject was fresh and original – and that’s what the New Yorker is looking for, said Goodyear.

“Write for places where your voice can roam free,” suggested Goodyear.

Gerald Mazorati, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, suggested writers “know something really well and then know someone really well.” Find a topic that can become your specialty and give it a spin so unique that the top magazines can’t ignore your queries, he said.

The New York Times Magazine has about 30 writers under contract and only occasionally publishes work from writers outside its circle, said Mazorati. But it can be done. He suggested starting an e-mail correspondence with one of the magazine’s 8 assigning editors. Cultivate a relationship. Show them your work. Pitch them your ideas. With time, something might work out, he said.

The articles in Harpers, Atlantic, and Mother Jones are almost all written by free-lance writers. While each magazine has its own personality, the editors all crave well-written, unusual pitches. Bill Wasik at Harper’s said he likes “pitches with facts. Clunky, (meaning loaded with facts, not poorly written) detailed pitches.” Most new writers do shorter pieces to start. The editors have to known and trust a writer before they will assign them one of the longer articles that form the backbones of each magazine.

All the editors talked about the power of narrative. They want stories with a beginning, middle and an end, with well-developed characters. The New York Times Magazine needs article that are timely and linked to news events. The Atlantic specializes in big policy pieces. Harpers really prizes stories where reporters go undercover to expose a little-understood subculture.

While most magazine readers are women – and the women in the audience at the conference far outnumbered the men – most magazine articles are written by men. All of the editors said their magazines are not actively discriminating against female writers. They want more female writers. It’s just that most women write about issues central to their lives – marriage, parenthood, memoir -- and don’t do the big think pieces New York Times columnist Frank Rich calls the “bloviators.”

“We are a white male culture that may be intimidating to women,” said Scott Stossel, an editor at The Atlantic Monthly.

“It’s easier for women to sell an article on the sexy twist of work/life drama,” said Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery. “It’s easier to sell. There are more magazines that would buy that rather than a big policy piece. There is a subtle way of steering women.”

If the editors were frank in suggesting that it is tough – although not impossible – to crack the top magazine markets, their appearances at Berkeley were encouraging in a less direct way. Without exception they were friendly and approachable and very human. Just hearing them talk about their magazines and the stories they are proud of stripped away some of the mystique of the New York publishing world. After all, somebody has to write those stories. And since when did saying “no” discourage any self-respecting reporter?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Profiles of the Rich and Famous

Call this the post of the profile. Here are three interesting stories about some of the most powerful (white) men in the news and publishing business.

The Guardian of London takes a look at David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker.

New York Magazine looks at another powerful NewYork editor: Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times.

A man with a different kind of power: Charles Frazier, who is about to release his second novel Thirteen Moons. He is so powerful that Random House paid him $8.5 million for the book, based on a one-page description. Scott Rudin chipped in another $3 million for film rights.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Saturday Musings

The Contra Costa Times writes that the Chronicle may one day own a chunk of Dean Singleton’s Media News. This means one interlocking conglomerate could control all the newspapers in the Bay Area.

Scott Esposito on Conversational Reading has a nice essay about how his reading habits have changed now that he is a lit blogger.

Ilana DeBare of the San Francisco Chronicle looks at Cody's new owner.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Is There Really Just One Big Corporation Running All the Papers?

The Bay Guardian has always positioned itself as the scrappy underdog, the only San Francisco weekly to speak truth to power. For years it railed against monopolies that controlled the city's utilities.

The Bay Guardian is now looking at the recent consolidation of Bay Area newspapers and is once again yelling "monopoly." It is not only concerned that Dean Singleton owns the vast majority of the papers in the Bay Area, but is worried about the relationship between Hearst Corporation, the owner of the Chronicle, and Media News.

When McClatchy bought up Knight-Ridder it turned around and sold the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times and a batch of smaller papers to Media News. McClatchy then sold the Montery Herald and the St Paul Pioneer Dispatch to Hearst Corp, which turned over those papers to Media News in exchange for a large block of non-voting stock in Media News properties outside the Bay Area.

The Justice Department didn't find anything wrong with this. The only one who has stepped in to try and block the consolidation is Clint Reilly, a former political consultant. He is suing to prevent Hearst's takeover of Media News stock, arguing it would create a monopoly. A judge will hear the case in February.

Bruce Brugmann, the owner of the Bay Guardian, points out a delicious irony in his blog. The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine ran a lengthy narrative a few weeks ago about a newspaper war in Humboldt County between Singleton and an independent newspaper. But there has been very little written in the pages of the Chronicle about the impact of Dean Singleton on the Bay Area media scene.

"As you will remember from my last blog, I unveiled the term Eurekaism to replace the term Afghanistanism for the bad habit of many daily papers to cover stories in Eureka, but not the local big scandal or embarrassing stories in their hometowns," Brugmann wrote in his blog.

Japanese Firm Buys Cody's Books

Fred Ross, the owner of the two remaining Cody’s Bookstores, has sold his two-store chain to a Japanese buyer, Hiroshi Kagawa, the owner of Yohan, Inc.

"We are very excited about our partnership with Yohan as we begin our next half century," Ross said in a press release. "Yohan shares our commitment to independent bookselling. Working together we can extend our reach both locally and globally. Yohan's financial resources and international relationships will strengthen our existing operations, and will allow us to properly restock our shelves and offer the broad in-depth selection that customers expect from Cody's."

Cody's will essentially remain the same: a two-store operation that showcases numerous authors. Ross will remain as president and his wife Leslie Berkler will be vice-president in charge of store operations.

Yohan, Inc is the largest distributor of English-language books in Japan. It was founded in 1953 and currently operates 18 bookstores and a few publishers. Yohan bought Berkeley-based Stone Bridge Press last year. Kagawa is either 49 or 50 and "loves books," the press release quotes Peter Goodman, his long time friend as saying. ‘Yohan and Cody’s share a sensibility that venerates the written word.’”

The sale does not surprise to me. A few weeks ago I wrote about Cody’s financial problems. I had no details or statistics: I just noticed that the shelves in its Fourth Street Store in Berkeley didn’t have very many books on them. This was just weeks after Ross closed his wonderful Telegraph Avenue Store.

Ed Champion berates Ross for taking the easy way out. He suggests that Ross made a major miscalculation when he took over the old Planet Hollywood store on Stockton Street in San Francisco.

“But I know how you’ll justify all this, Mr. Ross. You didn’t sell out. You bought in. It was the “market,” after all, that killed off Cody’s. Not the fact that you took over Planet Hollywood’s old space on Stockton Street, which probably had a rent that was a shitload more expensive than the original Telegraph Avenue store that you so gracelessly killed. Fred Cody is spinning in his grave right around now. He never would have let this happen.”

I am sorry that the buyer is from another country. But ownership change can be good. Look, the Codys sold to Ross many years ago and he gave the community one of the best bookstores in the region. Maybe the new owner, Hiroshi Kagawa, will invest more money and refill all those shelves.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

R.I.P Jim Holliday

Jim Holliday, one of the best historians of California, died Aug. 31 in his home in Carmel at the age of 82.

I still remember reading The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, Holliday’s opus on the California Gold Rush. It was history like no other history I had ever read.

The book is centered on the diaries of William Swain, a 28-year old man from Youngstown, New York, who traveled overland to California in 1849. Holliday uses Swain’s experiences to exemplify what happened when hundreds of thousands of people rushed into virgin territory and ripped out its insides. Holliday’s use of a personal narrative to describe a major social movement created a readable and accessible book of history. It’s a common technique now, but wasn’t as a popular in the 1980s.

J. S. Holliday stumbled on Swain’s journals shortly after he graduate from Yale in 1948. He met Edward Eberstadt, a New York rare book and manuscript dealer, who had Swain’s letters and journals from his daughter, Sara Sabrina Swain. Eberstadt had intended to publish the journals, but was prevented from doing so because of poor health and pressing business concerns. Holliday agreed to take over the project, little realizing it would take him 30 years to write The World Rushed In. But when the book was published in 1981 it became a best-seller and went through 13 printings.

I have just been using one of Holliday’s other books, Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California, as source material for my own book. It’s an illustrated sort of coffee-table format book on California. It won the Los Angeles Times prize for best book on non-fiction in 2000.

Some of Holliday’s lectures are archived on the Bancroft Library site.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Blogging in the summertime

I’m not the only blogger who has bowed out during the summer. The Wall Street Journal tells all:

“In the height of summer-holiday season, bloggers face the inevitable question: to blog on break or put the blog on a break? Fearing a decline in readership, some writers opt not to take vacations. Others keep posting while on location, to the chagrin of their families. Those brave enough to detach themselves from their keyboards for a few days must choose between leaving the site dormant or having someone blog-sit."

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Newspaper Coverage in the Bay Area is Shrinking

The latest evidence of media consolidation in the Bay Area screamed out all over the front pages on Wednesday.

All of the major papers in the region prominently displayed the same story, the tale of a motorist who deliberately drove his black Honda Pilot into 14 pedestrians. He killed one man in Fremont and injured 13 others in San Francisco.

A month ago, the major papers – The San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, and the Oakland Tribune – would have sent out a slew of their own reporters to cover the event.

But Dean Singleton’s Media News acquired the Mercury News and Contra Costa Times less than a month ago, creating a newspaper chain that circles the San Francisco Bay. Media News already owned the Oakland Tribune, the Argus, the Hayward Daily Review, the Marin Independent Journal and the San Mateo Times.

On Wednesday, instead of four distinct stories on the region’s front pages, there were only two – one from the Chronicle and one from the Media News group. (Reporters from the Mercury News did the story).

That’s a huge loss for Bay Area readers. Competition improves news coverage. What will readers miss out on in the future? This was just a police story; imagine the impact when the big story deals with corruption or another important, but less easily reported, event. If fewer reporters are tracking the story, there will be fewer revelations.

The irony is that the Chronicle is owned by Hearst Corporation, one of the world’s leading media companies. Now it looks like an independent voice fighting against the near-monopoly of Media News. How times have changed.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Osama Bin Laden and ..... Whitney Houston???

No one has ever suggested that Osama Bin Laden is kind or considerate. Now his former lover, the Sudanese writer Kola Boof, 37, has written a memoir, Diary of A Lost Girl, about her virtual imprisonment by the leader of Al Queda. Harpers Magazine is running an excerpt. Bin Laden was not only cruel to women, he apparently had a fixation on Whitney Houston.

“He would humiliate me by making me dance naked,” writes Boof. “It was such a strange thing, because for the most part he believed music was evil. If a guest at the estate played music, he would cover his ears until the “poison” was silenced. But other times he would become this devout party boy who wanted to hear Van Halen or some B-52's. To this day I hear the song “Rock Lobster” in my sleep. I would be jerking around like a white girl—“Dance like a Caucasoid girl!” he would say—and his eyes would track me from one side of the terrace to the other. “Your ass is too big, show me the front,” he said. Osama, you understand, did not know the difference between being vicious and being tender.”

And later on ….

“Osama kept coming back to Whitney Houston. He asked if I knew her personally when I lived in America. I told him I didn't. He said that he had a paramount desire for Whitney Houston, and although he claimed music was evil, he spoke of someday spending vast amounts of money to go to America and try to arrange a meeting with the superstar. It didn't seem impossible to me. He said he wanted to give Whitney Houston a mansion that he owned in a suburb of Khartoum. He explained to me that to possess Whitney he would be willing to break his color rule and make her one of his wives.”

Now this sounds like a strange and fascinating book. A look at Bin Laden's lechery.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


This sale was just announced on Publisher’s Marketplace:

The mother of football player and soldier Pat Tillman, Mary Tillman and SF Chronicle deputy editor Narda Zacchino's untitled book about Mary's efforts to learn the truth surrounding the death of Pat, 27, while on patrol in Afghanistan -- which sparked six different Pentagon investigations -- also looking at his life, the meaning of patriotism, and the nature of sacrifice, to Ellen Archer and Will Schwalbe at Hyperion, with Leslie Wells editing, for publication in 2007, by Steve Wasserman at Kneerim & Williams.

The Chronicle has followed the Tillman story closely, doing a number of take-outs on his death, the role of friendly fire in combat, and the cover-up. Cynically I ask whether we need one more book on Bush’s deceits, but I think this will show just how far the Pentagon will go to sugar coat our wars.

SPEAKING of deceit. I saw the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car,” last night. It is an excellent documentary and I recommend that everyone see it. I had no idea. General Motors produced about 1,000 electric cars to comply with California’s strict emissions standards. They were zippy and problem free and those who drove them loved them.

California did away with its zero-emissions standards in 2003 under intense pressure from the car companies and George W. Bush’s government. Then GM rounded up all the cars (they were leased) and crushed them. It’s infuriating considering we are choking on our own smog, while people in the Middle East die because of oil.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, has an interesting interview with Oscar Villalon, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle's book review section.

Q: Are there any rules that guide how you sort through and pick the ones you'll review?

A: Self-published and vanity press stuff, of course, always gets tossed immediately. If a book is regional and its region has nothing to do with the Bay Area, that gets tossed. The first things I look at are: How pertinent is it to the region, and how pertinent would it be to our readers? We don't review romance novels. We do genres -- SciFi, mysteries and thrillers -- in monthly roundup columns, so those get set aside for that. Everything else I pretty much hang on to and flip through. Of course that's the other big chunk of my time -- going through those galleys and at least reading a little bit into them.

Choosing which books to review is completely subjective. You look at the catalogs and get a sense of what looks interesting, who you like. It's pretty much the same way you decide what you'll cover in a newspaper: You just go by your instincts. Clearly you pay attention to what's in the news and which books could be related to that, but for the most part, it's about picking books you would like to read. You have to trust your instincts and hope readers like to read what you're interested in. If your interests are too esoteric, you're going to alienate a lot of people, and if your interests are too broad, you're going to pique very few people. It's got to be somewhere in the middle.

Some summer books

It’s been a busy time for me this month. I am working hard on my book while I am free from other job and school-related distractions. One thing I have learned about writing a book: you can fiddle and rewrite endlessly. I have the sense that if I play around with my words enough, I can always make them better.

But I have been reading. Here are some thoughts:

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen – This one sits atop the Chronicle’s best-seller list and was highly praised on its release. It’s an atmospheric book about a young man who joins a train circus in 1931. Gruen does an excellent job showing the bizarre and cruel world of the circus, where violence hides under the grin of the circus master. It’s a quick and enjoyable read. Nothing too deep or profound but fun.

The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger

Freudenberger is the author of the short-story collection Lucky Girls. She made one of those debuts people dream about – lots of praise in the New York Times and other august publications, long features with attractive photos. The Dissident is her debut novel and it is set in Los Angeles and Beijing. It’s really a novel about artiface and why we aren’t who we present ourselves as being. I think this theme – which actually took some guessing because of the cryptic nature of the plot – is stronger than the book. What? You ask. It means I didn’t love the plot or writing but when I thought about the book after I finished it I decided I enjoyed it.

Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda MacKenzie Stuart.

This was a wonderful dual biography of the female Vanderbilts, but it goes way beyond descriptions of the decadent world of Newport society. Alva Vanderbilt was the woman who married her daughter Consuelo off to the Duke of Marlborough just to catapult her family into the social stratosphere. The book details that unhappy marriage and how Conseulo eventually overcame the stultifying British society to work for the downtrodden. Alva was a surprise, too, because she became an ardent suffragist and was critical in the fight for women to get the vote. There’s lots of great history and context, as well as glimpses into the world of the Gilded Age rich.

Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age by Donna M. Lucey

This is another dual biography of a Gilded Age couple, only these are Astors. Archie Chanler is the great great grandson of John Jacob Astor, but his life is anything but easy as his parents die at an early age. Archie meets and marries Amelie Rives of Virginia, who has written a racy bestseller about a taboo topic – the sexual yearnings of women. The marriage is a disaster from the beginning. Archie is eventually committed to an insane asylum by his siblings and the book does a good job exploring whether he really was crazy or his brothers and sisters were just spiteful. This is a good read but it has absolutely no historical context at all.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Cody's Books is Still in Trouble

I thought Cody’s troubles would be over after they closed their famed store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

I am sorry to say they are not.

I went into their store on 4th Street today, in the tony shopping district in Berkeley, and was dismayed by what I saw.

The shelves looked bare.

Now Cody’s on Telegraph was the kind of place where you knew you could get almost any book, at any time. It was a place of surprises. You could walk in, browse any table in the store, and see something interesting. The shelves were crammed with books, the piles on the tables sometimes tottered over and the store had a feeling of abundance.

I didn’t get that feeling at the store on Fourth Street. There was an awful lot of maple showing, since most of the upper shelves were empty. The front table with the current releases had just had a few copies of some of the current bestsellers and the tables with the new fiction and non-fiction paperbacks had lots of space.

I had driven all away across town to go to this Cody’s. (The one on Telegraph was about 5 minutes from my house) I needed to look at some books for a journalism class I will be teaching this fall, but the store didn’t have the titles I wanted. (And these are recent non-fiction titles) Worst of all, the woman behind the information desk said she couldn’t order one of the books because Cody’s currently owes money to the distributor of that title!

“Didn’t you know we have money troubles?” she asked.

I did. I naively assumed that closing the Telegraph Store would take care of Cody’s problems. Apparently it hasn’t.

Did I help the store out by buying a book? Yes, I bought a paperback for $15. But I had been prepared to buy 4-5 books. They weren’t on the shelves.