Monday, June 26, 2006

Monday Meanderings

I’m heading out on vacation for a week, but here are some ideas worth pondering:

Journalists are turning the tables on traditional media by raising gobs of money and creating their own muckraking blogs, according to the Wall Street Journal. (I guess I'm not doing something right here.)

Anthologies are hot, as are attempts to understand the intersection of American and Middle Eastern culture. This is a don’t miss event: Persis Karim, Beatrice Motamedi, Haleh Hatami and Esther Kamkar will read from their new anthology Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Disapora. Tonight, June 26, Cody’s Books on Fourth Street in Berkeley, 7:00 p.m.

Nobody does it better than Rebecca Solnit. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, which ran in the San Francisco Chronicle. It looks at immigration and bloodshed using a pivotal moment in California history.

See ya after the Fourth.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Julia Glass' The Whole World is Watching

I was awake at 3 a.m. this morning, hungrily devouring Julia Glass’ new book, The Whole World Over. When I first picked up the book, it took me a while to get immersed. Thursday was another extremely warm day in the Bay Area (and the day we learned the earth is the hottest it has been in 2,000 years) and I spent the day at the pool, reading. By dinner time I was hooked. When the heat woke me in the middle of the night I happily turned on the lamp to read some more.

Most of the reviews compare The Whole World Over unfavorably to Glass’ National Book Award winner, Three Junes. I think it stands up well. It tells the story of Greenie Duquette, a Greenwich Village pastry chef who is vaguely dissatisfied with her life. Like Three Junes, Glass brings in all sorts of well-drawn characters who are going through their own domestic disturbances. Glass always has strong male gay characters, and she treats their quests for love and family as seriously as she treats those of her straight characters.

Her writing is peppered with metaphor and detailed descriptions of the food that Greenie cooks. She brings in 9/11, AIDS, parental loss, having babies, Western water wars, and whether little boys are better off living with their mothers and fathers. The characters have to balance their search for personal happiness with responsibility to others and community. I totally believed her characters and their tribulations, and was sorry to have the book end.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Summer Reading

It’s too hot to blog. The Bay Area is in the grip of a heat wave. The U.S. is playing Ghana in the World Cup. So much book news is depressing:

More on Bay Area bookstore closures.

Slate has a gallery of photos of people reading in unusual places. (via Bookslut)

Oprah magazine has its “First Ever Summer Reading Issue.” It’s very yellow. Some of the tidbits I’ve gleaned:

30: Number of rejection letters John Grisham got before selling his first novel.

28: Percent by which literary reading has dropped among 18 to 24 year olds since 1982.

“Liebrary” is a cool looking new board game that is a “bookworm’s Balderdash.”

Harper Lee breaks her silence to write a letter about how she learned to read. She grew up in the Depression. "Books were scarce. There was nothing you could call a public library, we were a hundred miles away from a department store's books section, so we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another's entire stock."

If you buy a book from Oprah’s recommended reading list, you can get an additional 10% off at Amazon. (At checkout enter code oprahmag)

The blogger at So Many Books likes some of the issue, but chides Oprah for only recommending books put out by big publishers.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tuesday Tidbits

Daniel Olivas has a profile of Reyna Grande, whose new novel about a young illegal immigrant, Across A Hundred Mountains, draws on her own flight from Mexico to the U.S.

“There is no question that Grande is living the American dream. She was born in Guerrero, Mexico, in 1975, and entered the United States at age 9. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in creative writing from the University of California at Santa Cruz. With that, she became the first person in her entire family to obtain a degree. In 2003, Grande became a PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellow, which led to her getting a literary agent who placed Grande's novel with Atria Books.”

Across A Hundred Mountains, which got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, will be released this week.

Edward Guthmann has a sympathetic and moving portrait of Berkeley writer Judith Moore in the San Francisco Chronicle. Moore, a senior editor at the San Diego Reader and the author of the acclaimed memoir, Fat Girl, died in May of colon cancer.

Speaking of the Chronicle, its Sunday book review section has gone from six to four pages – all without any comment from the editors. Bad news. But the paper seems to have increased the number of reviews it is running during the week.

A few new blogs from people in the East Bay:

Wendy Lesser, the editor of the ThreePenny Review, is starting a blog called TheLesser Review. It looks interesting, but it has already raised the hackles of the blogosphere with its slightly better-than-thou attitude. (Naturally Ed and Dan Green are already all over this.) She seems to suggest that most blogs are just a collection of random thoughts strung together without intending to make a point. This is from her introduction:

“Speaking of blog rules, this one is not going to follow most of them.

For one thing, it will be very organized, with listings of its contents (once it accumulates any contents, that is).

For another, I will not be making daily or even weekly postings, and the format will in no way resemble a diary or journal. Each posting will be a little (or not so little) self-contained essay, perhaps more chatty than my usual essays in the magazine, but nonetheless resembling a printed article more than most blog entries do."

And finally, I do not plan to include any photos of my cat or best friends or any other personal items that you would be required to take an interest in. This should come as something of a relief — a blessedly impersonal blog."

Other new blogs include Dibs, by a mystery man (or woman) with lots of access to Advanced Readers copies and Confessions of a Crazy Chick, by an unnamed 22-year old in publishing.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Another Independent Bites the Dust

Ed has the bad news: A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco is closing its doors.

This is a terrible blow to Bay Area book lovers. A CWLPB is one of the best bookstores in the region, and reading there is like grabbing the brass ring. It’s the store that shows up at community lectures, particularly those put on by City Arts and Lectures down the street, and sells books.

First Kepler’s, which got a second chance.

Then Cody’s on Telegraph

Now A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books.

Somehow, when some of the smaller bookstores closed, I comforted myself by thinking the owners probably didn’t have enough business savvy or they were in the wrong location, or something.

I was deceiving myself. The Bay Area is considered one of the most literate and book-loving areas in the country, yet we are losing major bookstores all over. The closures are in communities that regard themselves as book friendly: Menlo Park, right near Stanford University, Berkeley, right near UC Berkeley, and San Francisco, just a block from City Hall, the Opera House, the Symphony, and a few blocks from the Main Library and Asian Art Museum.

Which store is next?

On a bright note, one of the owners of A CWLPB has opened a new store in West Portal, My writing companion, Sharon Epel, apparently told Neal Sofman, the owner about a vacant space, and he pounced. Here is her report:

“When Neal's wife Anna learned that we lived near West Portal, she said, "I'm always telling Neal he should open a shop there." And I-who have always felt that the one thing missing from our neighborhood shopping district (good restaurants; an arty movie theater, Peets), is a real bookstore--told Anna that an amazing retail space--big, with floor to ceiling windows on two sides, across from the theater, next to an ice cream shop, was up for lease.

To make a long story short, they tried to get the place, almost lost it to some finance company(gasp), and then, one day this fall, they called to thank me---they got it and they were opening up. They've opened now, and it is beautiful. It seems like an amazing story in these times of fabled independents closing.”

Update: The New York Times weighs in on Cody's closure.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

James Joyce

The June 16th issue of the New Yorker has a fascinating story on James Joyce’s grandson.

It turns out that Stephen James Joyce has complete control of the Joyce estate and is the one to dole out permission to quote liberally from his books and letters. But he is so protective of his family’s privacy that he says “no” to practically every request – and in the process has squelched the once-thriving academic field of Joyce studies.

The article, by D.T. Max, makes the case that the grandson is a bit unbalanced.

A Stanford professor who had to completely revise her book on Joyce’s daughter Lucia because of Stephen Joyce’s threats is suing the estate. Carol Shloss, working with Lawrence Lessig, filed a suit in court on Monday.

All of this is timely. The events in Ulysses take place on June 16, 1904. This Friday is Bloomsday.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Summer Reading

I haven’t been posting much because life has gotten busy. Summer is here, which means more kids running around. There was a graduation. Three performances of a play. Teachers’ gifts to buy, And of course all the time it took to get the house set up with a new TV for World Cup soccer.

When in a pinch, do a list. So here are the books on my summer reading list:

Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen – I am in the middle of this now. Cohen’s grandfather Ben invented those ubiquitous pink packets. Ben made millions, but cut Cohen’s side of the family out of the estate. He explores why. This is written in a colloquial style. It’s very breezy, but it works, even when he talks about the history of Brooklyn.

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass. I loved Three Junes, which won the National Book Award. Once again, Glass dwells on domestic disturbances in both gay and straight relationships. I have started this book and I am already drawn in by the lush language and plot.

Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz. I didn’t know anything about this book until I read a glowing review by Mary Roach in the New York Times. Jentz was attacked while on a camping trip and this the story of her long road to recovery.

Heat: An Amateur in the Kitchen by Bill Buford. The author, the former fiction editor of The New Yorker, works as an apprentice for celebrity chef Mario Batali. I love cooking memoirs ala Ruth Reichel’s Comfort Me With Apples. This one promises sweat, blood, lust, and many marvelous descriptions of food.

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan. The author, who lives in Berkeley, tells the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through one house. It was owned by Arabs before Israel became a nation, and then taken over by an Israeli family. He’s speaking at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in Berkeley Thursday June 15 at 7:30 p.m. I can’t go, but I wish I could.

Water for Elephants: A Novel, by Sara Gruen. I have never read anything by this author but the buzz is incredible.

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst. Ditto

A Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read. I had never heard of this Berkeley author until I saw she would be appearing this weekend at Book Expo San Jose. This is her first mystery and she is touring with Lee Child, so I figure it has to be good.

I read about Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky in the New York Times Book Review. I was intrigued. Then Scott Esposito went crazy over the book, so now I really want to read it. For some reason I have this idea it will remind me of A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous, one of the best books I read last year.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Pleasure of Private Libraries

The New York Times has a story about the beauty of membership libraries, where people pay dues of around $90 a year to join a private sanctuary. Besides easy access to copies of all the latest books, members get to hear authors talk, lively discussions of books and themes, and access to their own private research librarians.

People in the Bay Area are lucky to have The Mechanic’s Institute, a private library, located in our midst. Founded more than 150 years ago, the Mechanics is housed in a gracious five-story building on Post Street in downtown San Francisco. Its chess room – and chess competitions – are famous around the region, and it’s a treasure trove for book lovers, all for $95 a year.

When Joan Didion came to the Bay Area to promote The Year of Magical Thinking, crowds clamored for tickets to her talk at City Arts and Lecture. You could have seen her for free in a small, intimate room at the Mechanics, and even had a good cup of coffee while you sat.

During the 100th anniversary celebration of the San Francisco earthquake, the Mechanics hosted both Dennis Smith, the former New York City firefighter and best-selling author who wrote the narrative, San Francisco is Burning, and Simon Winchester, who wrote A Crack in the Edge of the World.

This Friday is the annual Bloomsday celebration, an extravaganza of everything James Joyce. Put together by the Mechanics Institute’s Mark Singer, a research libraian who has more than 400 piece of Joycean memorabilia, the evening promises:

“Hilarity and ribaldry reign during our annual reading of James Joyce’s, Ulysses, marking the modern day odyssey of its protagonist Leopold Bloom through Dublin. Enjoy performances by local actors, readings by the audience, and our special Bloomsday Menu. Dress smart for the part!”

On Thursday June 22, Mark Danner, a writer and professor of journalism at the Berkeley School of Journalism, will talk about the secret Downing Street memos and the war in Iraq. He will be introduced by Frank Rich, the columnist for the New York Times.

These kinds of programs, put together by the events coordinator Laura Sheppard, rival anything being presented in the Bay Area.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Rockin' With the Author

Who says all the good book parties are in New York?

I went to a fabulous one on Friday night. It honored Neil MacFarquhar, the New York Times correspondent whose new novel, The Sand Café, has gotten fantastic reviews. Neil read from his book and then talked about various aspects of the Middle East. The audience was rapt.

The party was a who’s who of Bay Area journalism, with a smattering of authors and other creative types. Not everyone knew one another, but you couldn’t tell that from the buzz of voices in the room. Ready for the Bold Faces:

The host was Peter Waldman, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a former Middle East correspondent. Peter, an insightful writer, did a lot of research for The Sand Café while Neil was recuperating from a horrific bike accident. Peter figures prominently in the book’s acknowledgments. Charene Zalis, his wife, shared hosting duties (as did I). She is an accomplished broadcast journalist in her own right.

For at least one evening, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal didn’t compete with one another. Neil’s colleague, the investigative journalist Lowell Bergman, called right before the party to say he couldn’t make it. But Jesse McKinley, the new San Francisco-based national correspondent for the New York Times, did. (He’s only been in the Bay Area for a few months, but has already picked up the pulse of the region. He wrote a lengthy article on Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and another on the TV show Deadwood, which appeared Sunday). Marilyn Chase, a science reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the author of The Barbary Plague, picked Neil’s brain about writing fiction. Julia Flynn Siler, another WSJ type and the author of the forthcoming House of Mondavi, came as well.

There were scads of other reporters/writers as well: Dan Fost, a technology reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle came, as did Frontline correspondent Mark Shapiro, who is writing a book on how American businesses have responded to the formation of the European Union.

Tom Barbash, who works out of the Grotto and writes fiction (The Last Good Chance) and narrative non-fiction (On Top of the World) partied with the crowd. Barbash and Neil (and I) were all reporters at the Syracuse Post-Standard in upstate New York in the 1980s, although at different times.

Much of my wonderful writing group, North 24th, mingled with the crowd. There was Susan Freinkel, who is writing a book for UC Press about the decline of the American Chestnut Tree, Jill Storey, who writes for Salon and other magazines, Allison Hoover Bartlett, whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post (she’s started a book project now), Katherine Neilan, a doctor whose personal essays about medicine have won lots of awards, and Sharon Epel, who most recent personal essay was published in Alternative Medicine.

There was a private eye set too: Alex Kline, (the brother of the actor Kevin Kline, who went to Stanford with Neil and whose brother, the actor Kevin Kline starred in the movie The Emperor’s Club, based on a short story written by Ethan Canin, one of Neil’s best friends.) Betsy Blumenthal, who works for Kroll Associates, came as well.

The company was good, the margaritas cold, and the food excellent. Best of, more than 25 people bought copies of The Sand Café.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Will There Be a Big Bash at Cody's?

Leah Garchik, the Chronicle columnist who seems to have spies everywhere, reports that the last reading at Cody's on Saturday night will include some film cameras:

"On Saturday night, Sean Wilsey and special guests will be among the final readers at about-to-close Cody's Book's on Telegraph, a last rite to be filmed for PBS."

It makes sense. Wilsey is the co-editor of "The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup," and we know how crazy those soccer fans are. (I won't even go into the very large TV and new cable service that are being installed in my house for this particular sporting event. Thank you, hubby) The World Cup starts this week, Cody's ends its reading series this week, so PARTY??

Unfortunately, I can't be there. I'd love to hear what happens, though.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Whole Foods Very Politely Criticizes Michael Pollan

In his new book, Michael Pollan spends a lot of time criticizing Whole Foods for becoming an industrialized “Big Organic.” The CEO and co-founder of the company has written an open letter to Pollan, complaining that the author never tried to talk to the company’s top leadership before bashing the grocery store in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

“I regret that you did not engage in any serious research about how Whole Foods Market actually does business or you would have discovered that we support local and small farm food production all over the United States as well as in other parts of the world. Whole Foods Market, despite its size, does not operate as a typical monolithic corporation such as Wal-Mart (with which you associate Whole Foods Market several times in your book). Our company continues to operate on a decentralized model wherein each of our 11 regions, as well as each store, has a high level of autonomy. Differences in product offerings, suppliers, and seasonal availability result in a significant variation of items on our shelves from region to region and even store to store within the same city. However, our strict quality standards, the highest in the industry, are observed with every supplier and retail outlet. In other words, you may find a variation in the types and kinds of products, but each has been screened by our rigorous quality standards.”

Read the entire letter here.

(via Kevin Smokler)

I'm Not Sure I Can Ever Swing This Performer Thing

MJ Rose who runs the blog Buzz, Balls, & Hype, has some thoughts on the difficulties of promoting a book. She points out that book tours are a crapshoot at best. Who knows if 5 people will show up to hear an author or 50? So publishers now expect authors to turn into solo performers and entertainers to sell books. MJ isn't sure that most writers are up to this:

Why demand that authors be something they are not. We're not asking our best singers to write novels, not asking our thespians to craft commanding stories.

I think blogs/vlogs/podcasts are the best thing that has happened for authors. We can write - or perform if you will - in the way that we feel comfortable and the way we excel.

Now if we can just harness the power of the net in a more functional way. No, Virginia, Publishing is not broken, but the navagation system is. We still can't get enough new titles in front of enough new readers in an economial and motivating way.”

Monday, June 05, 2006

More Paeans to Cody's Books on Telegraph

From an article in UC Berkeley News, written by Wendy Edelstein:

Maxine Hong Kingston, an emeritus senior lecturer in English, recalls another tribute, one that occurred in 1966 when Anaïs Nin made a much-anticipated appearance for a publication party celebrating the first volume of her memoirs. The petite author wore a long ivory gown, and when she moved into the middle of the room to speak, Lawrence Ferlinghetti stepped behind her, raised a pail over her head, and showered her with red rose petals. "I think that was the most wonderful thing that happened at Cody's," says Kingston, who has often recalled that image. Kingston —whose books include The Woman Warrior, Tripmaster Monkey, and, most recently, The Fifth Book of Peace — says she is gratified to have read from every one of her books at Cody's.

Here’s another wonderful one:

Professor of Asian American Studies Elaine Kim remembers trying to cram her way into the bookstore during a standing-room-only reading in the mid-'80s given by Barbara Christian, the first black woman to earn tenure at Berkeley. The capacity crowd was flowing down the stairs, she says, and kept her from getting close to the upstairs room where Christian was reading.

A former employee, Sumana Harihareswara, shares her memories, too.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Last Week of Readings at Cody's

This is the last week that Cody’s bookstore will be holding author readings in its Telegraph Avenue store.

It’s painful to consider that this era is at an end. The upstairs loft where Cody’s holds its reading is almost like a sacred place. It’s not beautiful by any means – the floor is scarred from the scraping of thousands of chairs and the fluorescent lighting is not particularly flattering. But high up on the walls there is a gallery of photographs of the authors who have read there. It covers almost the entire canon of American literature. There are pictures of well-established authors – John Updike, Toni Morrison, Phillip Roth, Susan Sontag, Allan Ginsberg, Annie Proulx, Diane Johnson, Amy Tan, and others. (And they look so young!) There are photos of the young Turks, like Daniel Handler, Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers. There’s the poet Adrienne Rich, humorist Garrison Keiller, novelist Dorothy Allison, and more.

The photographs remind me that this is the kind of place where the beauty of literature shines brightest. It’s not in the fancy hotels or halls that hand out the Nobel Prize of the National Book Award, but in bookstores scattered around the country. Authors come to read; readers come to listen and a special bond forms, one that continues long after the store has closed for the night. The photos illustrate that even famous authors cherish that interaction.

Cody’s has lined up – as usual – a wonderful, eclectic mix of authors for this week. You’ve got to admire a place that has such a broad appreciation of authors. (So why aren’t more people shopping there?)

On Monday at 7:30 p.m., my good friend and New York Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar will read from his satirical novel about the first Gulf War, The Sand Café.

On Tuesday, Jason Roberts will read from A Sense of the World, his new biography of the blind traveler James Holman. The book has gotten excellent buzz, and the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review featured it prominently on Sunday.

On Wednesday, Greg Palast will read at 12:30 from Armed Madhouse: Whose Afraid of Osama Wolf, a humorous, yet well-researched investigation into the perils of George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

At 7:30 Nando Parrado will talk about Miracle in the Andes, which details how he survived the famous plane crash in the Andes that killed most of the Chilean rugby team. Parrado and other survivors trekked over 45 miles of glacier to find help.

On Thursday, Chris Abani (his last novel was Graceland) will talk about Becoming Abigail, the novel of a young Nigerian girl whose relatives force her into prostitution when when she moved to London. He will be joined by the Jamaican author Colin Channer, the editor of Iron Balloons, an anthology of emerging Jamaican writers.

The list goes on: Douglas Copeland will speak on Friday night; at 4 p.m. on Saturday Alex Polikoff, an attorney, will talk about Waiting for Gautreaux, his memoir about the landmark Chicago housing discrimination lawsuit he fought all the way to the Supreme Court. That night, Sean Wilsey will talk about the anthology he edited on the World Cup.

Then that’s it. The store won’t close until mid-July, but the readings will stop. Cody’s has two other bookstores – one on Fourth Street in Berkeley and one on Stockton Street in San Francisco, but they have neither the space nor the atmosphere of the Telegraph Avenue store. When you attend a reading at those stores, as well as many other independent bookstores, you feel squeezed into the space. There’s never enough room and all the other patrons milling around can be distracting.

I never felt that tug at Cody’s on Telegraph. When I was in that loft for a reading, I felt as if the author and his or her audience were in a world all their own. I'll miss it.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Elizabeth Rosner

Elizabeth Rosner, the Berkeley author whose new book, The Blue Nude, is getting glowing reviews, will talk and sign books at The Magnes Museum in Berkeley on Sunday. Her book examines a relationship between a German artist whose father was a Nazi and a young Israeli model.

Rosner will talk on the day the Magnes opens “My America,” an exhibit of paintings and photographs from the Jewish Museum in New York. The exhibition features work from 1900-1955, “a period of great social and artistic activity during which Jewish artists played a major role in shaping the direction of America art.”

Rosner’s talk is part of the Magnes’ new literary series, “For Review,” which will bring Jewish authors into the museum to discuss how their Jewish background has – or has not – affected their work. Other authors include Joshua Braff, Ayelet Waldman, and Jack Marshall.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Maya Angelou Calling Me?

I just got a “personal” phone call from Maya Angelou urging me to vote for Ron Dellums for mayor of Oakland. Gee, that sure beats the phone call I got from current Mayor Jerry Brown suggesting I vote for the candidate Ignacio de la Fuente.

There is something so melodic about Angelou’s voice. Did you know she grew up in Oakland?

Another Way to Measure Yourself

Bud Parr, who put together the interesting site Metaxucafe, which gathers the headlines of various lit blogs, is now editor of related site that will either make you deliriously happy or deeply depressed.

It’s called The Literature List and its on a new site called PubSub. The main purpose seems to be to rank various books blogs and show if their readership goes up or down on any particular day.

For example, a site named Catch and Release got the most new traffic on Wednesday May 31. Other big winners included Gwenda Bond’s site, Shaken and Stirred.

I don’t know what this all means in the greater scheme of things, except to make me depressed by how little traffic Ghost Word gets. (Down 4% on Wednesday) But it’s definitely a great time-waster and an introduction to a bunch of literary blogs I had never heard of. So click through and enjoy!