Friday, July 28, 2006

Pine Lodge at Sugar Pine Point State Park

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Summering at Lake Tahoe in the Gilded Age

This is where I’ll be the next few days. This is the house Isaias built, Isaias being the subject of the biography I am writing. Isaias Hellman was the president of the Nevada National Bank when he bought 2000 acres and two miles of shoreline on Lake Tahoe in 1897.

Lake Tahoe was not yet a popular tourist destination for people living in the Bay Area. It took about nine hours by overnight train to reach Truckee, and then travelers took a stage coach over a rocky road to reach Tahoe City. After 1900, they could take a narrow gauge rail line to the Lake, where they then had to board a steamer to get to a hotel or home. The roads weren’t very good then.

Isaias Hellman moved into this shingle style house in 1903. He was the first millionaire to construct a mansion on the lake. The tourist trade had only taken off in the 1880s and most wealthy people summered at one of the lake’s fancy hotels. Hellman and his family spent a few summers at Hotel Tallac on the southern part of Lake Tahoe. It was owned by Lucky Baldwin, who had made a fortune in the Comstock Lode, and it catered to the upper crust. Women changed their clothes four to five times a day, took strolls around the grounds and sat down to five course meals. There was great fishing – it was not uncommon to catch hundreds of pounds of trout in a few hours – and great boating.

Hellman fell in love with Lake Tahoe and quietly bought up land around Sugar Pine Point. He didn’t want to tip off speculators that he was in the market for a home. He built his house, using granite from nearby Meeks Bay and other local materials, from 1900-1903. It remained in his family until 1965 when it became part of the California State Parks System.

For the last few years a group of volunteers has put on a Living History Day at Sugar Pine Point. I am going up there to give some talks about Hellman and to revel in the sight of people dressed up in ‘30s period costume. It should be fun.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Alison Bechdel

I’ve only read a couple graphic novels in my life. Maybe I’m choosing well, but I’ve found them to be much like any good novel, intriguing, engrossing, and imbued with emotions.

I loved Marjane Satrapi’sPersepolisseries about Iran and life as an exile in France. Somehow the comics enhanced the story of her adolescent confusion and burgeoning sexuality. They also made the scenes of oppression in Iran easier to take.

I’ve just read Alison Bechdel’s new graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, and think it works even better than Persepolis. Bechdel tells intertwining stories of her father, her mother and herself living in a rural town in Pennsylvania, and how they lived parallel, yet separate, lives.

The focus is on her father, who is a closeted homosexual. He finds joy in turning the family’s run-down Federal style farm house into a Victorian showcase, a place almost too ornate to be comfortable. He teaches English and runs the family’s undertaker business. Alison calls the funeral home the “Fun House.”

Alison, who is a lesbian, is “Spartan to my father’s Athenian, modern to his Victorian, Butch to his Nelly, utilitarian to his aesthete.” She spends much of her life defining herself in opposition to her father, until, ironically, he conveys his homosexuality to her a few weeks before he dies. (It’s officially an accident – he is hit by a truck – but Alison suspects he committed suicide.)

Blechdel is trying to understand her father’s life. Was it wasted because he could not publicly acknowledge who he was? Was he gay or bisexual? Did he ruin his wife’s life? Why did he keep so many secrets? Throughout the graphic novel, Bechdel tries to uncover her father’s motives, and the book is as much about her search for understanding as it is about his story.

The book is also built around themes in literature, as Bechdel and her father are avid readers. Blechdel uses Ulysses, by James Joyce, and The Odyssey, by Homer, to explore themes of connection, loss, and journey.

I gave this book to my 14-year old daughter before I read it, naively thinking that a graphic novel would be appropriate for a young reader. It’s not. There are explicit scenes of coupling and the literary illusions were too sophisticated for her to grasp completely. But I would highly recommend it to others.

Bechdel explains her book to the Village Voice and to the Powell's blog.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Different Kinds of Lost Boys

Samuel Garang Akau, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” read his first novel, Animal Farm, while a teenager in a refugee camp in Kenya. He had to share the book with 30 others. With two parents and a brother killed in sectarian violence, Akau found his way to Stanford’s English Department, where one of his short stories won a prize. He plans to write "at least four or five novels. And a memoir," he said. It will be "not my story alone, but the story of a lot of people."

The New York Times gives Toby Young’s new memoir, The Sound of No Hands Clapping, a thumbs up. Young may be one of the most conceited, self-centered, celebrity-gawking losers on the planet, but he sure writes funny.

Silence of the City is a new website devoted to printing rejected “Talk of the Town,” pieces from the New Yorker. Great name. I can see why some of the pieces never made it into the magazine.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Making of a Biography

I was interested to read Michael Kazin’s review of The Most Famous Man in America, not only because Debby Applegate’s biography of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher seems so interesting. I have been waiting for this book to come out for more than four years, because of the hype it received in Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato’s excellent book: Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get It Published.

The Rabiner and Fortunato book is the single best book I found on how to think about a book of serious non-fiction – the questions a book must pose and the narrative a book must follow. Most of the tomes on writing book proposals focus on “How-To” books, which wasn’t very helpful to me when I was thinking about writing a biography. I must have read Thinking Like Your Editor a half-dozen times while getting my own proposal together.

Rabiner is Applegate’s agent, and uses Applegate’s book proposal and a sample chapter as a central focus of the book. And from the early reviews the book has lived up to its hype. (By the way, the title original suggested for the book was Breach of Faith. I like that better than .)

JON CARROLL of the San Francisco Chronicle has a good column on book reading, collecting and reviewing.

The LitBlog Coop has recommended a new summer read: Michael Martone’sMichael Martone.” (I kid you not.)

Tin House, one of the hippest literary journals around, hosts an annual fiction conference each summer in Oregon. Here's a report on the goings on. (Via Elegant Varietion)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

William T. Vollmann canonized

The Bancroft Library at the University of California is a vast collection of rare books, manuscripts and ephemera that document the settling of the West. It also has substantial collections of illuminated manuscripts, Egyptian papyrus, early English and French manuscripts, Mark Twain letters, and writings from the Beatniks.

Now the Bancroft has decided that recent National Book Award winner William T. Vollmann deserves preservation in the pantheon. The library recently put out a call for donations of nearly all of Vollmann’s work. (I don’t think they extend this courtesy to most contemporary authors, so it’s an honor.) In particular, the library wants:

Whores for Gloria 1991

One of 20 copies handcrafted by William T. Vollmann and Ken Miller using the sheets from the Pantheon first edition.

From his Seven Dream series:

Argall, Viking 2000

The Rifles, Viking 1994

Fathers and Crows, Viking 1992

The Ice Shirt, Viking 1990

An Afghanistan Picture Show; or, How I Saved the World, Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1992

The Atlas, Viking 1996

Butterfly Stories, Grove 1993

Expelled from Eden: a William T. Vollmann Reader

Rising Up and Rising Down San Francisco: McSweeneys, 2003 7 volumes

Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, Pantheon 1993

You Bright and Risen Angels, Atheneum, 1987 (Bancroft has British edition, which precedes the American)

Angelina Jolie to Play Role of Journalist

Angelina Jolie is going to play the role of Daniel Pearl’s widow in a movie.

Marianne Pearl penned A Mighty Heart after her husband was kidnapped, killed, and beheaded by Islamic militants in Pakistan in 2002. Pearl was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and was attempting to interview a secretive terrorist.

I loved A Mighty Heart. Although Marianne’s heart was ripped apart by her husband’s murder, the book was free from rancor. I was moved by her openness, her willingness to forgive her husband’s captors. She is a freelance journalist of mixed nationality, part French, part Caribbean, and she clearly prizes understanding and cooperation among different countries.

The book reminded me of Nien Cheng’s incredible memoir, Life and Death in Shanghai, about her days during China’s Cultural Revolution. When I was a young reporter in Ithaca, New York, Chang came to speak at Cornell University. I interviewed her in a small campus classroom and I was struck by her calm and centeredness. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t angry after all Mao’s men had done to her – including tossing her daughter out of a fifth-story window. I truly felt I was in the presence of someone noble.

I spotted Marianne Pearl a few years ago. She had come to the UC Berkeley School of Journalism to deliver the commencement address. She was staying at the Claremont Hotel and I saw her at the swimming pool, playing with her young son. I really wanted to approach her and tell her how much I enjoyed her book. I could have, as we have friends in common, but I was too shy. I also didn’t want to invade her privacy and her precious vacation with her young son. So I spied on her from afar and tried to wonder what her life must be like.

I am not a huge fan of Angelina Jolie, but I think she will play an excellent Marianne Pearl. Most of all, I am happy the book, which talks about international journalism, violence, and love in a most remarkable way, will become a move.

Filming by Michael Winterbottom, who directed Welcome to Sarajevo, will begin in about five weeks.

Only in California

Take 27 talented authors. Ask them to write essays about California. Combine them into a book with great cover art by David Hockney and donate the profits to the California Art Council.

It’s a great idea, and the premise behind My California: Journeys by Great Writers. This anthology is a collection of travel narratives by a well-known group, including Michael Chabon, Dan Goia, Carolyn See, T. Jefferson Parker, and many more. Incredibly, the anthology has raised more than $60,000 for children’s writing programs around the state.

Three California cities –Santa Barbara, Sacramento and Whittier — have just picked the book to be their One City, One Book reading projects. The city of Long Beach read the book in the spring.

The editor of My California is Donna Wares, who also runs the fabulous website California Authors. I check this site every day because it has a mix of gossip – who is getting published, which bookstores are closing (or opening), who is reading where – as well as excerpts from books about California. There are author interviews and links to West Coast publishers and independent bookstores. It has a compendium of vital books about the history and culture of California

The premise is that the publishing world is way too New York-centric. Read their mission statement:

“Squinting westward, New York publishing seems to see us dimly. California. Somewhere. Out there at the end of the Pony Express line, indefinable on the dusty horizon. But from here, under the bright western sky, Pacific crashing at our feet, California shows up in crisp detail. It is generous, even lavish: rich in literary tradition, the nation's largest book market, home to the readers who create best-sellers, home to the eloquent voices who are defining the best in American publishing. It's all so clear to us. Here. And because being here counts, we are building — creating an online literary hub for the West Coast's finest writers and their readers.”

If you buy the book, you, too, can help children's literacy programs in the state/

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Progressive Reading Series

While there was a lot of George W. Bush-bashing at Monday night’s Progressive Reading Series in San Francisco, the real focus was on the power of literature. Hundreds of people crowded into the Make-Out Room, a trendy bar in the Mission district, for another round of readings produced by writer Stephen Elliot.

The evening raised $3,000 for progressive campaign races. Elliot said much of the money will go to help Tony Trupiano in his campaign to unseat Republican Thaddeus McCotter in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District.

Lots of fun in the evening. Jack Bouleware read an appropriately outrageous and often disgusting essay about his poop-eating dog. (Appropriate because he wrote San Francisco Bizarro, a book about the weirdest aspects of San Francisco life.) Katherine Noel followed him with an excerpt from her much more sober novel, Halfway House.

The ever-amiable Jason Roberts read from A Sense of the World. The book flew to the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list after a glowing review in the book review section. It got a lukewarm review this week in the New York Times, which is a bummer, but I hope Roberts doesn’t take that opinion too seriously; obviously many people think the book is a gem.

The poet W.S. Di Piero was up next. He’s won so many awards that I couldn’t keep up with their recitation, but his four poems were wonderfully poignant. Comedian and writer Nato Green softened up the crowd with his caustic and comic jokes.

Then it was star time. No one knows for sure who got to ride in the big black Lincoln Town car, avec chauffeur, that was waiting outside the bar on 22nd Street. Most people bet the ride was for Jane Smiley, who lives in Santa Cruz. But maybe it was for Jonathan Franzen, who seems to have a sister and brother-in-law in the Bay Area. Franzen announced to the crowd that he just discovered that he and Smiley grew up at the same time in the same small town in Missouri; they may have even swum in the same swimming pool.

Smiley got a lot of applause for just coming on stage, and more from reading from her book Thirteen Ways to Look at the Novel. Then Jonathan Franzen bounded softly to the stage to read from his new memoir, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, which has religious themes throughout. It will come out in the fall. Both were somewhat soft-spoken and reserved, but grateful to be reading in front of such a literate and politically-correct audience.

I’m not sure if there is a San Francisco literary scene, but one aspect of it was out in full force. Sighted: Grottoites Peter Orner, Po Bronson, Tom Barbash, Allison Hoover Bartlett, Katherine Neilan. Kevin Smokler, who is forging a new citizen journalist corps, attended, as did Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter and author of The Mommy Brain, Katherine Ellison. Wall Street Journal reporter Julie Flynn Siler was there, too, as was Susan Frienkel, who has a book coming out from UC Press on the decline of the American chestnut tree.

I STOPPED by Cody’s on Telegraph twice on Monday. It was its last day. Everything in the store was 20% and there were long lines both times I peeked in.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Lots of Explanations

Jerry Roberts, who quit his job at the Santa Barbara News-Press last week because of meddling from its billionaire owner, explains the tensions behind his resignation. (via Romenesko)

Nan A. Talese, the legendary editor who "edited" James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, explains herself. (via Pinky's Paperhaus)

Literary Doings in the Bay Area

Kids flocked to the San Francisco Symphony this weekend to hear the world premiere of a new symphony composed by the nefarious Lemony Snicket and Nathaniel Stookey. While the orchestra played, Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) narrated the 30-minute piece, called The Composer is Dead. It told the story of a dead composer and the search for his killer, with digressions into the lives of various famous musicians.

CODY"S BOOKS on Telegraph held a combined good-bye and 50th anniversary party on Sunday. Today is the store’s last day.

How poignant and unbelievable," writer Maxine Hong Kingston told the Chronicle, noting that she first came to the store 48 years ago as a freshman at UC Berkeley.

"I walked in and found my haven and my home. It felt eternal. It felt like it would be here forever."

Dibs has a great -- if pointedly anti-leftist -- take on the celebration.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Editor Who Took Chronicle Buy-Out is Out of Work Again

Jerry Roberts, a former top editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, quit the Santa Barbara News-Press this week, along with four other editors and reporters. They left because Wendy McCaw, who is very rich because of her marriage – and divorce – from cellular king Craig McCaw, keeps meddling with the editorial content of the paper. Apparently, Roberts was forcibly removed from the newsroom.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

What has she been doing for 10 days?

Making the transition from holiday to work is rough. I’ve been back from Lake Tahoe for three days and yet I still can’t seem to light a fire under myself. Actually, I had a productive Wednesday revising a chapter of my book, but I still feel like I am in loopy land. Maybe it’s the effect of having Fourth of July on a Tuesday. I keep thinking it’s the weekend, but its not.

First up is a big congratulations to Ed Champion, whose Bat Segundo show was named a Yahoo pick. For those of you who don’t know about the Bat Segundo show, it’s a podcast featuring some of the country’s best authors. Ed has tracked down many friendly, as well as inscrutable, writers for chats, including TC Boyle, William Vollman, Harvey Pekar, Colson Whitehead, Erica Jong, Jay McInerny, and others. Each podcast represents hours and hours of work. He works tirelessly on his blog, too, often filing 12 posts a day. (Sometimes that many in an hour) It’s hard to believe Ed has a full time job (as a paralegal, I think) writes fiction, and catches readings and events around the Bay Area. Return of the Reluctant is a great site and Ed deserves kudos for making the blogosphere a much more interesting place.

Julia Glass is in the Bay Area the next few days, but I won’t get a chance to hear her. She’s chosen distant locales for her readings from The Whole World Over. On Friday, she will be in Danville at Rakestraw Books. On Saturday, she will be at the new bookstore, Bookstore West Portal, owned by Neal Sofman, one of the former co-owners of A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. (I was happy to hear that Books, Inc. will move into their former location on Van Ness). She’s also going to Capitola. I know those are all great bookstores but no Berkeley? No Marin County? Since so many major bookstores are about to close, it will be interesting to watch where the big authors choose to read.

I’m looking forward to going to a new incarnation of the Progressive Reading Series on Monday, July 10 at the Makeout Room on 22nd Street in San Francisco. These are the brainchild of author Stephen Elliot and they raise money for progressive political candidates. Jane Smiley, Jonathan Franzen, Jason Roberts, and others will read. It's usually hot, smoky, and smokin'.

Joshua Braff, a comic author if I ever saw one, will read from The Unspeakable Thoughts of Jacob Green at the Magnes Museum on Russell Street in Berkeley at 6:30 p.m. on July 13. I am planning on going. Somehow summer seems a wonderful time to listen to authors.

Check this out: Lisa Okhun, another comic writer (and a member of my writing group, North 24th) has just started a blog, “That’s Empress to You.” It’s about being a divorced mother in a technological age and it’s funny, funny, funny.