Friday, February 24, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell

Has blogging reached the tipping point? Who knows, but the auteur himself, Malcolm Gladwell, has just started a blog. (via Bookslut)

David Kipen

Mark Sarvas has an interesting interview with David Kipen, the former Chronicle book critic who now serves as the director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts. Kipen says the anti-NEA forces that once ruled Congress have quieted and funding is steady. Kipen just wrote his first book, The Schrieber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film Industry, in which he argues that screenwriters, rather than directors, are the real auteurs of film.

Sarvas, who runs the blog The Elegant Variation, out of Los Angeles, posted the interview at the LitBlog Coop, run by a dozen literary bloggers who banded together to draw attention to under-appreciated books. They run a competition four times a year, with a number of the bloggers selecting books they think deserve more attention. The bloggers read the various books and then vote. The first book selected was Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. This winter, the book is Garner by Kirsten Allio.

The LBC is an interesting experiment; can a group deliberately set out to improve a book’s sales? The LBC does its best to stir up interest and their activities have helped books rise in the Amazon rankings, but so far there has been no breakout book. It’s clear literary bloggers have limited influence.

Honestly, I haven’t run to the bookstore to pick up any of the books recommended by the LBC. I am sure they are worthy, but I am somewhat suspicious of books selected by committee. I’d rather read a single lit blogger’s recommendation and go and get a book. I’m influenced by the blogger’s personality and often know other books he or she has recommended, so I have a compass to guide me.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Cross between Idolizing and Hating

What’s the fine line between idolizing someone and hating them? What does it mean when someone famous, someone you have never met, takes up too much real estate in your brain? Washington Post writer Ann Hornaday calls it idolspize and she applies her theories to Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief and many other well-told tales.

Do you idolspize?

Or, more to the point, whom do you idolspize?

THEN …..

I idolspize Susan Orlean.

Please understand: I adore Susan Orlean and begrudge her nothing, not the New Yorker gig, the books, the close-up-ready face. Not even the two great movies based on her articles -- "Adaptation" and "Blue Crush" -- that opened the same year . Still, throughout the ensuing weekend, my mind obsessively returned to the same thoughts, the mewling laments of a puny inquisitor: She's got the career, the looks, the romance, the kid. Did she have to get the perfect house, too? Must her happiness, however justified, be so in-your-face? Must she be so promiscuous in her bliss?

We all have them, those close friends, colleagues, casual acquaintances or complete strangers whose lives and careers exist -- it seems to us -- solely as a rebuke to our own. We respect them, admire them from afar, maybe even love them -- but with a twinge of . . . what exactly? Jealousy? Envy? White-knuckled rage? They're the people who are constantly reminding us that we'll never quite measure up. They're the valedictorians to our salutatorians, the bestsellers to our mid-listers, the mid-listers to our never-published, the homecoming queens to our also-rans. They seem to have sprung fully formed from our ugliest competitive streaks, our egos at their most fragile, our deepest self-loathing. They are our own squandered potential, fully realized.



I-MADE-it-up memoirist James Frey's new megabucks book deal has exploded into a million little pieces. Frey had a deal with his current publisher, Penguin-owned imprint Riverhead, for two more books, which was inked just before it was scandalously revealed last month that Frey had fabricated much of his story. The reputed new seven-figure contract included Frey's "first" novel, a "multi-voiced, multi-threaded story of contemporary Los Angeles," slated for publication in fall 2007. But a publishing source told PAGE SIX's Jared Paul Stern that Riverhead decided the author was too much of a liability and has just nixed the deal after much discussion. "That is correct, and we have no comment," Frey's rep says.

Earlier this month, Frey's literary agent Kassie Evashevski, who negotiated the deal, dropped him citing "broken trust." Meanwhile, Warner Bros. is re-evaluating its big screen adaptation of Frey's faux memoir "A Million Little Pieces." But none of the negativity has had much impact on sales of the book, which recently hit the 3 million mark.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Scenes from the wine country

I was lucky enough to spend a few days in the wine country where the mustard was blooming and the temperature hovered around 70 degrees. I'm off again to the snow, where it will be cold and grey. Ah, the extremes of winter in California!

A few things I have enjoyed recently:

Mark Pritchard interviews Meredith Maran, an East Bay writer who is writing a novel after 10 books of non-fiction. Meredith has an essay in the new anthology Why I'm Still Married which is a delightful account of meeting her French lover after thinking love would never strike her again.

The Bancroft Library is celebrating 100 years on the Berkeley campus with a fantastic exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum. This is a must-see. There is the gold nugget that started the Gold Rush, old maps of California, letters from people like Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, pictures of San Francisco in the Gold Rush, after the earthquake and fire, and much more.

I went to the opening reception and was looking at a picture of Black Panther Huey Newton. It was taken when he was young and gorgeous. His chest rippled and his skin was smooth. Just then Kathleen Cleaver, the former wife of Eldridge Cleaver and an early member of the Panthers, walked up. I commented on how charismatic Newton looked. She agreed but said she always was more attracted to "bad boys" and that's why she hooked up with Eldridge!

Kathleen Cleaver, who now works at Yale, came to Berkeley to talk at a two-day conference sponsored by the Bancroft Library. It was almost a mini-review of the West, as the talks ranged from the Mexican rule to biotechnology. I think this library --- which also has a wonderful exhibit of the San Francisco earthquake on view at Doe Library -- is one of the region's most amazing resources. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The New Bestsellers

There are some interesting developments in the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list this week.

The most apparent is the meteoric rise of Ayelet Waldman’s new novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits to position #2, a week after its release. It’s clear the Bay Area loves Ayelet. She’s invited to speak everywhere and semi-specializes in luncheons with dozens of women in the audience. Her controversial essay on loving her husband, Michael Chabon, more than her children, outraged sexy mothers everywhere, but it appears to have catapulted her from regional to national stature.

But how is she developing as a writer? Her Mommy Track mysteries are like little bon-bons, sweet, but not filling. Daughter’s Keeper, her last novel, was more ambitious, but not entirely successful. Many people I know liked it; I felt its pace was hurried and its tone too commercial.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits , which dwells on "maternal ambivalence," the theme Ayelet explored in her essay, got a good review Sunday in the New York Times. The article took up a half-page, which is a compliment and a testament to how much more famous Ayelet has become; Daughter’s Keeper only got a short blurb in the Times. While the reviewer did use those dreaded words “chick-lit” in connection with the book, she also liked the book a lot. Others have disliked the book with the same fervency.

Ayelet will be all around the Bay Area this week. She’ll be at Cody’s Books on Telegraph on Wednesday evening and Rakestraw Books in Danville on Thursday, as well as other venues in the weeks to come.

IN ANOTHER INTERESTING DEVELOPMENT …. Liz Perle’s book, Money, A Memoir, is at #7 on the Chronicle’s non-fiction list. Clearly, her book about how women struggle with money has touched a nerve. Liz’s press has been great as well: Time and People Magazine did features on her and she appeared on some of the morning shows. Perle will be at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland on March 9.

I AM OFF AGAIN for a few days to write, write, write.

February 15th marks the one year anniversary of Ghost Word. It’s been great fun to throw my ideas on-line, showcase books and authors I like, and “meet” so many other bloggers. But it feels appropriate to spend the anniversary working on my book, which is an even greater labor of love.

I leave you with a link to ReadingWritingLiving, the blog of Bay Area author Susan Ito. In the past few weeks, Ito has been writing about leaving her children to go on writing retreats and the tension between responsibility to one’s self as a writer and responsibility to family. I have found it very interesting.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Truman Capote

I was so captivated by the movie Capote (even though a mess-up at the theater meant I missed the first five minutes) that I decided to read the book it was based on, Capote by Gerald Clarke. After all, I reasoned, I am writing a biography and I might learn something from the book’s structure and rhythm.

Well, that was an understatement. The book is a marvel, an I-can’t-put-it-down masterpiece of 540 pages, each dripping with delicious and sometimes excruciating details about ruman Capote.

I remember when he died in 1984. By that point Capote was an overweight, pill and alcohol addicted mess, in and out of hospitals. It had been 20 years since the release of In Cold Blood, his masterpiece, so at the time I wasn’t particularly saddened by his death.

But I clearly did not fully appreciate Capote’s brilliance. As Clarke demonstrates, for most of his life Capote was a disciplined, driven writer. While he enjoyed fancy cocktail parties with the glitterati in New York and on the yachts of people like Aristotle Onassis and Marella Agnelli, he spent most of his time holed up in spartan island houses typing away. He was truly dedicated to his craft and was in complete command of his language and style.

His wrote in almost every medium. While he made his mark with short, almost Gothic short stories, his novels, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, were admired. He wrote travel pieces for Vogue, a much-talked about profile of the reclusive Marlon Brando for The New Yorker, and numerous other articles. Every time he came out with new work, it made a stir.

Of course part of his popularity came from his personality. As Philip Seymour Hoffman so ably demonstrates in the movie, Capote was effeminate and spoke in a high pitched tone. He was also a great listener and soon found that the world’s most social women – Babe Paley, Lee Radziwall, CZ Guest – were devoted to him. All that changed when he published a short story that parodied their lifestyle. He was cast out, decried as a traitor, and that was the start of his downward spiral.

The book highlights an era when writers were a dominant part of American culture, when what they thought, said, and wrote about was eagerly anticipated. There are a few such writers in the country today, but their role, as everyone knows, has been eclipsed by the rise of celebrities in every other form – the movies, the sports fields, the world of music.

As for learning how to write a biography from this book, well, I can only dream. Clarke, a former reporter for Time Magazine, spent almost 10 years in Capote’s company and interviewed hundreds of his friends. He got amazing material and wrote a gripping book with it. Capote spent 13 weeks in 1988 on the New York Times bestseller list – the longest time ever for a literary biography. It has just been reissued in paperback to coincide with the movie. Just as Capote, the movie, is a must-see, Capote the book is a must-read.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Watch What the Los Angeles Times is Doing

David Ulin, the new editor of the Los Angeles Book Review, has a thoughtful – and right on – essay about the line between truth and fiction in memoir. He points out that a number of accomplished memoirists – Anne Dillard, Vivian Gornick, and Hunter S. Thompson, have admitted over the years that they massaged the truth to reach something deeper in their books. But what James Frey did still stands out.

“For writers like Dillard, Gornick and Thompson, what's at issue is emotional truth, the need to re-create the sensibility, the tenor, of an experience in a reader's mind. This is the essence of literature, which like all art, operates at a level beyond the rational, according to rules of its own. In literature, truth is not so much known as it is felt, and empathy is as important as understanding. In literature, the logic of the story can sometimes trump the logic of the world. If this sounds disingenuous, it's not meant to — on the contrary, it's what makes art resonate.

To tell a story is in a very real way to cast off the veils of genre and simply see what works. That's particularly the case in the nebulous category known as creative nonfiction, which exists somewhere between truth and invention, in a territory that's still taking shape. You'd be hard pressed to find a work of creative nonfiction that didn't involve some degree of reinvention, whether in the construction of scenes (description, dialogue) or the interpretive filter every writer brings to his or her version of events. Is this dishonest? No more so than memory, with its vagaries and false turns: a narrow, flawed and ultimately subjective window on the world.

For a lot of people, the very phrase "creative nonfiction" is an oxymoron. There's nothing creative, they would say, about the truth. But the more you think about it, the more such an argument becomes specious or (worse) unsophisticated, a misunderstanding of how creative writing works. The decision to tell a story is a fictionalizing impulse: to take the chaos of reality and shape it, looking for order, meaning, where none inherently exists. This is as true of memoir as it is of the novel. Genre distinctions aside, most writers try to tell the truth as they see it, to reveal something lasting about their experience. Frey, we now know, had other intentions; he lied, pure and simple, and for reasons that had nothing to do with literature. It was not emotional truth that he was after, but emotional untruth, a willful obfuscation in the interest of appearing to be something he was not. Still, for all the pathological aspects of his story, it does touch on more important — and more interesting — questions, reminding us that every piece of writing is, at bottom, a construction, an attempt to frame a moment and present it in cohesive form.”

In another LA Times matter, the new magazine West was unveiled on Sunday. As a California writer, I am excited about West’s ambition to cover the entire state, to engage its history and future and run pieces that illuminate the puzzle that is California.

Rick Wartzman is the new editor, and he brings the eye of a journalist and author to his position. I met him briefly last summer at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and was impressed by his willingness to try new things. Next week, Berkeley author Carla Shrapreau will have a piece on violins – their creation and the black market for stolen ones. She brought the piece to be workshopped at Squaw. Wartzman was assigned to edit and comment on it and he liked it so much he bought it on the spot. That’s what I call a good editor. Here’s a bit from his editor’s note.

"The state is an immense canvas, and we aim to capture it in the grandest sense imaginable: our dreamers and pragmatists; our mountains, deserts and coast; our endless urban sprawl; Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the biggest farm belt in the nation in between; our multiethnic stew; the challenges brought on by our exploding population; style, design and fashion; music and literature; and on and on and on....

From time to time, we'll also cover subjects that shape the larger Western region. And we'll write from locations that practically seem like suburbs, given their nexus to California. Think Las Vegas, the Pacific Rim, Latin America."

I am a fan of the San Francisco Chronicle, but both its magazine and book review section are on life support. The poor Chronicle is bleeding money – it lost more readers last year than any other newspaper – and it clearly isn’t dedicating many resources to the sections of the paper it deems non-essential. That said, the paper had a great piece this Sunday on certain violent police officers. I also liked the recent series on how global warming is affecting the Pacific Rim.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Frey, Frey, Frey and more Frey, and yes a little Talese

Nan Talese was apparently taken by surprise when she appeared on Oprah. She thought she was there to talk about “truth” in general, not her client, James Frey.

Frey’s agent has dropped him.

His contrite author’s note, which will appear in all new editions of A Million Little Pieces, is here:

"During the process of writing the book, I embellished many details about my past experiences, and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book. I sincerely apologize to those readers who have been disappointed by my actions...."
"As I wrote, I worked primarily from memory. I also used supporting documents, such as medical records, therapists' notes, and personal journals, when I had them, and when they were relevant...."

"I altered events and details all the way through the book. Some of those include my role in a train accident that killed a girl from my school. While I was not, in real-life, directly involved in the accident, I was profoundly affected by it. Others involved jail time I served, which in the book is three months, but which in reality was only several hours, and certain criminal events, including an arrest in Ohio, which was embellished. There has been much discussion, and dispute, about a scene in the book involving a root-canal procedure that takes place without anesthesia. I wrote that passage from memory, and have medical records that seem to support it. My account has been questioned by the treatment facility, and they believe my memory may be flawed...."

"I made other alterations in my portrayal of myself, most of which portrayed me in ways that made me tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am.... My mistake, and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience."

NOW THAT everyone is getting flogged publicly, Ellen Emry Heltzel raises the question whether there is a conflict of interest when a journalist has a book deal? In an article provocatively titled “Another Thing Rotten in Bookland: Reporters by Day/Book-Floggers by Night “ she questions how reporters/authors treat their information. Where is the juiciest information first released? In the newspaper or on television or in the book? Is it seemly to promote your own product on your news show?