Thursday, August 31, 2006

Blogging in the summertime

I’m not the only blogger who has bowed out during the summer. The Wall Street Journal tells all:

“In the height of summer-holiday season, bloggers face the inevitable question: to blog on break or put the blog on a break? Fearing a decline in readership, some writers opt not to take vacations. Others keep posting while on location, to the chagrin of their families. Those brave enough to detach themselves from their keyboards for a few days must choose between leaving the site dormant or having someone blog-sit."

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Newspaper Coverage in the Bay Area is Shrinking

The latest evidence of media consolidation in the Bay Area screamed out all over the front pages on Wednesday.

All of the major papers in the region prominently displayed the same story, the tale of a motorist who deliberately drove his black Honda Pilot into 14 pedestrians. He killed one man in Fremont and injured 13 others in San Francisco.

A month ago, the major papers – The San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, and the Oakland Tribune – would have sent out a slew of their own reporters to cover the event.

But Dean Singleton’s Media News acquired the Mercury News and Contra Costa Times less than a month ago, creating a newspaper chain that circles the San Francisco Bay. Media News already owned the Oakland Tribune, the Argus, the Hayward Daily Review, the Marin Independent Journal and the San Mateo Times.

On Wednesday, instead of four distinct stories on the region’s front pages, there were only two – one from the Chronicle and one from the Media News group. (Reporters from the Mercury News did the story).

That’s a huge loss for Bay Area readers. Competition improves news coverage. What will readers miss out on in the future? This was just a police story; imagine the impact when the big story deals with corruption or another important, but less easily reported, event. If fewer reporters are tracking the story, there will be fewer revelations.

The irony is that the Chronicle is owned by Hearst Corporation, one of the world’s leading media companies. Now it looks like an independent voice fighting against the near-monopoly of Media News. How times have changed.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Osama Bin Laden and ..... Whitney Houston???

No one has ever suggested that Osama Bin Laden is kind or considerate. Now his former lover, the Sudanese writer Kola Boof, 37, has written a memoir, Diary of A Lost Girl, about her virtual imprisonment by the leader of Al Queda. Harpers Magazine is running an excerpt. Bin Laden was not only cruel to women, he apparently had a fixation on Whitney Houston.

“He would humiliate me by making me dance naked,” writes Boof. “It was such a strange thing, because for the most part he believed music was evil. If a guest at the estate played music, he would cover his ears until the “poison” was silenced. But other times he would become this devout party boy who wanted to hear Van Halen or some B-52's. To this day I hear the song “Rock Lobster” in my sleep. I would be jerking around like a white girl—“Dance like a Caucasoid girl!” he would say—and his eyes would track me from one side of the terrace to the other. “Your ass is too big, show me the front,” he said. Osama, you understand, did not know the difference between being vicious and being tender.”

And later on ….

“Osama kept coming back to Whitney Houston. He asked if I knew her personally when I lived in America. I told him I didn't. He said that he had a paramount desire for Whitney Houston, and although he claimed music was evil, he spoke of someday spending vast amounts of money to go to America and try to arrange a meeting with the superstar. It didn't seem impossible to me. He said he wanted to give Whitney Houston a mansion that he owned in a suburb of Khartoum. He explained to me that to possess Whitney he would be willing to break his color rule and make her one of his wives.”

Now this sounds like a strange and fascinating book. A look at Bin Laden's lechery.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


This sale was just announced on Publisher’s Marketplace:

The mother of football player and soldier Pat Tillman, Mary Tillman and SF Chronicle deputy editor Narda Zacchino's untitled book about Mary's efforts to learn the truth surrounding the death of Pat, 27, while on patrol in Afghanistan -- which sparked six different Pentagon investigations -- also looking at his life, the meaning of patriotism, and the nature of sacrifice, to Ellen Archer and Will Schwalbe at Hyperion, with Leslie Wells editing, for publication in 2007, by Steve Wasserman at Kneerim & Williams.

The Chronicle has followed the Tillman story closely, doing a number of take-outs on his death, the role of friendly fire in combat, and the cover-up. Cynically I ask whether we need one more book on Bush’s deceits, but I think this will show just how far the Pentagon will go to sugar coat our wars.

SPEAKING of deceit. I saw the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car,” last night. It is an excellent documentary and I recommend that everyone see it. I had no idea. General Motors produced about 1,000 electric cars to comply with California’s strict emissions standards. They were zippy and problem free and those who drove them loved them.

California did away with its zero-emissions standards in 2003 under intense pressure from the car companies and George W. Bush’s government. Then GM rounded up all the cars (they were leased) and crushed them. It’s infuriating considering we are choking on our own smog, while people in the Middle East die because of oil.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, has an interesting interview with Oscar Villalon, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle's book review section.

Q: Are there any rules that guide how you sort through and pick the ones you'll review?

A: Self-published and vanity press stuff, of course, always gets tossed immediately. If a book is regional and its region has nothing to do with the Bay Area, that gets tossed. The first things I look at are: How pertinent is it to the region, and how pertinent would it be to our readers? We don't review romance novels. We do genres -- SciFi, mysteries and thrillers -- in monthly roundup columns, so those get set aside for that. Everything else I pretty much hang on to and flip through. Of course that's the other big chunk of my time -- going through those galleys and at least reading a little bit into them.

Choosing which books to review is completely subjective. You look at the catalogs and get a sense of what looks interesting, who you like. It's pretty much the same way you decide what you'll cover in a newspaper: You just go by your instincts. Clearly you pay attention to what's in the news and which books could be related to that, but for the most part, it's about picking books you would like to read. You have to trust your instincts and hope readers like to read what you're interested in. If your interests are too esoteric, you're going to alienate a lot of people, and if your interests are too broad, you're going to pique very few people. It's got to be somewhere in the middle.

Some summer books

It’s been a busy time for me this month. I am working hard on my book while I am free from other job and school-related distractions. One thing I have learned about writing a book: you can fiddle and rewrite endlessly. I have the sense that if I play around with my words enough, I can always make them better.

But I have been reading. Here are some thoughts:

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen – This one sits atop the Chronicle’s best-seller list and was highly praised on its release. It’s an atmospheric book about a young man who joins a train circus in 1931. Gruen does an excellent job showing the bizarre and cruel world of the circus, where violence hides under the grin of the circus master. It’s a quick and enjoyable read. Nothing too deep or profound but fun.

The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger

Freudenberger is the author of the short-story collection Lucky Girls. She made one of those debuts people dream about – lots of praise in the New York Times and other august publications, long features with attractive photos. The Dissident is her debut novel and it is set in Los Angeles and Beijing. It’s really a novel about artiface and why we aren’t who we present ourselves as being. I think this theme – which actually took some guessing because of the cryptic nature of the plot – is stronger than the book. What? You ask. It means I didn’t love the plot or writing but when I thought about the book after I finished it I decided I enjoyed it.

Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda MacKenzie Stuart.

This was a wonderful dual biography of the female Vanderbilts, but it goes way beyond descriptions of the decadent world of Newport society. Alva Vanderbilt was the woman who married her daughter Consuelo off to the Duke of Marlborough just to catapult her family into the social stratosphere. The book details that unhappy marriage and how Conseulo eventually overcame the stultifying British society to work for the downtrodden. Alva was a surprise, too, because she became an ardent suffragist and was critical in the fight for women to get the vote. There’s lots of great history and context, as well as glimpses into the world of the Gilded Age rich.

Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age by Donna M. Lucey

This is another dual biography of a Gilded Age couple, only these are Astors. Archie Chanler is the great great grandson of John Jacob Astor, but his life is anything but easy as his parents die at an early age. Archie meets and marries Amelie Rives of Virginia, who has written a racy bestseller about a taboo topic – the sexual yearnings of women. The marriage is a disaster from the beginning. Archie is eventually committed to an insane asylum by his siblings and the book does a good job exploring whether he really was crazy or his brothers and sisters were just spiteful. This is a good read but it has absolutely no historical context at all.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Cody's Books is Still in Trouble

I thought Cody’s troubles would be over after they closed their famed store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

I am sorry to say they are not.

I went into their store on 4th Street today, in the tony shopping district in Berkeley, and was dismayed by what I saw.

The shelves looked bare.

Now Cody’s on Telegraph was the kind of place where you knew you could get almost any book, at any time. It was a place of surprises. You could walk in, browse any table in the store, and see something interesting. The shelves were crammed with books, the piles on the tables sometimes tottered over and the store had a feeling of abundance.

I didn’t get that feeling at the store on Fourth Street. There was an awful lot of maple showing, since most of the upper shelves were empty. The front table with the current releases had just had a few copies of some of the current bestsellers and the tables with the new fiction and non-fiction paperbacks had lots of space.

I had driven all away across town to go to this Cody’s. (The one on Telegraph was about 5 minutes from my house) I needed to look at some books for a journalism class I will be teaching this fall, but the store didn’t have the titles I wanted. (And these are recent non-fiction titles) Worst of all, the woman behind the information desk said she couldn’t order one of the books because Cody’s currently owes money to the distributor of that title!

“Didn’t you know we have money troubles?” she asked.

I did. I naively assumed that closing the Telegraph Store would take care of Cody’s problems. Apparently it hasn’t.

Did I help the store out by buying a book? Yes, I bought a paperback for $15. But I had been prepared to buy 4-5 books. They weren’t on the shelves.