Thursday, October 12, 2006

What I Learned in College

This year is marking a number of milestones in my life. No, I’m not 50 yet (give me three more years.) But I recently went back to New York to observe the 20th reunion of my journalism school class. Today, I’m heading south to Stanford to celebrate my 25th college reunion.

Yikes! I can’t believe that life has passed by so fast. How can it be that I left college so long ago? How can it be that it feels like just yesterday I started school AND so many decades ago? I think this is what life is like – time flashes and stands still at the same time and you end up 90 (if you’re lucky) feeling inside much like you did at 16.

The reunion has made me reflect on what I learned at college. Two course stand out – one on James Joyce and the other on Virginia Woolf. I was a history major, not an English major, but my love of reading led me to many classes on literature.

I took the Joyce class in my sophomore year with my roommate. The professor was James Chace and my TA was Carol Lashof. (In one of life’s coincidences, she is the now the mother of one of the girls on my daughter’s soccer team.) We started by reading Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man, then moved to Ulysses and then we read a few chapters of Finnegan’s Wake. We also read Richard Ullman’s superb biography of Joyce and a reference book that dissected and analyzed virtually ever sentence in Ulysses. People who study Joyce look for the autobiographical clues in every scene he wrote.

I adored this class for thrusting me into the world of early 20th century Dublin. Even though it took hours to read Ulysses – remember one could dissect virtually every sentence – I loved how the class forced me to focus, to look closely at Joyce’s words and what they revealed about a Europe in transition. I was an ardent feminist at the time and I delighted to finding misogynistic messages through out the book. (Joyce wasn’t very kind to Molly, the wife of the main character, Stephen Bloom.)

The Virginia Woolf class, in contrast, was a survey course on everything Woolf. We plowed through her books – A Room of One’s Own, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway – and also read portraits of the Bloomsbury crowd. While I loved Woolf’s writing, I remember being more taken with all the intrigue of Woolf’s social set – the clandestine lesbian and gay relationships, Vita Sackville-West’s magnificent garden, Woolf’s suicide and the role her husband Leonard played in her unhappiness. I drew more from her life than her words.

I don’t think I have ever taken the time since college to completely immerse myself in one author. Like most people, I have no grand plan to my reading. I pick up whatever looks interesting, averaging about 40 books a year. There is no overall design, no desire to closely study anything.

As a result, while I have read many good books, they all sort of fade away after a while. When someone asks me if I have read anything good recently, I usually answer in the affirmative and then wrack my brain to remember which book and what it was called. But just describing the Joyce and Woolf classes, I had absolutely no trouble recalling which books I read.

Maybe I should take something else away from my college reunion in addition to the joy at seeing old friends. Maybe I should set up a mini-course for myself and take the time to read two or three books by an author instead of just one. That might make me see an author in a different light – and give me the chance in future decades to remember which books I read.

Let’s see, who should I study? Joyce Carol Oates? Orhan Pamuk, who just won the Nobel Prize for literature? Margaret Atwood? Agatha Christie?

How about doing Joyce over again? Certainly, I can find more in every one of his sentences. And there’s always Finnegan’s Wake.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

I spent most of the weekend at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park. I was hardly the only one who went; police estimate that as many as 500,000 came to Speedway and Marx Meadows to hear one of the 67 bands.

Like many San Franciscans, I love this festival, but not only because of the music. I love it because it is the gift of an idiosyncratic music lover, one who gets such sheer pleasure from banjo picking that he wants to make sure other people get a chance to hear the twang.

Some billionaires give money for buildings. Some build lavish homes or buy island retreats. Some give money to fight AIDS, or illiteracy, or homelessness. Warren Hellman probably spends money on all the issues listed above, but he is best-known for spending millions of dollars each year to put on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. He’s done it for six years and plans to continue the festival long after his death.

Warren is my cousin. To be exact, he’s my first cousin once removed. He and my father were first cousins. And he and I share a common ancestor: Isaias Hellman, the man I am writing a book about.

One question that intrigues me about Isaias Hellman, who came to California from Los Angeles in 1859 and went on to play a critical role in the development of the state, is why was he so successful when others were not. Part of it was timing; he arrived in Los Angeles when it was a small pueblo and was able to get in on the ground floor of many major industries, including banking, transportation and land development.

Part of me thinks, however, that Isaias Hellman had a particular business genius, a brain that let him see the bigger picture. He rarely made a misstep business-wise, always investing his funds in industries that grew and grew. You go through his papers and see him progressing. He first owned a dry goods store, then a bank, then a water company and later a gas company, then a trolley company, then a vineyard, then lots of land, then more trolleys, then more banks and a sizeable amount of a hydroelectric company. The only industry he missed was the motion-picture business. But he died in 1920, and if he had lived longer he might have invested there as well.

Now, is that kind of genius genetic? Clearly, smart people have smart children, but can a particular attribute like business savvy be passed on.

The best argument I can find that demonstrates genius can be passed on is by looking at Warren Hellman. While he was born into an affluent family, he has made his billion on his own. He is the head of Hellman and Friedman, an investment firm that took Levi’s private, owns much of the German media, a chunk of NASDQ and many other companies. There was just an article in the paper the other day that said Hellman and Friedman had made CALPERS, the huge state employee retirement fund, more than 130 percent return on an investment, the most of any other company in the country.

Warren admires his great grandfather Isaias Hellman. He often talks about him in speeches, and holds him up as an example of a man that made money, but who was sure to donate back to his community. Warren measures himself against his ancestor. And even though Warren has made more money than Isaias Hellman, I think Warren thinks Isaias was the better businessman. After all, Isaias had to work for everything and was handed nothing.

When I am at the bluegrass festival, singing and swaying to musicians like Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett, I always keep an eye out for Warren. He tries to catch most of the acts of the festival by riding around on a cart between the five stages. He’ll hear 10 minutes here, another 15 minutes there. He looks so happy. He would rather hang out with Emmy Lou Harris than Arnold Schwarzenegger any day. And he would rather share his love for bluegrass music with hundreds of thousands of music fans than keep that money in a bank.

(The photos are of Warren playing banjo with his band, the Wronglers, at the festival. )

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Moveable Feast

On Saturday night I once again attended “A Moveable Feast,” a banquet put on by the Northern California Independent Booksellers’ Association. It’s one of the highlights of the group’s annual convention and every year a few non-booksellers get to partake.

The evening features 12 authors whose books are just launching. The idea is for the authors to make personal contact with local bookstores, so the owners can hand sell books. And the idea seems to work – the authors are generally interesting and witty and people working in bookstores enjoy hearing them talk. Of course, there are lots of freebies. Every attendee gets an autographed copy of each of the author’s books.

I was sitting at a table with people from A Great Good Place For Books, my favorite bookstore in Oakland. Last year I had been invited to this event by Debi Echlin, the store owner. I had a great time, particularly because Debi was so jazzed by the entire evening. Unfortunately, Debi died in her sleep last November. But the store’s new owner, Kathleen Caldwell, invited me to join her and the women who work in her store.

Our table got to visit with three writers and all were charming. Heidi Julavits is one of those New York literary stars who captured public attention early in her writing career. She must be in her mid-30s, and with her long blonde hair and delicate face, she is photo-ready. Julavits is a co-founder of The Believer, the literary magazine started by Dave Eggers. She is married to Ben Marcus, whom she described as an “experimental” writer. They have a young daughter, Delia.

The Uses of Enchantment is Julavits’ third book and it centers on a girl named Mary, who may have been abducted or may have made up her abduction to garner attention. Julavits said she modeled her book on Tim O’Brien’s Lake of the Woods, another book that features a mysterious disappearance. Julavits is considered a literary writer, but she said all her novels are plot driven. “I loved Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien,” she said. “It has this inexorable plot pull. I love, love, love plot.”

Julavits was a “math kid,” growing up. “I loved logic proofs. That’s what plot is for me – a logic proof.”

She doesn’t write out her plots before she begins her novels. In fact, Julavits said she generally spends a year on a book, and then throws the entire thing away and starts over. She seems to need writing that trash draft in order to reach a zone that drives her writing to a higher level. “Because when you’re in that zone, writing a novel can be as pleasurable as reading a novel.”

Julavits is still an editor at The Believer and even finds time to teach fiction writing. She said she hammered her distaste for flashback scenes into her students this spring while she was copyediting The Uses of Enchantment. Then she would return home and see, to her dismay, how often she used flashbacks as a technique to explain characters. She ended up changing her book as a result.

Julavits said she loves doing it all – writing, teaching and editing. On editing: “It’s a phenomenal job to have. I feel its dovetails so well with fiction for me.”

On teaching: “If you teach a lot it can be draining. I taught last spring. It was so important for me to talk about what I think fiction is and can do and what is happening in fiction now and articulate all these issues.”

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Readers, Get on Your Walking Shoes

It’s that time of year again: Litquake, the nine-day extravaganza of words, authors, and literary musings. I went to the Lit Crawl for the first time last year and was impressed with the sheer number of people who wanted to spend their Saturday nights listening to various authors. It made me glad to live in the Bay Area.

I can’t make this year’s Crawl, which is a big disappointment, particularly because my friend Katherine Ellison will be reading from her book The Mommy Brain. She’s part of a panel called Mommy Lit: The Pleasures, Perils, and Politics of Motherhood featuring Joan Blades, Katherine Ellison, Kate Hodson, Ericka Lutz, Polly Pagenhart, and Rachel Sarah. The emcee: Peter Hartlaub. It’s at 6 p.m. at Ti Couz at 3108 16th Street

Here’s a write-up about the week by one of my students at the journalism school at UC Berkeley.

Authors are a "Cross to Bear"

I’m late to these blog posts but an anonymous editor is now writing regularly for Gawker about the publishing industry. The posts are titled “Unsolicited,” and the latest claims that “authors are a cross to bear somewhere between 'creepy messenger guy' and 'can't even afford a new coat from H&M" on the job-dissatisfaction scale. Because, with a few glowing exceptions, authors are the craziest, meanest, strangest, cluelessest people you've ever met.”

Gee. I thought they liked us.