Thursday, April 27, 2006

Michael Pollan

There’s one thing you can say about Michael Pollan: he knows how to make a room of 800 people laugh.

Pollan spoke to a sold-out audience at San Francisco’s City Arts and Lectures Wednesday night and he easily got everyone to see the bright side of the increasing industrialization in the food industry. His new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, looks at the different ways food is produced in the United States. Pollan uses various meals – a McDonald’s hamburger, a dinner cooked with food bought from Whole Foods, meat raised on a sustainable farm, and a dinner made up of foraged and hunted foods – to examine what we eat and why.

From the outset of the talk, Pollan acknowledged he has an obsession with corn – how the government subsidizes farmers to grow it, how cows now eat corn instead of grass, even though their systems are not built to digest it, and how cheap corn has produced the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup that is making Americans fat. He suffers from “soft pore cornography.”

“If you have read anything about me and this book you know I have kind of an obsession with corn. It’s not a healthy thing and I’m trying to get over it,” he said.

That prompted a laugh – as did many of other Pollan’s comments. He talked about how visiting the Whole Foods near his home in Berkeley was “a rich literary experience.” The store puts up signs telling the provenance of many items, such as the story of how the blackberries came from Chile.

“There’s so much to read…. About salmon caught by villagers, chickens running free. I call it supermarket pastoral because it’s a whole new literary genre.”

Pollan has concluded that the healthiest way to eat is as locally as possible – consuming food from farmers’ markets or CSAs, and buying produce that is in season. The food is not only fresher, but it tastes better, and fewer fossil fuels are expended shipping the food around the country. But Pollan acknowledges that most of America cannot accomplish this – on the East Coast, for example, it is not possible to eat local vegetables in the winter. There is an elitism in the food movement, he said, that needs to be addressed.

While Pollan clearly appreciates a good meal, he recognizes that America sometimes elevates certain things to a level they do not deserve. Take the case of salad, he said.

“We have this completely unnatural, virtuous attachment to salad. But there’s no food there. Have you ever looked at the nutrient value of a salad? It’s all water.”

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Blue Day for Bay Area Journalism

Well, the Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times will soon belong to MediaNews, owned by the notorious cost-cutter Dean Singleton.

It’s a blue day for the Bay Area.

Knight-Ridder, which until recently owned the papers, was a newspaper firm that cared about quality journalism. For the most part, it poured resources (the amounts differed year to year) into making a good product. Its papers had a mix of investigative pieces, local news, lively columnists, and those extra sections that provide a peek into culture – food, books, and features.

Even during the last few years when once-amazing profits dropped, Knight-Ridder papers meant quality. That’s why it’s such a shame – and a disgrace – that a single shareholder looking to increase his own profits was able to force the sale of the chain.

Equally difficult to fathom is the fact that McClatchy bought Knight-Ridder and then decided to dump the Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, the Monterey County Herald and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. They weren’t profitable enough, even though they circulated in areas where the average home costs more than $500,000.

So Singleton has bought the four cast-off papers for $1 billion, essentially cutting McClatchy’s debt in half.

There are some weird permutations where Hearst Corp. will actually buy the Monterey and St. Paul Papers to increase the percentage of their ownership in the Bay Area papers, but I am too mad to explain it. Read about it here.

This means that the Bay Area, with one of the most literate, knowledgeable populations in the United States, will be reading papers put out by a company devoted to profits over good journalism. The only paper of any size in the Bay Area not to be owned by MediaNews will be the San Francisco Chronicle, which hemorrhaged more readers and money last year than any other paper in the country.

The winner in this may be the New York Times, which already distributes something like 50,000 papers to homes in the Bay Area. With shorter stories, less analysis, and less news in Bay Area publications, readers may turn there to keep up.

Dan Gillmor, a former Mercury News journalist turned blogger, says the deal smells funny. He even uses the word collusion.

The only good feeling I have sits with my former colleagues, the reporters of the Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times. For the most part they are smart, quick, and determined to produce an excellent product. Perhaps their determination may carry the day; I know they will want to continue to do in-depth reporting as long as they can. I wish them luck.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Late April Tidbits

The Online Journalism Review asked a group of bloggers whether newspapers will ever get their blogs right. (via LA Observed)

Jane Jacobs died this morning at age 89. I saw her talk last year at San Francisco’s City Arts and Lectures and was struck how her outside-the-box attitude let her see cities in such a revealing way.

The board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle started a blog this week. It’s called Critical Mass.

More reports of plagiarism. This author got $500,000 for her novel, which now turns out to be based on someone else’s. I get tired just reading this.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Michael Pollan's Book Shoots to #1

I just got back from New York on Sunday night, so I am a little late reading the San Francisco Chronicle. I just needed to note that Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore's Dilemma, which was just released last week, is already the #1 non-fiction book on the Chronicle bestseller list.

He’ll be speaking at City Arts and Lectures on April 26.

An Enterprising New Media Reporter

Here’s an example of how journalists are getting around the demise of the news business. Michael Totten wanted to report from Iraq. Instead of lining up assignments from traditional news organizations, he asked his readers to contribute. They sent him enough money to pay his expenses while in Iraq. (please note he is a member of the pajamasmedia, a conservative group of bloggers, but still …)

Columbia Graduate School of Journalism -- or How Old Hacks Change Their Spots

Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism apparently is regarded in the blogosphere as the Temple of Mainstream Journalism, the sacred pool from where the secrets of the old guard flow.

The pride of old-fashioned, pound-the-pavement journalism was everywhere April 21 and 22, when the school hosted its annual Alumni Weekend. But there was a surprising emphasis on new forms of media – proof, in my mind, that journalists around the country are adapting to shrinking newspapers, readership, and budgets with imagination and determination.

It’s been 20 years since I graduated from the J-School and I haven’t really kept up with my classmates, except by noticing their bylines and newscasts. I wasn’t planning on going to the reunion until I read the flurry of e-mails that described what everyone was doing. It ranged from working on budgets at the New York Times to covering the Middle East to running a music club in the south. I was curious to learn more about how people were navigating this transitional time in journalism.

The centerpiece of the alumni weekend was the lunch, held Saturday under the classic dome of Low Library. With Corinthian columns behind him and a row of marble statues above, Time Managing editor Jim Kelly talked about the fallout from the government’s pursuit of their reporter Matthew Cooper. Karl Rove leaked to Cooper that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent.

Kelly talked about how Time was compelled by the courts to turn over Cooper’s e-mail. The entire case has prompted Time to create a two-tier system of confidentiality. A reporter can offer anonymity to a source but must then check with his or her editor, who will then determine just how far Time will go to protect that source’s identity. The reporter will then go back to the source and say whether the magazine is willing to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to protect the source, or not. Clearly there are some anonymous sources who are so valuable that the fight is warranted, said Kelly. Others are not worth the effort. In the past, the assumption was that all anonymous sources were created equal and that all were worth defending in court. That will no longer be the case.

That was the traditional Mainstream Media part of the weekend. Much of the rest was devoted to showing alumni tricks of the web and how to use blogs as reporting tools. Nick Lemann, Columbia’s dean, talked about how blogs can work as great tip sheets. Some students are working on a huge exercise on Hurricane Katrina, and have to develop new stories by reading through blogs and government reports. The blogs act as tip sheets, a view of the thoughts of the common man, a place to get a pulse of a locale without doing man-in-the-street interviews.

New media professor Sreenath Sreenivasan gave two lively lectures on web tools. I thought I knew my way around the web, but I learned many new methods of collecting information and using maps in reporting. Sree has a web site that contains these tips and it is worth spending time clicking through.

There was also a fair bit of discussion about the plight of older reporters. Many newspapers or television outfits value these reporters’ experience, but only want to hire younger journalists and pay them smaller salaries. There were no clear answers on how to keep working in this fluid time, but there was a consensus that older reporters should learn new platforms, like blogging, podcasting, and HTML code.

Some aspects of journalism never change, despite the new technological revolution. Suffice it to say, we spent a lot of time drinking.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Celebrating a Disaster

Well, when the alarm clock went off at 3:30 a.m. I started to second guess my decision to go to the 100 year commemoration of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. I really questioned my judgment when I found my husband doubled over, his stomach a knot of cramps. (A bad pina colada the night before, perhaps)

So instead of immediately getting into my costume, I ran out of the Hyatt Regency and across the street to a 7-11, where I bought him some Alka-Seltzer. The street in downtown San Francisco was empty save for a homeless man in a ragged raincoat who was pacing back and forth. His shoulders were hunched forward and he reminded me of one of the zombies in George Romero’s Day of the Dead.

After that, events went smoothly. I roused my two daughters out of bed and we put on our early 20th century outfits. My oldest daughter, Charlotte, had a blue sailor suit, and Juliet had a pink sailor dress. I had a blue coat, white shirtwaist, long blue skirt and a hat. The hardest part of getting dressed was putting on the corset, which had to be tightened and tied by someone else. (I won’t even go into details here on how I got it off). (See more pictures here.)

We set off for Lotta’s Fountain around 4 a.m. and soon came upon hawkers for the San Francisco Chronicle. The newspaper had printed a replica of the paper published the day after the earthquake with the headline “Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco in Ruins.” The reproduction was wrapped around the day’s newspaper and it added a nice historic note to the day.

The ceremony at Lotta’s Fountain went on so long that even the 100-year and more survivors complained about the cold. There were lots of speeches – perhaps four too many – but a precisely 5:12 a.m. Mayor Gavin Newsom called for a moment of silence in honor of those who lost their lives in the earthquake. A lone fireman clanged a silver bell and he was soon joined by the sound of sirens and church bells ringing around the city. That was the most somber moment of the morning.

Newsom then interviewed the dozen earthquake survivors. Ed didn’t like his act, complaining it became more about Newsom than about the survivors, but I enjoyed it. I hadn’t heard Newsom speak at any length before and found him personable and funny. Some of the survivors were downright hilarious, particularly the woman who was raised by prostitutes after the disaster. Her family’s apartment was above a brothel and her mother told her she could always count on an adult being available downstairs because they were always home.

The ceremony ended and we left to get breakfast. My kids and their sick father left for school and work and I stayed behind in the city. Somehow, walking up Market Street in my costume seemed much more peculiar in broad daylight. But when I got back to Lotta’s Fountain, complete strangers asked if they could have their photos taken with me! At that point the day became truly fun, as the parade of antique fire trucks and old cars passed by. Complete strangers started swapping earthquake stories about their ancestors. One protestor held a sign: “The 1906 Earthquake: Blame Bush!” I guess he summed up the feelings of the Bay Area.

After the parade, I went to the Mechanics’ Institute Library, the 150-yearold private library on Post Street, for a Ham and Egg Brunch and a lecture by former firefighter Dennis Smith. It was one of many literary touches to the day. Simon Winchester was scheduled to speak there at night, and Philip Fradkin, whose book The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 is up for a Los Angeles Book Award this weekend, also had numerous speaking engagements. Mark Klett and Rebecca Solnit spoke at Cody’s new San Francisco store at 7 a.m.

Smith’s book, San Francisco is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, focuses on the Fire Department and what they did to put out the blaze. Smith thinks the city had two pieces of bad luck that made the fire worse than it had to be: The Fire Chief, Dennis Sullivan, was severely injured in the quake itself, and his absence led to a power vacuum that was not successfully filled. The other problem was that General Frederick Funston was in charge of the Army because his superior was in Chicago. Funston went overboard with dynamiting the city’s building, actually contributing to the conflagration, according to Smith.

I had a chance to talk to Smith before his presentation. His book is part descriptive narrative, part explanatory narrative. I am trying to combine the two in my own book and he expounded to me about the power of the transitional paragraph. I listened; he has written 14 books, many of them bestsellers.

By 1:30 p.m. I could hardly breathe. A corset is best tolerated standing up. I left the celebration for home.

I’m off to New York for a week, so I won’t be posting for awhile.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The 2006 Pulitzer Prizes

Lots of surprises in the 2006 Pulitzer Prizes. Geraldine Brooks won the prize in fiction for her novel, March, about the father of the girls portrayed in Little Women. The book had been acclaimed, but was not as popular as Brook’s fabulous book, The Year of Wonders. Brooks is a nimble writer who used to report for the Wall Street Journal. She has also written a number of books of non-fiction, including Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women. She is Australian and is married to another marvelous writer, Tony Horowitz.

I don’t know Geraldine, but she is a friend of many of my friends. She provided a blurb for Neil MacFarquhar’s new novel, the Sand Café, which came out last week.

The Pulitzer judges awarded two prizes in Public Service for Hurricane Katrina coverage. They went to the Biloxi, Mississippi Sun-Herald and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The staff of the Times-Picayune was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting. The staff of the Dallas Morning News won a breaking news photography prize for documenting the effects of Katrina.

Another one I am particularly happy about is the prize for National Reporting. It went to New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau for their stories on domestic eavesdropping. (When I was fresh out of journalism school, I moved to Ithaca, New York, where Lichtblau was a Cornell student. He was covering the region for the Syracuse Newspapers and when he left I took over his job. He went to the Los Angeles Times and then the New York Times.)

The Washington Post won four Pulitzers, one more than the Times, including one for commentary for Robin Givhan. She writes about fashion, but in a way no one else does.

Post reporters Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith won an investigative reporting prize for their stories on lobbyist Jack Abramoff. David Finkel won the prize in Explanatory Journalism for his stories on how the U.S. tried to bring democracy to Yemen. Dana Priest won in the beat reporting category for her stories on CIA's use of secret prisons in Eastern Europe to interrogate terror suspects

The New York Times won a total of three Pulitzers, including one in commentary for Nicholas D. Kristof for his reporting on the genocide in Darfur.

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin won the biography prize for American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was a finalist in this category.

What's the Point of Reliving the Past?

This is going to be a busy day. The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced around 3 pm Pacific Time, and I will be eagerly hovering near my computer to find out who wins. These are the truly big awards in journalism and they always inspire me. Look for some Katrina-related coverage to prevail.

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake and I’ve decided to go all out. We’ve rented a hotel room in San Francisco and costumes from the local acting company and we will be at Lotta’s Fountain – along with 25,000 others – at 5:12 a.m., the time the quake struck.

I couldn’t decide whether to rent nightclothes or normal clothes. I am going with a cousin, and he chose nightclothes, arguing that the people would have rushed outdoors straight from their beds. But in all the pictures I’ve seen, everyone is wearing street clothes.

And I can tell you they didn’t put those clothes on in a hurry, either. I am going to be authentic, which means wearing a corset, and that underwear contraption requires at least five minutes to put on and lace up. Then there is the shirt waist and long skirt and jacket and …. Hat!

There has been a lot of talk in San Francisco about the appropriate way to acknowledge the disaster that destroyed one-quarter of the city. Gladys Hansen, the San Francisco archivist who spent years tallying an accurate death toll, will drop a wreath in the bay to commemorate the more than 3,000 who died. She has criticized all the spectacle as inappropriate.

I see her point. The disaster is in danger of becoming Disney-fied. But what appeals to me is the history of the event, the way it thrust the citizens of the city together. I recently met Bruce Quan, Jr. an associate professor at Peking University Law School, who told me that his great grandfather, a Chinese merchant, opened up his factory in Oakland as emergency housing for hundreds of displaced Chinese. City authorities had used the earthquake as a pretext to expel the Chinese. Continued prejudice made it hard for them to find places to stay, and this man’s relative helped out tremendously.

That one act mirrors so many social forces – benevolence, prejudice, desperation, kindness – and I find it interesting to ponder what it must have been like to be the subject of all those forces.

Of course, we are all subject of forces today, even though we may not be aware of it. Who knows, this era may be regarded as the lead-up to an American style tyranny, or the waning days of regular weather. We don’t know. It will be future generations who interpret our lives; they will be the ones who determine its significance.

I am not the only blogger who enjoys the grey area between today and yesterday. Susan Kitchens, who has a wonderful science-oriented blog (with some writing thoughts thrown in) 2020 Hindsight, tried to “real-time” blog the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the 50th anniversary.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Friday Stuff

The James Frey debacle didn’t do anything to stem the flow of memoirs – in fact, it may have made them even more popular, says the Wall Street Journal.

“Everyone has a story, whether it's a family of Dumpster-divers, a nun who had an affair with a priest, or a self-mutilating teenager. Now, however, there are more publishers willing to put out these personal histories as memoirs. In fact, all three of the aforementioned stories are in print, under the titles "Perishable: A Memoir," "The Scent of God: A Memoir," and "Bloodletting: A Memoir of Secrets, Self-Harm, & Survival."

"Memoirs have been strong sellers throughout this decade. But this year, publishers plan to put out twice as many as last year – there are likely to be as many as 40, according to Simba Information, a book-tracking company.”

Caitlin Flanagan, the New Yorker writer who seems to anger everyone with her pieces on domestic life, gets the star treatment this week. The Los Angeles Times ran as profile on her as did the LA Weekly. Flanagan’s book To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, has just been released. She was a guest blogger at Powell’s recently, as well.

By the way, Flanagan grew up in Berkeley. That explains a lot. Out of disorder comes the search for order.

The Tournament of Books is over. Ali Smith won for The Accidental. Read all about it here.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Neil MacFarquhar

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A Foreign Correspondent's View

I first noticed Neil MacFarquhar in the mid-1980s when he walked into a party in San Francisco. He came into the room, all 6’3” of him, dressed in jeans and a white dinner jacket. With his wavy blond hair and jutting Scottish chin, he was instantly alluring. But that’s not what made him memorable. It was his wicked sense of humor. He made me laugh at almost everything.

My next most vivid memory of Neil is coming upon him one balmy day when we were both juniors at Stanford University. The top to his vintage yellow Mustang convertible was down and he was sprawled in the front seat, his long legs resting on the dashboard. When he saw me – we were close friends by that point – he sat up and announced in a joyful voice that he had finally figured out what he was going to do with his life: he was going to be a foreign correspondent.

Neil has fulfilled those dreams. He spent years covering the Middle East for Associated Press, first living in Cyprus and then writing about Israel, Iran, Jordan, Syria and other countries. He was in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the first Gulf War and Iraq for parts of the second. For the past five years he has been the New York Time's bureau chief in Cairo. He is about to start a new assignment, covering American Islam.

Neil’s first book, the novel The Sand Café, has just been released and it is getting glowing reviews. It tells the story of three reporters ensconced in a hotel in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. The U.S. and Saudi governments are micromanaging the reporters, making it impossible to report any real news. Against this restrictive backdrop, the reporters form their own intimate liaisons of love, competition, and sabotage.

Jay Matthews reviewed the book in the Washington Post and said “few novels so honestly portray what reporting abroad is like in the era of the American colossus.”

"The Sand Cafe" presents a world no different from what any reporter has ever faced covering a story big enough to draw a horde of competitors who skirmish over scraps of gossip, form temporary liaisons, plot career moves, eat poorly and stretch the truth (but not so much that the blogs might pound them into library paste). It is an interesting and revealing world, which shows that American-style journalism is driven more by competition between newspapers and networks than any desire to please the left or skewer the administration.”

Neil is scheduled to be interviewed by Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” on Thursday April 13.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism road show rolled into San Francisco Friday night and once again hosted a soiree at the Carnelian Room on top of the Bank of America Building.

It was raining outside (what else is new) but the view through the floor to ceiling windows was still spectacular. As dusk fell, the lights came on and the Transamerica Pyramid stood out against the dark.

The annual get together is part alumni reunion/part recruitment for new students. And the tone of the evening definitely had an “I’ll Tell You Why It’s Still Important to be a Journalist,” ring.

James Stewart, the author of many best-selling business books, including last year’s Disney War, talked about how the role of journalists is to tell good stories. Listening to stories is a basic human instinct, one that will never lose its appeal. The journalism world may be changing, as newspaper readership drops and web reading grows, but that ultimately doesn’t matter, said Stewart. Today’s journalists must still know how to get good stories, but be prepared to deliver them on many different platforms – print, TV, blogs, website, and podcasts.

We live in a world where everyone talks and no one listens – and that is a journalist’s greatest weapon, said Stewart. Keep your mouth shut and allow others to tell their tales and you will find good narratives. Stewart then described the two years he spent talking and shadowing Michael Eisner, now the former chairman of Disney. (In part, because of how he came out in Stewart’s book)

Aspiring journalists apparently feel the lure of the narrative. When I went to Columbia in the mid 1980s, most students studied in the newspaper concentration. This year’s applicants (and there more than 1,000 for 200-odd spaces) were more interested in magazine journalism.

People in the journalism business are adaptable and many trained in old media have morphed into using new media. I spoke with a former classmate who told me he had had 20 bosses in 20 years. But he couldn’t be happier. He is now involved in a video-on-the-web start up and believes there is a huge future for watching film via the Internet.

Virtually every journalist I spoke to at the reception recognized that the media structure they grew up with was imploding, and they were picking their way through the land mines. One now teaches journalism, one just stopped working for a foundation and one was blogging. Those might not have been the careers they envisioned when they arrived at the Columbia School of Journalism, but they were fine careers nonetheless.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Book Awards

Adam Hochschild won a Northern California Book Award Wednesday night for his non-fiction book, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight To Free an Empire’s Slaves. A night earlier in Toronto, he won his SECOND Lionel Gelber Prize, which pays $135,000. No wonder Hochschild wasn’t in San Francisco to collect the award)

William T. Vollman won the fiction award for Europe Central.

Brian Turner won in poetry for Here, Bullet.

John Balcom won in the translation category for Indigenous Writers of Taiwan

Denys Cazet won in for children’s literature for The Perfect Pumpkin Pie.

Blogger and author Mark Pritchard went to the ceremony at the San Francisco Public Library and wonders why it was such a drag. Where were all the young people who cram into Litquake and Writers with Drinks, he asks.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Rain, Rain, Go Away

I know I should muster up my enthusiasm and delve right in to the world of books. But I can’t. It’s too dreary.

The Bay Area is feeling the effects of global warming. It has rained nearly every day for the past month. Not a light, sweet drizzle but a pounding relentless rain, punctuated by fierce downpours. 100-year old records have been broken in San Francisco, Oakland, and elsewhere.

The hills are so saturated they are beginning to slide. I live high up in the hills and every day I have to navigate my car through mud and running water. There are boulders in the street and I am afraid one will soon come crashing through my windshield. My car is so covered in mud it looks like one of those ads for an all-terrain vehicle.

It’s so yucky out that I try not to leave home. I have four books on reserve at the library, books I have been waiting months for, yet I haven’t retrieved them yet.

It’s supposed to dry up Thursday before a new set of storms move in Friday. Rain is forecast through the weekend and even beyond that.

The Chronicle had a bit of good news today. The new owners of the San Francisco Examiner are donating the paper’s archives to the Bancroft Library. The Examiner was William Randolph Hearst’s flagship paper, and the archives include articles and photographs from the late 19th century to the present. There are 5 million pieces, which means it will take years to catalogue the collection and make it available to scholars, but the collection will be a real boon to those studying California history.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Authors Get Politically Active

San Francisco author Stephen Elliot announced Monday the creation of LitPac, a political action committee that aims to involve authors more in the political process. Modeled on his Progressive Reading series, LitPac will host author readings around the country in New York, Portland, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Houston and Washington D.C. The money raised will be donated to progressive candidates around the country.

Elliott is the director of the group and the board of advisors includes Tobias Wolff, Daniel Handler, Aimee Bender, Rick Moody, and David Poindexter, the founder and publisher of MacAdam/Cage (via Maud Newton)

The San Francisco 1906 Earthquake ... Again

The countdown has begun on the many celebrations that will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

But as the Bay Area gears up with numerous photography exhibits, museum shows, lectures, walking tours, and a newly-commissioned dance piece, a piercing question is making its way to the forefront: Do you celebrate the feel-good aspect of the disaster – the part where San Francisco rose from the ashes – or the horrific part, where thousands died and official incompetence may have made the fire and destruction worse than it needed to be?

On top of that, do you examine how the city’s business leaders tried to downplay the disaster?

The Los Angeles Time’s new – and excellent – magazine, West, ran a series of articles on the earthquake on April 2. In one article, staff writers Lee Romney and John M. Glionna examine the difficulties in “celebrating” the 100th anniversary of the earthquake.

“(Mayor Gavin) Newsom acknowledged that the 1906 earthquake was an "awkward" event to mark.

"Do you sit there with a candlelight vigil and say, 'My God, how dare the city do what it did back then, with the corruption of city officials or the mistreatment of its Chinese American residents?' " he said.

"Do you sit there and tell people, 'Why are we all here? The next earthquake is going to come, and most of us are not going to make it.' Or do you focus on the city's comeback and rebuilding?"

In another article, Rebecca Solnit looks at how the earthquake was just one more event in a long string of events that erased San Francisco’s natural topography.

“The earthquake that hit before dawn on April 18, 1906, was the good news. It affected everyone, rich and poor, white and nonwhite, more or less equally. The fires that came after were the beginning of the bad news—the three-day blaze fanned by inept attempts to blast fire lines in the densely built city. Grim too was the reign of terror by vigilantes and soldiers who, as obsessed with looters as the authorities and the media were during the early days of Hurricane Katrina, shot and terrorized survivors and didn't give a damn about civil rights. Aid was distributed unevenly, as was shelter, and the poor had it hard. The earthquake is remembered as a sudden shaking or as three days of devastation, but like all such disasters it was also months of aftermath, years of rebuilding. The heroism came instantly, the greed and sleaze later, in phases that no one will celebrate and few may remember—as when, for example, the city's business leaders tried (unsuccessfully) to drive the Chinese community out of its longtime home on the eastern slope of Nob Hill.”

I am really excited by all the history surrounding the earthquake. I can’t really say I want to celebrate the date, but I am fascinated by how people reacted and made sense of their lives after the disaster.

Here are some new and worthy earthquake events and a calendar to all the rest. Don't forget to check out Wells Fargo Bank's excellent blog on the quake.

A restored earthquake shack (one of the thousands that were hastily built for homeless survivors) is now on display near Yerba Buena Gardens at Yerba Buena Lane on Market near 4th street.

In the Presidio, people can “relive” what it felt like to be homeless. (Thousands fled to the Presidio to avoid the fire) The Presidio is recreating a refugee camp, complete with tents and cottages and outdoor cooking stations. At the Main Post at the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Halleck Street.

On Saturday, April 8, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley features a lecture by historian Gray Brechin, aided by archival footage of the '06 earthquake loaned by the Library of Congress, a rare screening of FLAME OF BARBARY COAST starring John Wayne, experimental mediaworks by artists dealing with natural disasters, the 1957 B-movie THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED, and a special, enhanced presentation of the 1974 epic disaster film, EARTHQUAKE.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

I Guarantee At Least Two Chuckles

Click over as fast as you can to Ed Champion's April Fool's Day spoof of all the famous and annoying literary figures you can think of. (I know I'm a day late, but so what?)