Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Fuss over the New York Times Book Review

I’ve been really surprised by the vitriol spewed in the blogosphere about last week’s New York Times Book review. The section, with a big graphic of a ketchup bottle on the cover, was devoted to books on food.

A number of sites were incredulous at the selection, pointing out with disdain that this was the second themed Book Review in two weeks. The other one was a review focused on literature.

One blogger even went so far as to call the special section a “repulsive pretender,” and say he did not see one book reviewed that he wanted to read.

Now I understand the general griping about the NYTBR and its editor Sam Tanenhaus. It goes something like this: the section doesn’t review enough fiction and barely even considers fiction in translation or novels from emerging authors. Its reviewers are almost all male and white, with a few white female reviewers thrown in occasionally to appease the masses.

Fellow blogger Ed Champion has almost made a second career out of critiquing the New York Times Book Review. For months, he has graded the section and if he found it well-balanced in terms of fiction and non-fiction, male and female authors, male and female reviewers, he would award Sam Tanenhaus a brownie. If he found the section wanting he would DENY the brownie!!!
Now, while this is funny, I have never figured out if it is a literal or figurative brownie. (Ed, did you ever really send anything?) But the brownie metaphor came up again at a panel at the recent BEA conference. The NYTBR took it upon itself recently to select the best American novel of the last 25 years. They queried a number of authors and selected Toni Morrison’s Beloved as THE BOOK. The runners-up were mostly male (Phillip Roth and Don DeLillo’s books got a lot of votes). Naturally, almost no one except the editors of the NYTBR thought the nominated books reflected the canon of American literature, so the panel discussion at BEA was lively. Ed tried to make some points:

“I stood up and pointed out to Tanenhaus that the list of judges was mostly male and that this reflected a continuing trend by the NYTBR as a whole to give the majority of its reviews to men over women. I also asked how a weekly book review section that continued to prioritize nonfiction over fiction could legitimately put out a “Best Contemporary Fiction” list. I then revealed myself to be the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch guy and playfully asked why I hadn’t received a single thank you note for the brownies. “Is this a New York thing?” I asked.”

Why do so many bloggers care about the New York Times Book Review? After all, isn’t their reason for being to provide alternative voices to the mainstream? Isn’t that why they created the LitBlog Coop? To share fiction that hasn’t received wide-spread recognition?

I think the anger at the New York Times Book Review stems from this: most people rebel against authority at some stage in their lives and to lit bloggers, the NYTBR represents the mainstream publishing industry. It’s a difficult industry to break into, a very insular and often myopic group, and bloggers are pissed off they are not regarded with as much respect as they think they deserve. (Why else would they crow every time they are praised by a newspaper or other vehicle of the mainstream media? For example, Mark Sarvas has as a tagline at the top of his blog with these comments: A Forbes Best of the Web Pick; A Los Angeles Magazine Top Los Angeles Blog) Bloggers keep telling publishers that lit blogs are the way to create buzz for books, but the technology-phobic publishing industry hasn’t really caught on yet.

I think this rebellion may prove ultimately to be a good thing. I just think it will take years before the NYTBR redefines what it considers important literature. Every year the critics anoint some new writer, and increasingly they are people who write about our multicultural world. (Zadie Smith, for example) But the NYTBR will always reflect a New-York centric viewpoint and we all know New Yorkers consider their city to be the center of everything important. (Sort of like how the U.S. thinks it’s the greatest – and only important – country in the world)

But back to the food section. I want to disagree with all the negative ranting. I really enjoyed this section. Having just finished Michael Pollan’s book on the food industry – a book I consider really important – I loved finding out about books that explored American passion for food. After reading the review of Bill Buford’s Heat, a memoir that talks about his internship with chef Mario Batali, I immediately reserved it at the library. The review also made me want to read Julia Child’s memoir on food and France. I had heard a lot about the book but before I read the review I was lukewarm.

And isn’t this what a book review section is for? To make us go out and read new books? Honestly, how many books can an average person read a year? 20? The NYTBR reviews that many books each week. So even if the section give short shrift to contemporary fiction and emerging authors, it does provide great suggestions for books on a regular basis. And that is its job.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Has Anyone In Congress Read a Book Like This?

It took Reyna Grande three tries before she was able to illegally cross the border from Mexico into the United States. She was 10.

The first time, she was so sick with a fever that her father had to carry her on his back. They got caught.

On the second attempt, they crouched in the bushes next to a dead man covered with flies. Her father said the man had probably been murdered for his money by the coyote leading him across the border. They were caught again.

The third time Reyna made it. Now 30 years later she is a college graduate, a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the author of the forthcoming novel Across A Hundred Mountains.

California Authors has an essay of Reyna’s, describing her childhood, flight to the U.S. and thoughts on the current debate on immigration.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Bloggers Are Considered Journalists

There was good legal news on Friday, for once. A California court ruled that bloggers who gather news and other information should be afforded the same protection as traditional journalists.

The case came about when Apple Computer sued some bloggers who revealed news about an upcoming product. Apple argued that the bloggers should be forced to reveal their source since they weren’t journalists. Three judges disagreed.

In their decision, the judges wrote: "We can think of no workable test or principle that would distinguish 'legitimate' from 'illegitimate' news. Any attempt by courts to draw such a distinction would imperil a fundamental purpose of the First Amendment, which is to identify the best, most important, and most valuable ideas not by any sociological or economic formula, rule of law, or process of government, but through the rough and tumble competition of the memetic marketplace."

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

"This was a huge win for the First Amendment and for journalists who publish online," said Lauren Gelman, associate director for Stanford's Center for Internet and Society, who filed a brief supporting the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The court recognized that in the modern era, one way journalists publish information is through the Internet."

The ruling makes sense. The lines are already blurred between news that comes out in traditional outlets like newspapers, radio, and television, and news that is released on-line. Anyone who gathers information for public distribution now has added protections.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Summer Reading 2006

Summer must be coming because newspapers and on-line magazines are trotting out their “Best Summer Reads.”

In USA Today, John Grogan, the author of Marley and Me, says he wants to read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, because “he makes me question my comfortable assumptions and understand the true costs of the lifestyle choices I make."

Wally Lamb, the author of She's Come Undone, intends to read The March by E.L. Doctorow, Ted Williams by Leigh Montville and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: "These are the books my wife has raved most about from the other side of our bed."

Here’s USA Today’s complete list.

Slate asked authors to name their favorite beach books.

Michael Chabon said he doesn’t change what he reads when he’s at the beach. He just reads more.

Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet, recently devoured Hima Wolitzer’s Doctor’s Daughter. Wilma is the mother of author Meg Wolitzer (Who knew?) Now I definitely want to read this book.

Thriller writer Michael Connelly intends to read James’ Swanson’s Manhunt: The Hunt for Lincoln’s Assassin.

Other authors have this to say.

Booksense has some interesting picks for June:

They’ve recommended The Whole World Over, the new novel by Julia Glass, author of The Three Junes; Let Me Finish, a memoir by Roger Angell, Water, for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, and many more.

I’m still on my winter reading. My TBR stack from the library includes The Colony: The Harrowing Story of the True Exiles of Molokai by John Tayman; Once Upon a Day by Lisa Tucker; Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen.

I foresee large library fines ahead.

Is There Any Hope for Cody's Bookstore?

A group is forming to try and save Cody’s on Telegraph, similar to the successful attempt made last year to keep open Kepler’s in Menlo Park.

Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington is working with the group, which plans to hold a meeting on June 8, according to an article in the Oakland Tribune.

Owner Andy Ross announced a few weeks ago that the flagship Cody’s would close in July because it had lost more than $1 million in recent years.

The news spurred the city to pledge to clean up Telegraph Avenue, which has long been a favorite hang out for hippies, runaways, homeless people as well as students from Cal.

Berkeley is promising to clean the street more frequently, improve lighting, and streamline the requirements for new business permits.

Andy Ross told the Tribune he welcomes any attempts to keep the store open, but
“I don't have a solution. It's going to have to come from outside."

Gail Godwin's Queen of the Underworld

I’ve long been a fan of Gail Godwin’s. She has a way of penetrating the intricacies of human relationships that is both illuminating and satisfying. I adored The Good Husband, a story of two couples in a small university town. The main character, Magda, a professor, is dying and the book brings up questions about love, loyalty, and the true character of devotion.

So I was looking forward to reading Godwin’s latest book, Queen of the Underworld. And in the beginning, I was not disappointed. It tells the story of young Emma Gant as she graduates from college and heads down to Miami to start her first job as a newspaper reporter. Emma is talented and ambitious and thinks she understands more of the world than she actually does. This attitude comes because she has been involved in a year long liaison with a Jewish club owner, the married Paul Nightingale.

The scene Godwin sets is unforgettable. It is 1959, months after Fidel Castro has seized power in Cuba, and scores of disillusioned wealthy Cubans are streaming to Miami. They don’t know if Castro will remain in power or be ousted by the Americans, so their exile has a temporary quality to it. Emma is staying in a hotel filled with these Cuban refugees, and Godwin does an excellent job is creating vivid characters, like Alex, the hotel manager, a Harvard graduate, and wanna-be fighter. Alex’s mother Lidia has been married five times and is a beautiful, larger-than-life figure who organizes opposition to Castro by throwing cocktail parties around the pool.

Godwin also does an wonderful job describing the newsroom of the fictional Miami Star and the challenges facing young female reporters. Godwin worked as a reporter for the Miami Herald in 1959 until she was fired. (And turned to fiction) Al Neuharth, the loquacious and slick founder of USA Today was the assistant managing editor of the Herald when Godwin was there. She gets her revenge on him 46 years later by creating the character Lou Norbright, a newspaper man so ambitious and odious that colleagues call him Lucifer behind his back.

A third plot element has to do with a newspaper series Norbright wrote called “Queen of the Underworld,” about a beautiful young farm girl who became engaged to a member of the Mafia, and then went to work as a madam in a brothel.

So Godwin sets up a wonderful environment. Emma keeps being sent on to cover inane stories and I kept waiting for her to realize that the biggest story of all – the Cuban migration into Miami – is sitting right in front of her at her hotel. But does Emma see this? Is there ever a moment of epiphany? No.

This is where Godwin falls short. There really is no plot, no dĂ©nouement, and this ultimately proves disappointing. The book instead just seems to be a reflection of the choices Godwin made in her life. In the end, Emma decides to write a fictional account of the Queen of the Underworld. She doesn’t shun journalism; she just decides to explore a different way of getting at the truth.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Future of Independent Bookstores

Paul Collins, the author of Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, has an interesting article in the Voice Literary Supplement about the future of independent bookstores.

It follows a slew of books and articles looking at the topic.

Slate’s Tyler Cowan has his say.

Laura J. Miller has written a whole book on the subject.

And here’s a story about independent bookstores in Britain.

IN OTHER NEWS: There will be free sneak preview of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, tonight at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium. It starts at 8 pm.

Friday, May 19, 2006


This is an easy time to be a blogger. It’s BEA time – the book world’s convention – and lots of bloggers are writing about it.

Ed Champion's Return of the Reluctant (Read about his public dust-up with the editor of the New York Times Book Review)

The Millions

Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

Inside BookExpo

On a sadder note, Judith Moore, the Berkeley author who wrote the acclaimed memoir Fat Girl, has died. She was 66 and died from colon cancer.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Why Cost-Cutting Is Not A Good Idea ...

This says more about the state of journalism in America today than anything else I’ve read. From the New York Times:

“Two Investigative Reporters Leave

Donald Barlett and James Steele, two investigative reporters who have chronicled the vicissitudes of the American economy for Time magazine since 1997, have lost their jobs in a budget squeeze.

The reporting duo, who together won two Pulitzer Prizes and two national magazine awards, were on the payroll of Time Inc. Their jobs were among about 650 that the company has eliminated in the last six months.

John Huey, editor in chief of Time Inc., said that as he cut corporate costs, he sought unsuccessfully to place the two men on the payroll of a company magazine.

"They're very good but very expensive, and I couldn't get anyone to take them on their budget," Mr. Huey said. "We'll miss their work."

Mr. Steele, 63, who began working with Mr. Barlett, 69, at The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1971, said: "We've had a great run at Time, but apparently the decision was made at the corporate level not to fund this kind of work."

These are the guys who exposed our country's dysfunctional tax system; its whacked-out medical system; exposed the problems with post-9/11 security and so much more.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Michael Pollan, again

I know I have been blogging a lot about Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. But that’s because I was so taken with his book, which opened my eyes to an industrial food complex I never knew existed.

I didn’t expect to learn so much. I live in Berkeley, California and have been buying organic milk for my two daughters for more than a decade (I didn’t want the growth hormones fed to cattle to wrack havoc on their growth) I have a friend who sells me grass-fed beef from cattle raised on her family’s farm. Every time I take a bite of a potato chip I do so in full recognition that the oil used to fry it is rushing straight to my arteries.

What more was there to know? Organic, good, everything else bad. Fresh is better than processed and local is better than imported.

Pollan makes these points and does a masterful job of showing how the American food machine is out of whack, and how its excesses are leading to obesity, diabetes, and early death. He argues vigorously that our desire to have any food in any season at a reasonable price gives us supermarkets stuffed with gorgeous, tempting products – but at a great social and ecological cost. (It takes a lot of fossil fuel to bring those grapes from Chile).

What really stunned me is the great cost to animals to make this happen. Ranchers now stuff their cattle with corn instead of grass because it is cheaper and plumps them up faster. But cows’ digestive systems can’t process the corn so they get sick – even growing a virulent form of e-coli in their stomachs. Ranchers fill the cattle with antibiotics to make them fit for human consumption.

Chickens, even organic “free-range ones” are raised in pens that are so crowded the birds can barely move. To stop them pecking one another, some ranchers routinely cut off their beaks.

Pigs are also raised in conditions that force them to become belligerent. They are taken from their mothers ten days after birth (instead of at weaning at 13 weeks), giving them a lifelong obsession with sucking and chewing. When they are crammed into pens to be fattened for market, they have a tendency to bite off other pigs’ tails To stop this, ranchers snip off the tails – this is called tail docking -- but deliberately leave a sensitive stump. That’s because pigs are highly intelligent and get depressed at their condition, but can be forced out of their depression when their sensitive tails get touched.

Pollan is not an animal rights crusader, and a good part of his book explores the ethics of eating meat. He concludes, in a very interesting fashion, that killing and eating meat is actually a humane act. But his reporting makes the reader ponder the kind of meat she is eating and whether the cruel practices used to get that beef on a barbeque is necessary. As he puts it in the inscription in my book: “Vote with your fork.”

There are many other fascinating issues he raises. I encourage everyone to read the book. If you don’t have the time, remember the mantra, “Eat Local.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Starbucks, which has conquered almost every corner in America, is now bringing authors to its headquarters to do readings. It’s part of a trend documented today by the New York Times. While some bookstores are leery, I think it’s a great way to get those who are too busy or indifferent to think about books.

Pamela Mazzola and Nancy Oakes, the authors of the spectacular cookbook, Boulevard, did a lot of speaking at companies on their book tour. One visit was to Google on the San Francisco peninsula. The company bought about 500 cookbooks and the authors spent the day signing and talking to people about food. Sales beat out a day at Costco, where just a handful of people bought books.

Bookstores do a great job of selling books because those working there can recommend books to customers. The hand-selling can go on for weeks. These mega-events at companies are usually just one-shot deals; the sales made that day end that day. But the best way to permeate this cluttered culture is to be ubiquitous: in bookstores, at work, on the radio, in the newspaper.

The finalists for the Gerald Loeb awards in business journalism have been announced and it is interesting to see that the nominated books are actually books that have sold well

The finalists in the business book category are:
-- James B. Stewart for DisneyWar published by Simon and Schuster

-- Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner for Freakonomics published by William Morrow (Harper Collins)

-- Thomas L. Friedman for The World is Flat published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Maybe this book can explain why Cody’s on Telegraph is closing, Kepler’s can barely manage to stay open and a Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books is struggling with sales. (via California Authors)

Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption by Laura J, m.d. Miller

Over the past half-century, bookselling, like many retail industries, has evolved from an arena dominated by independent bookstores to one in which chain stores have significant market share. And as in other areas of retail, this transformation has often been a less-than-smooth process. This has been especially pronounced in bookselling, argues Laura J. Miller, because more than most other consumer goods, books are the focus of passionate debate. What drives that debate? And why do so many people believe that bookselling should be immune to questions of profit?”

Monday, May 15, 2006

Scan This Book! by Kevin Kelly

The New York Times Magazine cover story was all about the digitalization of books and the benefits of a universal library.

There was one element of the article that really excited me. I do a lot of research online and have greatly benefited from Google Scholar, Google Print, and Amazon Inside the Book. I have typed in various keywords into those search engines and have been continually delighted when they show me books and article that I had never heard about.

The Times piece says that the universal digital library will take this one step further. A person could read a book online and then go to the footnotes, click on a hyperlink, and be taken to the original source material.

This would revolutionize research, making it much, much easier to consult with a wide array of sources. Right now, when I read a book and decide I want to look at the original source material, I have to traipse over to the library to try and find the book. I am lucky to live near the Bancroft Library and the libraries at UC Berkeley, so I usually can find what I need. But if I lived in the middle of nowhere, I would have to plan a special trip to Berkeley to refer to those sources. And as soon as I got home again, I would discover there were books I had neglected to ask for.

The universal library will erase these physical boundaries -- which may improve scholarship and journalism.

Read Scott Esposito’s take on the matter. (He thinks it sounds too utopian, particularly the part where people can “create” their own books by cutting and pasting from existing books)

Here is what Ann Althouse said.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Cody's Books on Telegraph is Closing

Well, the news was as depressing as possible this morning. Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley will be closing in July, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The store has lost more than $1 million over the last 15 years, according to Andy Ross, the owner, who blamed the decline on the rise of chain stores and the Internet.

Cody’s will still continue at its Fourth Street location and at its new store on Stockton Street in San Francisco. But those two stores don’t have the depth of inventory and feel-free-to-browse atmosphere of the store on Telegraph. The south Berkeley store is an institution, a place that sat square and center in the various liberation movements of the 1960s. It is a half-block from People’s Park, the site of rioting and protests and just a few blocks from Sather Gate, the center of the UC Berkeley campus.

Telegraph Avenue is still a counter-culture environment, which may have contributed to the decline in sales. There are homeless people camped out in the park and it’s impossible to walk more than a few feet without getting a sniff of stale urine or being asked to buy a Street Spirit Magazine. Tie dye and dreadlocks abound. The street is lots of fun for youths and teenagers, but is not a draw for more staid types.

I am going to miss this place. I have gone to countless readings there. When I need a book, I know I can find it at Cody’s. The store carries almost everything, while other independent bookstores often have to order particular titles. This closure, Kepler’s near closure, and the announcement that a Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books is for sale, suggests that these are dark days for independent bookstores in the Bay Area.

IN OTHER NEWS, the New York Times has its take on the feud between the current and past owners of the Pulitzer-Prize winning Pt. Reyes Light.

Monday, May 08, 2006

You Never Know When Good Fortune Will Strike

It’s tough to get an agent. Some authors query hundreds of people before finding representation. But look at this story. It’s from an interview with Danielle Durkin, an acquiring editor at Random House.

Sometimes, just having a big mouth will get you somewhere. (via Booksquare)

Mediabistro: You met one of your authors, composer David Israel (Behind Everyman: A Novel for Guys and the Women Who Rescue Them) on the subway, and wound up later signing him. How did you get started talking about his work? When such a situation arises, do you recommend agents to authors?

Durkin: That is my favorite story ever! I usually don’t talk to folks on the subway and have a few polite ways of deflecting strangers who want to show me their novels. But David had something special that attracted me and I’m so glad I made an exception in his case. He saw me with a Random House tote bag on my arm and started chatting me up. After I got over my initial reticence to speak to him, I learned that he was a very successful composer, that he had been abroad working on fiction, and that he was extremely intelligent and funny. We talked and talked and finally I agreed to look at his work (and made him miss his subway stop!). I did help him find an agent, and yes — if I find an author who I think has talent, I absolutely become her/his advocate and will help to hook them up with an agent.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Early Week Musings

Neil MacFarquhar’s novel, The Sand CafĂ©, got a wonderful review from Christopher Dickey in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday.

“Set in Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, MacFarquhar's depiction of the life and work, the pettiness, jealousies and corrosive frustration of the press corps is so accurate that it's hard to brand as satire. War is hell, to be sure, but when it's not, it's boring as hell: this is the sad, funny, ironic, infuriating truth about the kind of job we do, and the way we do it when the guns are mostly silent.

"News," Evelyn Waugh wrote in "Scoop," "is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read. And it's only news until he's read it. After that it's dead." MacFarquhar's book, albeit fiction, exhumes with great wit and disquieting accuracy those long-forgotten headlines and many of the true stories behind them. He recounts what Waugh would call the "heroic legends" of hackdom, "of the classic scoops and hoaxes; of the confessions wrung from hysterical suspects; of the innuendo and intricate misrepresentations, the luscious, detailed inventions that composed contemporary history." And few writers since Waugh have done it any better.”

Neil will be speaking Wednesday at 7 pm at A Great Good Place for Books on LaSalle Avenue in Oakland. He’ll also be talking at Cody’s in Berkeley on June 6. These are his first appearances in the Bay Area. He is now based in San Francisco and will be covering American Islam for the New York Times. I’ll be there on Wednesday and hope others will come for what will definitely be an interesting evening.

ANNE LAMOTT a contributing editor to West, has her first long piece in the Los Angeles Times’ revamped Sunday magazine. The examines her son Sam, who at 16 is a perfect angel at his friends’ houses, but is a bit slothful at home.

It’s very disturbing to see that a federal grand jury in San Francisco has subpoenaed Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada to make them reveal where they got grand jury testimony about steroids and professional baseball players.

The Bush administration has adopted this legal manuver to compel reporters to reveal the identities of anonymous informants. It’s a craven technique, one that borders on bullying. It also denies that the trading of information is vital to a democracy.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Check Out These Blogs

I’ve decided to update my blogroll (on the right side of the screen) to better reflect who I am reading. I tossed out some of the bigger books blogs, like The Elegant Variation and Books, Buzz & Hype. I figure they don’t need any more promotion, while less popular blogs could use some hype.

These are the blogs I’m enjoying:

GalleyCat is hardly a small blog, but it’s become an indispensable locale for all the gossip of the publishing world. It is written by Ron Hogan, who has another blog, Beatrice, and Sarah Weinman, who covers crime fiction in her popular blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. (I just deleted their personal blogs from the list in favor of this one.) They post several times a day.

Critical Mass is the brand new blog from critics of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors. Rebecca Skloot, a terrific science writer and critic, appears to be doing the heavy lifting of the blog, but there are many other contributors as well.

Rejection is my middle name is a blog written by Peter Handel, a Bay Area publicist. Handel did a lot of book reviewing for the Chronicle when Pat Holt was the paper’s book editor, and he represents many interesting authors. He speaks frequently around the Bay Area on ways that authors can publicize their books. (In fact, I am planning to hear him May 9 at 7 p.m. at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism)

Not a soccer mom is a blog by Tracey Taylor, a Brit who recently moved to the Bay Area. Taylor, a freelance journalist for various British newspapers, like the Financial Times, shares her observations on Bay Area life. She’s got a dry wit and a discerning eye.

ReadingWritingLiving is a beautifully written blog by Susan Ito, a versatile writer who is comfortable writing fiction and non-fiction. Susan was an editor of A Ghost at Heart’s Edge: Stories and Poems of Adoption, and she frequently comments on the difficulty of combining motherhood and writing.

Don’t forget to visit some of my other favorites: California Authors, which focuses on literature of the west (Please post more, though) and LA Observed, one of the best blogs anywhere on the Internet.

I would be remiss by not pointing out that one of the Bay Area's best independent bookstores is up for sale. The owners of A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on Van Ness Avenue blame lousy foot traffic for a steep decline in sales. (It costs a quarter to park for 6 minutes outside the store.) Heidi Benson wrote about it in the Chronicle.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Organic Milk

I’m deep into Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

What surprises me is the book’s density. In his talks, Pollan says he follows the food chain of three meals: a fast food hamburger from McDonald’s, a supper cooked with ingredients from Whole Foods and a meal made from food he hunted and foraged himself.

I’m on page 77 – admittedly not very far in a 411 page book – but I haven’t seen a hint of McDonald’s yet. In fact, Pollan front loads his book with a lot of science about corn. He includes details about its history, its chemical and molecular structure, and the pros and cons of hybridization. This part is very well-written, but it’s not an easy read. I had expected to begin with an artfully written first person narrative that talked about fast food, and used that as a jumping off point for other issues.

The more difficult beginning suggests that Pollan’s readers are, for the most part, a devoted and very intelligent bunch of people who are willing to think hard. This is unusual in today’s world where everything is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. This book demands that the reader concentrate closely. I read a lot of nonfiction, but not a lot of science nonfiction, so perhaps this is normal.

In his lecture, Pollan talked about the increasing corporatization of organics. Just because milk is organic, he offered as an example, doesn’t mean that the cows are leading a leisurely pastoral life. In fact, most cows that produce organic milk are as tightly squeezed into barns as other cows – they just get organic corn. Pollan pointed out that a consumer could tell which cows ate grass by reading the print on the side of the cartoon. If the writing doesn’t mention grass, the cows are not loose on a pasture.

I’ve been feeding my children organic milk for most of their lives. I made the switch after hearing how growth hormones fed to cows were migrating to their milk. Some scientists thought the hormones might explain why American girls are entering puberty earlier than ever before.

After I made the switch to organic, I didn’t pay close attention to which kind of milk I bought. I mostly purchased Horizon because it was the most available.

After Pollan’s talk, I looked at the milk in my refrigerator more closely. I had a carton of a new brand of milk, called O organics. It’s Safeway’s new line of organics, and it’s noticeably cheaper than other brands. But here is what the description on the carton says:

“Our dairy pastures are environmentally friendly, maintained with the use of recognized organic horticultural practices. The dairy cows that produce O organics Milk enjoy a healthy mix of fresh air, plenty of exercise, clean drinking water and a wholesome 100% certified organic diet.”

Notice there is no mention of grass.

On the carton of milk produced by Clover Organic Farms, in contrast, are these words:

“The family farms on the North Coast have open, green pasture, plenty of walking area, fresh air, clean bedding, and are all American Humane Association Free Farm certified.” It goes on to say that “These family farms provide their cows with a diet of 100% organically grown feed.”

This suggests the cows do get to graze.

So, as Pollan suggests, buying local food does ensure better quality.

Monday, May 01, 2006

LA Times Festival of Books

Luke Ford weighs in on the LA Times Festival of Books, which drew 127,000 people over the weekend. He’ is shocked by the performance of David Kipen, the Chronicle’s former book editor. Kipen was on a panel called The Outsiders: Independent Film Today, with panelist-authors Peter Biskind, Marshall Fine, Kenneth Turan and moderator Rocky Lang. This is what Ford says:

“Kipen has the appalling manners to eat a complete meal while serving on the panel. He stuffs his face with several different dishes, but pauses at times to wipe his face and weigh in with his opinions.

I've seen a hundred or so panels in my life, and even witnessed the painful spectacle of panelists chewing gum while pouring out their views, but I've never seen anybody eat while on a panel. Who raised David Kipen? Wolves? Aborigines?

Turan has the bad luck to sit next to Kipen and watches him appalled.”

Other coverage of the Times Book Festival:

Limousine under surveillance Posted by Picasa

Celebrity Stalking

I got a call Sunday afternoon from a glossy celebrity magazine, asking if I could go to Napa to track down some movie stars. The celebrities, whom I will not name, are involved in a messy headline-making divorce.

The assignment was to hang out at some exclusive spots in Napa, eat dinner, and see if I could spot the couple, preferably kissing one another in a loud and public way.

I am not very experienced at celebrity chasing, but I know it’s a growth market, so I accepted the assignment. What made the event a real experience was that I brought my 13-year old daughter.

Let me tell you, a 13 year old who reads Teen People, Elle for Girls, Vogue for Girls, who actually knows how to download songs from I-tunes, and even knew more details about the canoodling couple than I did, is a perfect celebrity-stalking companion.

We got up to the Napa airport in the early evening. I had planned to hang around and ask anyone if they had spotted the celebrities. As soon as I had parked, and my daughter had gotten out of the car, I spotted a stretch white limousine in my rear view mirror. I signaled to Charlotte, who jumped back into the car. We raced to follow the limo.

It pulled up at an electric gate permitting access to the air field. As I slid my car into an illegal spot, Charlotte jumped out with a camera in hand, and ran and hid behind some parked cars. She darted back and forth to get a better view of the limo, always hiding herself from view.

I have to say, this did my heart good. My daughter is a natural celebrity stalker! She had no compunction about spying. In fact, she was even better than I.

I took over after that, wandering the airport and talking to the limo driver, who was there to pick up wealthy Japanese businessmen, and others hanging around the airport.

Once the airport didn’t pan out, we headed further north to our Napa hotspot. It was a grueling evening. First we were forced to have drinks on the deck, looking out on the beautiful Napa Valley. The temperature was 81 degrees. Then we had to have a four-course meal that lasted at least three hours. It was tough.

Of course that description doesn’t include all the furtive side trips to canvas the pool, the spa, the tennis courts and the bathrooms. I had a lovely visit with the valet. The waiter was also helpful. They all made it clear that the canoodling couple had not visited that Napa hotspot. My daughter took as many trips around the restaurant, peeking into intimate nooks and crannies.

As we drove back to Berkeley close to midnight, our investigative talents exhausted, I felt slightly disappointed. My celebrity sighting score was zero. But I was proud that I was training my replacement. Maybe the next time the glossy magazine calls, I will hand the phone to Charlotte.