Monday, December 31, 2007

The Mascot by Mark Kurzem

On the last day of 2007, I find it fitting to recommend a truly astonishing book: The Mascot by Mark Kurzem.

To be honest, before I finished this book I was really lukewarm about the books I read in 2007. A few weeks ago I half-heartedly started collecting book recommendations from friends, but most just suggested one title or didn’t respond to my email. I didn’t mind so much because that’s how I felt about my year in reading: I read of lot of good books, but not a lot of great books.

I didn’t read most of the books that have made the Top 10 lists, such as the new one by Denis Johnson or Junot Diaz. I have Michael Chabon’s book on an alternative Jewish state in Alaska on my bookshelf, signed by the author but not yet opened.

In looking at the 35 books or so I have read this year, two stand out. I thoroughly enjoyed David Nasaw’s biography of William Randolph Hearst. It was an epic look at a fascinating man. Before I picked up The Chief, I thought I knew a lot about Hearst. I was wrong.

I also really liked Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. I loved her complex characterizations and interwoven stories, which were energized by a compelling mystery. This book isn’t for everyone, though. My husband loved it, but my daughter and a friend were mystified by my recommendation.

But The Mascot wins my book of the year award, not for the writing, but for the story. It is almost unbelievable.

The book tells the true story of Alex Kurzem, a 60ish Australian immigrant. When the book opens, Alex is starting to confront some uncomfortable memories about World War II. For most of his life, he has believed that he was the son of Russian pig farmers. Somehow, during the fighting in Latvia, he was separated from his family. Although he was only five years old, he managed to spend the winter wandering in the forests around his village.

Alex was finally rescued by a battalion of Latvian soldiers, who decided he made a great mascot. They dressed him in an SS uniform and took him around the countryside where they searched for “partisans.” (A euphemism for Jews.) The soliders thought Alex was their good luck charm. From a small age Alex witnessed the murder of hundreds of Jews at the hands of his protectors. He also experienced their kindness and love. He survived the war and emigrates to Australia with a Latvian Nazi family that had adopted him.

One day Alex shows up unexpectedly at the home of his son Mark, who is studying in Oxford, England. Unpleasant memories have started to intrude into Alex’s life and he asks his son for help discovering the source of the visions.

It turns out that Alex, was, in fact, a Jew who witnessed the slaughter of his mother and two younger siblings. Once he was rescued by the Latvian soldiers he had to hide his religion or face certain death.

The Mascot traces the journey Alex embarks on to discover who he is and where he came from. The central question is whether Alex was a victim of the Nazis or an accomplice to killing Jews. While he witnessed many massacres, he never participated in them Besides, he was younger than 10 and totally dependant on the soliders for survival.

I have read a lot of books about the Holocaust, but never one as strange and disturbing as this. It proves the old adage that life is stranger than fiction.

Other recommendations:

My friend and avid reader, Nancy Chirinos, sent me a list of her favorite reads of 2007:

Huck Finn--loved it
Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle
What is the Whatby Dave Eggers
The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez
The Sea by John Banville
What the Dead Knowby Laura Lippman
Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder
Death in a Strange Country--Donna Leon
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (graphic novel)
The Girls who Went Away by Ann Fessler
Embers by Sandor Marai
Mary by Janice Cooke Newman
The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugum
Ben in the World by Doris Lessing
Run byAnn Patchett
Lincoln's Sword by Douglas Wilson
Away byAmy Bloom--loved it

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Books

For the last dozen years or so, our family has had a Christmas tradition around books. Some years we do a book swap, and everyone brings once-coveted hardcovers to exchange. We are an eclectic group of readers, so the books up for grabs range from lots of mysteries and thrillers to cookbooks to books with a more literary bent. One year my brother snuck in a book with a manufactured cover. The title of the fake book was “I.W. Hellman: An Intimate and Comprehensive History” (With Over 500 Photos!)

Now, I had been working on a biography of I.W. Hellman for about three years at that point, and the thought that another book of that topic was already published AND put into a book swap made me roar with laughter. Steven and I must have laughed for 15 minutes over this joke; it was one of the best Christmas presents I ever received.

We still have this book-centered Christmas tradition, although lots of other kinds of presents have slipped into the mix. This year I gave both my brothers books, but not ones they will probably ever read. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I found two books with “Dinkelspiel” on their covers. One was “Dinkelspiel’s Letters to Looey,” written around 1900 by the author and screenwriter George V. Hobart. The other was called “Lady Rum-Di Doodle-Dum,” written by S.B. Dinkelspiel in 1914.

Now I have no idea who these authors are nor can I find out much about them on the Internet. I always grew up with the delusion that my family was the only Dinkelspiel family. I now know there are Dinkelspiels around the world, including in Sweden where Ulf Dinkelspiel serves in the government. But until recently I never knew Dinkelspiel was a character in a book or an author.

So what books did I get for Christmas this year?

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

That’s it. Only two books! What a drought! How will I survive? More importantly, what changed about our families Christmas tradition that I only ended up with so few books? I definitely must investigate.

Oh course, there’s no real need to feel sorry for me. I have stacks and stacks of books to be read by my bed and even more on my bookshelves. It’s just that I have book addiction. I usually try and curb it by taking books out of the library, but Christmas is one time I can indulge.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Los Angeles Times, Redux

Tim Rutten wrote an interesting piece on Sam Zell’s takeover of the Los Angeles Times, which happened on Thursday. He ruminates over the Tribune Company’s disastrous ownership of the paper, concluding that large corporations make terrible stewards of the news:

“The era of corporate accumulation has been an unmitigated disaster for American journalism. Money has flowed like a fiscal Mississippi into the pockets of investors and fund managers, draining one newspaper and TV station after another of the resources necessary to serve their communities' common good. Nearly every American newspaper and local television station sucked into one of the chains -- from the largest to the smallest -- during that period is today a lesser journalistic entity of less real service to its audience than when it was acquired.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Does the West Coast Drive American Literature?

The National Book Critics Circle is taking a show on the road and they are bringing it to San Francisco.

For those unfamiliar with the group, it's a collection of independent - and influential - book reviewers. Each year they nominate works in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry for an award. It's considered one of the most prestigious literary awards in the country.

The NBCC board will hold its board meeting in San Francisco in early January and announce the finalists at City Lights Books at 6 pm Saturday January 12.

Before that, though, the group is holding a series of seminars that examine the literary world. I am particularly interested in going to this one:

NBCC LitPanel #3,111 Minna Gallery, Zappa Room,6:30 pm


The jumping off point for this discussion is the comment Sam Tanenhaus made to NBCC board member Ellen Heltzel of BookBabes when he became editor of the New York Times Book Review.Oscar Villalon, San Francisco Chronicle Book Editor and NBCC board member moderates.

Mary Ann Gwinn,Book Editor, Seattle, NBCC board member
Ellen Heltzel,BookBabes, Portland, NBCC board member
Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly, NBCC member
David Ulin, editor, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Blog Fatigue

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. I note blog fatigue setting in.

Longtime blogger and noted success story (he gets thousands of hits a day) Ed Champion has declared the end to Return of the Reluctant.

“This morning, I filed for divorce from Return of the Reluctant, citing irreconcilable differences. It was an amicable parting. No children, no property to squabble over. No embarrassing deposition testimony read to the jury. No alimony. Reluctant and I have had ourselves a good time over the years. But I’m a different person now. And I finally confessed to a good friend on the phone that I really had nothing more to say about books or the literary world in the Reluctant format. And I laughed for ten minutes over how absurdly simple the choice was. When something stops being fun, it’s pretty easy to become decisive.”

My blog has been limping along, although I am trying a bit harder. My friend Tracey Taylor, who writes Not a Soccer Mom, is spending more time at her professional blogging gig than her personal one. She writes a blog about real estate for Redfin Realty. It’s actually very entertaining.

Elizabeth Speiers, who started the MediaBistro line of blogs, admits she is missing in action.

"I don't really blog anymore, so when I update here, I tend to cram a bunch of little things into one post so that my mom and the two other people who check this site regularly can get everything in one go."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Goodbye, Kitty Cat

I have death on my mind today, as my cat was hit and killed by a car yesterday. I went out on a walk in the early morning and then picked up my older daughter from a friend’s house. When we pulled into the driveway, she saw Cuddles lying prone on the front steps. He looked as if he could be sleeping, but unfortunately he was not.

Our entire family feels torn apart. We all had different relationships with Cuddles and used to joke about which cat each of us loved more – Cuddles, a gray 8 year old tabby, or Owen, a 16 or 17 year old brown tabby. Now those jokes seem hollow.

Of course I always knew I would feel bad when one of the cats died. But what makes Cuddles’ death so difficult is its unexpectedness. We were all conducting our lives normally and then – WHAM! – someone we loved was gone.

Life is so ephemeral. We just tend to forget it in good times.

There was no note, no message from the driver of the car. Either they were deliberately cruel or were unaware they hit a cat.

We buried Cuddles underneath a California lilac bush in our backyard. My husband could barely look at his body; he loved him so much. My daughters gathered rocks to put on his grave. Charlotte wrote his name on a flat rock. Later on, we put down flowers. They look so lonely in the rain.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

What Good is the Web Anyway for the Book Business?

The Internet has been around in full force for about 20 years and reporters are still trying to figure out how it impacts the publishing industry.

If you look at a recent article in the newspaper amNew York, you will learn that being a popular blogger does not necessarily make you a popular author.

But if you look at another article, this one in the New York Times, you will discover that having a hot property/topic/subject on the web can make you a best-selling author.


Which is it? The web is a bust. The web is a miracle.

I guess I would have to say neither and say it is time to stop writing these kinds of articles. Isn’t it obvious by now there is no foolproof, sure-fire way to sell a book? Those bloggers with big names, like Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette fame, and Jessica Cutler, formerly of Washingtonienne fame, couldn’t translate their on-line popularity into bestseller-dom. Their smaller-than-expected book sales even came after there had been dozens of articles written about them.

Yet the New York Times has a story today that argues some people who have given their work away for free on the web have become bestselling authors. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been available at for three years. It was released in hardback in April and has gone on to sell almost 150,000 copies.

In some ways I find this encouraging. It means people aren’t persuaded by corporate media hype – at least not all the time. They find books that are quirky and distinctive, even though some of those books don’t seem commercial.

Of course, when I went out to sell my book (or my agent did) I tried to capitalize on the fact that I had a blog. I think I included a reference to it in my marketing materials. When the deal was announced on Publishers Marketplace, I characterized myself first as a blogger and then as a reporter.

It was a waste of time. Although I enjoy blogging for my ability to write about anything at any time, it certainly hasn’t raised my public profile in any significant way. That could be due to my shortcomings or to the fact that there are just too many darn blogs out there for one to really matter. (I prefer to think it’s the latter reason, not the former)

There just is a lot of noise in the world and the fantasy of using the Internet to break through is just that, a fantasy. Everything comes down to word of mouth, from movies to books to new restaurants.

I guess the phone is still a good invention.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Kite Runner, the Movie

I got to see a sneak preview of “The Kite Runner” with 150 kids from my daughter’s high school. We all walked up Bancroft Avenue in Berkeley to the Pacific Film Archive, a process that took about a half an hour and crowded the city streets.

The kids were all from Berkeley High’s International High School and they had just finished reading The Kite Runner. With the book fresh in their minds, they turned out to be harsh critics of the film.

I would say the film is a lot like the book: Manipulative, predictable, but it pulls your heart strings. The acting is very good, especially Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, the two boys who play Amir and Hassan, the central protagonists in the book. They are sweet and innocent in the film and effectively convey a friendship that crosses class boundaries. (Amir is a Pashtun, a Sunni Muslim and Hassan is Hazara, lower class and a Shia Muslim). The man who play Amir’s father, Hamayoun Ershad and Shaun Toub, who plays his friend, Rahim Kahn, are also very good.

It’s the script that feels forced. I winced at the opening scene where Amir, a grown up, gets two cartoons of his newly published book delivered to his home. He opens the book and the dialogue with his wife is so stilted it’s ridiculous. The script is written by David Benioff, who wrote the fabulous 25 Hours. This is not one of his best efforts.

But the central core of the story – the destruction of Afghanistan and the downfall of a proud civilization – is very moving. Afghanistan was a beautiful, vibrant country until the Soviet invasion, at least according to the film. The Soviets destroyed the place and the Taliban finished it off. (There is no mention of the time in between when the war lords were engaged in a bitter, violent, civil war.)

The high school kids disliked the film for all the parts of the book it left out. In the book, Hassan has a hare lip and his father is disfigured and the gap between the ruling and lower classes in Afghanistan is much clearer. In the film, the small Hassan is adorable and seemingly as educated as Amir. In the book, another central figure tries to commit suicide. There is no mention of that in the film.

The actors in the film mostly speak Dari, a dialect of Persian, and it will be interesting to note audiences reaction to a film with so many subtitles. It was great for a group of high school students in a program that emphasizes internationalism, however.

Another pleasure of this film is seeing all this terrific Middle Eastern actors. Where have they been? They were uniformly engaging. I couldn’t keep my eyes off Atossa Leoni, who plays Amir’s wife. Khalid Abdalla, who plays the grown up Amir, also was terrific. These actors deserve to be cast much more frequently, not just relegated to ethnic roles. We live in such a multi cultural world. Let’s see a better reflection of our world up on the big screen.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Bay Area Book News

Mill Valley writer David Sheff’s new memoir will be featured at 6,500 Starbucks around the country. Beautiful Boy tells the story of his son’s addiction to methamphetamine.

Julia Flynn Siler’s book The House of Mondavi has been named by BusinessWeek as one of the ten best books of 2007.

Andy Ross, the longtime owner of Cody’s Books, has stepped down as president. He said the changing nature of the book business has tired him out.

Chronicle reporter Lance Williams and former Chronicle reporter Mark Fainaru-Wade (who now works for ESPN) sold the rights to Game of Shadows to HBO Films.

Former San Francisco police chief Earl Saunders and his co-author Bennett Cohen have sold the film rights for their book, The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness and Civil Rights to Dreamworks.

Grotto founder Po Bronson won a first place award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his New York Magazine article on parental praise. Bronson also sold a book on the topic to Jonathan Karp at Twelve.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Perfect Tree

Did you know that the American chestnut tree once spread from Georgia to Maine? Its green canopy was so dense that people talked about how a squirrel could traverse thousands of miles through the tree tops without ever stopping? The tree was such a perfect specimen that its wood was used for everything from fence posts to furniture and its nuts were prized for their sweetness and nutritional value.

Unfortunately, the American chestnut tree is almost extinct, felled by an blight that was inadvertently brought to the U.S. on an Asian variety of chestnut. While the virus did not seriously damage the Asian trees, it killed off millions of acres of American chestnut forests.
The death of the American chestnut tree struck those living in Appalachia particularly hard. The tree was well-loved and well-used in the mountains of Virginia, and its disappearance transformed the culture of the region. Old timers in the area still talk reverently about the tree, as if it were a living, breathing creature.

I didn't know any of this until I read Susan Freinkel's fascinating book, American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. Freinkel, a science writer whose work has appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, Discover, Health, and Reader's Digest, movingly recreates the history of the tree. The book also documents the work of a cadre of scientists dedicated to saving the tree. Even though there are just a handful of American chestnuts left -- none of which are healthy enough to produce nuts -- there are men and women in the United States who refuse to let the species die.

Freinkel's book also touches on another theme. What responsibility do humans hold to try and preserve species? If they die naturally, is our obligation different than if they died because of human-related causes?

I went to Freinkel's book release party a few weeks ago. She is a member of North 24th, my writing group, and we held a celebration for her. The guests were a cross-section of Bay Area media types. Mary Roach, the author of the bestsellers Stiff and Spooked, was there. She wrote a blurb for Freinkel, calling American Chestnut "a perfect book." Nan Weiner, the executive editor of San Francisco Magazine came, as did my brother, Steven Dinkelspiel, the president of the magazine. Jim Steyer, who started Common Sense Media, showed up, as did Betsy Blumenthal, an avid reader and executive at Kroll Associates.

Unfortunately, the story of the American Chestnut tree is not unique. Other species, such as the elm tree, have been decimated by disease. The California coastal oak is under attack. Thousands of those trees are dying from a mysterious blight that can't seem to be stopped.
But Freinkel's book is not a downer. The scientists determined to find a cure for the chestunt blight or to create a hybrid strain that can resist attacks againt it are inspirational. I hope they succeed.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Authors' Inscriptions

Lynne Johnston has been drawing the comic strip “For Better or Worse” for 30 years. It’s the evolving story of an apple pie, middle-class, Canadian family named the Pattersons. In the last year, Johnston has had one of her characters, Michael, write a novel, find a publisher, and see it in print in record time.

During the last few days, the strip has shown Michael signing his book at a bookstore. There have been a number of jokes about what he signs for each reader, which made me wonder what real authors sign in their books.

While many authors just sign their names, many include a pithy phrase that is linked to the theme of their books. My friend and writing group partner Susan Freinkel just came out with a book called American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. She signed one of my books: “Here’s to Rebirth,” and then her name.

The question of how to inscribe a book is not trivial. Imagine having to sign over and over again. Would you rather just sign your name and save your hand or write something that is going to bring you and your reader a little closer together?

I looked through my shelves and found a number of authorial autographs. They are fairly varied from the unadorned to the lengthy. Some of these inscriptions are rather personal, which in most cases means I knew the author slightly. I wouldn't say any of them are close friends, yet their inscription feel intimate.

From Michael Pollan, from his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

“4-26-06, For Frances, Fellow Writer, Vote with your fork.”

From Sean Wilsey, who wrote “Oh The Glory of It All.”

“For Frances, It’s all crazy true life in here, but it turned out more or less OK. Thank you for reading and blogging.”

Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket inscribed his first book to my daughter using an embossed seal that said “The Library of Lemony Snicket.”

Then he wrote “To Charlotte, a future orphan.”

From Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree:

“To Frances, with warm wished to an admired colleague.”

From Jason Roberts, author of A Sense of The World:

“To Frances, A Fellow (ink-stained) Traveller.”

From Kemble Scott, author of the novel SOMA

“To Frances, From One Author to the Next.”

From Julia Scheeres, author of Jesus Land:

“To Frances, Thanks for Reading!” Julia

From Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of Easter Rising: An Irish American Coming Up from Under.

“To Frances, Much Peace and Many Blessings.”

Michael Chabon, Alan Alda and Jacqueline Winspear, author of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries, all just signed their name.

Which one works best?

I’d have to go with Pollan’s “Vote with your fork.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Why the Lack of Communication

Sorry for the radio silence. This has been the longest I've gone without posting -- a record 27 days. I have my reasons, believe me. I haven't been lazy, or on vacation, or reading up a storm. No, nothing really fun like that.

I have been finishing my book. I started this project seven years ago and can't quite believe it's coming to an end. I've had my share of ups and downs -- the editor who acquired the book left St. Martins and my new editor had so much backlogged work it took him many months to read my manuscript. Waiting to hear what he thought was excruciating.

The good news is he liked Towers of Gold. He returned his comments to me in late October and I have spent the last three weeks working like crazy. I feel like this is a term paper and I have to pull consecutive all-nighters to finish. I didn't really have many substantive changes to make, but like all writers, I love to tinker. I could play around with words endlessly, changing adjectives here, tightening descriptions there.

I haven't quite let go of the book, but think it will be complete very, very soon. Like in the next few days. I will still have to gather photographs and all that sort of stuff, but the writing and thinking will be finished.

The book is 133,000 words and about 450 pages. I am not sure how many pages that will turn out to be in book form. But Isaias Hellman's life was pretty fascinating and I tried to highlight lots of good parts. Readers will learn about Los Angeles when it was still a dusty pueblo; ferocious rain storms and droughts, the Nevada Silver boom, the Huntington family and Southern Pacific, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the ensuing graft trials. World War I and the influenza epidemic and most importantly, the Jewish contribution to the settlement of California.

(This is MY blog, so I can plug my own book, right?)

Anyway, hello again.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Blog Becomes a Movie

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Well, we've seen blogs made into books, but I believe we have a new first: a blog made into a movie.

Apparently, Hollywood is going to make a film based on the blog by Julie Powell, who wrote about her attempt to make every recipe in Julia' Child's cookbook, the Art of French Cooking. The blog became a best-selling book, and now Meryl Streep is set to play Julia Child in the movie. Nora Ephron wrote the script and is directing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fire, Fire, Everywhere

View of the fire from satellite.

I can't stop obsessing over the southern California fire, which is probably no surprise since I lost my house in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. I know just how these people are feeling: torn between happiness they are alive and shock they have lost their way of life. In many ways it is worse for them. The Oakland Hills fire raged for a day. I knew by 4 pm that my house had burned down, one of 2,800 dwellings turned to ash. Some of the people in San Diego County left their homes three days ago and still don't know their fate. They must be in pure agony.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Jews and Books

If it is late fall, it must be Jewish Book Season.

Every year towards the end of October, Jewish organizations around the country bring together dozens of Jewish authors for day-long book fairs. In California, there will be at least three fairs happening almost simultaneously, one in Contra Costa County, one in San Francisco, and one in Los Angeles.

It’s no coincidence that the fairs happen at the same time because the events are partially orchestrated by a group called the Jewish Book Council. The group was founded in 1925 by a Boston librarian who arranged a display of Jewish-themed books and called the event Jewish Book Week. The idea was formalized and retooled, and today a subsidiary of the Council, known as the Jewish Book Network, helps coordinate 70 book fairs around the country featuring 160 authors. It’s a $3 million industry and the major way for those with Jewish-themed books to reach a targeted audience.

That makes the Book Council’s director, Carolyn Starman Hessel, one of the most powerful people in publishing, even though she has nothing to do with the actual printing of any book. If the axiom that Jews buy a lot of books is true (and I’ve heard that while Jews only make up 2% of the population, they buy 20% of the hardcover books) Hessel is a woman who influences the reading choices of thousands of Jews around the country. If she likes your book, she stands behind your book. A lot of people listen to her opinion.

It used to be that Hessel would go to Book Expo America and interview various authors to see if they would be appropriate for Jewish Book festivals. Then she would talk to coordinators around the country and recommend names and titles for the book fairs.

That informality is long gone. Now authors literally audition for a slot in a Jewish book festival in a process that Rachel Donadio of the New York Times Book Review described as “a combination of “The Gong Show” and speed-dating.” Each year, authors get about two minutes to pitch their book and convince Hessel and other book fair coordinators that they will entertain and inform audiences. While subject matter counts, so does an author’s ability to deliver a rousing talk.

Hessel’s “tours have also helped kick-start the careers of promising young novelists including Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer,” writes Donadio.

“Hessel has an “uncanny ability” to get people enthusiastic about Jewish books, said Krauss, who first went on a Jewish Book Network tour to promote her 2002 novel, “Man Walks Into a Room.” “If ‘Finnegans Wake’ were even a little Jewish, Carolyn could convince thousands of people in J.C.C.’s across the country to read it.”

I met Hessel a few years ago as she accompanied two of her favorite authors on a small book tour. Samuel Freedman, whose most recent book was Who She Was, a memoir about his mother, and Ari Goldman, who had just written Living a Year of Kaddish, toured synagogues and community centers on the West Coast. Hessel, a diminutive, well-coiffed woman, was there in the audience, cheering them on and promoting their books.

The San Francisco Jewish Community Center BookFest tour will be on November 4th at the Jewish Community Center on California Street in San Francisco. It is free, and will feature many stellar authors, including Michael Chabon, Shalom Auslander, whose new memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, is drawing rave reviews, (and was strongly promoted by Hesel) Dalia Sofer, who wrote The Septembers of Shiraz, Steve Almond, author of Candy Freak and the essay collection Not That You Asked, and Michael Wex, who is following up his hit book Not to Kvetch with Just Say Nu.

The Contra Costa County Jewish Book and Art Festival runs Oct. 30 through Nov. 15 and features KQED host Michael Krasney and Berkeley author Peggy Orenstein, among many others.

In Los Angeles, the University of Judaism is hosting the first Celebration of Jewish Books from Nov. 5th-11th. Authors include Michael Chabon, Tony Kushner, Daniel Handler, and Daniel Mendelsohn, among others.

Check out Jewish book events in your area.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Literary Tidbits Doris Lessing wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a choice I can relate to, as I read and reread The Golden Notebook numerous times in my early 20s. I haven’t read her recent books, I confess, which are science fiction.

Jeffrey Toobin blames the success of his new book on the Supreme Court, The Nine, to his ineptitude as a novelist. (via Galleycat)

Litquake is upon us! I intend to go to the pub/reading crawl on Saturday with my writing group, North 24th. One of the members of our group, Julia Flynn Siler, will be reading from her House of Mondavi. It’s about the winemaking family and they have put her with a group of other authors who write about food, including Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters. The panel's title is Tasting Course: Authors Write About Food & Wine.

Once again the Lit Crawl is an embarrassment of riches. (The schedule is here.) There are too many authors to hear and the ones I want to see all seem to appear at the same time. Some conflicts I am mulling: do I go to the panel on Heydey Press and California history or the one on bad girls acting out? The latter is sure to be a hoot with Joyce Maynard, Ellen Sussman, Mary Roach, Lolly Winston and Lisa Taggert. But I am writing a book on California history and consider the Heydey authors my compadres.

In another time slot, it’s writers from the Grotto versus writers from Bay Area Word of Mouth, a group of highly accomplished published women writers. (I am nominally a member although I mostly lurk and read their emails.)

Last year I adored the Grotto presentation. Marianna Cherry was a special surprise and she will be reading again this year. I’d love to hear Gerard Jones and Andy Raskin as well.

The WOMBA list is equally tempting. There’s Meredith Maran, whose work I have adored since What It’s Like to Live Now, Harriet Scott Chessman, who I just met the other night, Lalita Tademy, a class act if I ever saw one (I did a profile of her for People Magazine about Cane River. It was a wonderful assignment) and many more.

Of course I could skip those and hear mystery writers Cara Black and Cornelia Read, two more authors whom I enjoy.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Journalists Come Together To Investigate Chauncey Bailey's Murder

Good news on the investigation into Chauncey Bailey’s murder. An ad hoc group of reporters from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and various newspapers, radio and television stations are banding together to investigate the murder.

The group, led by former Chronicle Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal, plans to investigate past and current activities of the Bey family and other issues that impact Oakland residents. The investigation will be called the Bailey Project in homage to a project launched after the murder of another journalist, Don Bolles, in 1976. Bolles was investigating the workings of the mafia for the Arizona Republic when his car was bombed. After his death, scores of reporters came to the state to continue his work and the investigation was known as the Arizona Project.

"We cannot stand for a reporter to be murdered while working on behalf of the public," Dori J. Maynard, president and CEO of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education told Editor and Publisher. "Chauncey's death is a threat to democracy. Journalists will not be intimidated. This type of crime cast a chilling affect over our community. We will not be bullied. We have to prove that there is no gain, and hell to pay, when the very structure of our society is challenged."

Journalists from the following organizations are participating in the Chauncey Bailey Project:

Bay Area Black Journalists Association
Bay Area News Group
Center for Investigative Reporting
Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc.
KQED Public Radio
Maynard Institute for Journalism Education
National Association of Black Journalists
New America Media
New Voices in Independent Journalism
San Francisco State University Journalism Department
San Francisco Bay Guardian
San Jose State University Journalism Department
Sigma Delta Chi of the National Society of Professional Journalists
Society of Professional Journalists - Northern California Chapter
University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism

Monday, October 08, 2007

Finally, a "Why" to Chauncey Bailey's Murder

I gave the local newspapers a hard time after the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey. I was dismayed and a little surprised that no Bay Area paper tried to uncover the facts that led to Bailey’s assassination. I ascribed the indifference, in part, to the recent media consolidation that left the region with just two newspaper chains – The San Francisco Chronicle, owned by Hearst Corp. and Dean Singleton's MediaNews.

It’s been more than two months since Bailey’s murder and the Chronicle redeemed itself today with a story explaining the rise and fall of the Bey family and their Black Muslim Bakery. This is the story that Bailey was apparently reporting when he was killed. It’s a nicely done story by Erin McCormick and Jaxon Van Derbeken as it touches on many of the issues that make this killing so disturbing – the rise and fall of Yusef Bey’s empire, his children’s hoodlumism, the inability of the police to stop their crime spree. It’s kind of shocking that no one was able to stop the violence.

Part One was a profile of Chauncey Bailey.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Bay Area Book Deals

There have been some interesting book sales by Bay Area authors in recent days, one for a first-time author for more than $1 million. (From Publisher's Marketplace)

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Patrick Dillon and Carl Cannon's CIRCLE OF GREED: The Rise and Fall of the Most Feared Lawyer in America, about the rise and fall of Bill Lerach of Milberg, Weiss, Lerach, once the leading class-action lawyer in America and now a convicted felon, a morality tale of greed and corruption in the legal and corporate worlds, set against the biggest financial boom in our history, pitched as in the spirit of Conspiracy of Fools and The Brightest Boys in the Room, to Phyllis Grann at Doubleday in a significant deal, in a pre-empt, by Andrew Stuart at The Stuart Agency (NA).

Patrick Dillon is the editor of California Monthly and a former editor and columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Carl Cannon is a native of San Francisco, but he spent his reporting career elsewhere.

Former San Francisco Chronicle reporter and Global Warming Fellow at the Goldman School of Public Policy, Robert Collier's first-hand account of China's disastrous "carbon footprint," TOO HOT: China's New Economy and Global Warming, to Naomi Schneider at the University of California Press, for publication in 2008, by Amanda Mecke at AMecke Co. (world English).

Robert Collier spent 16 years at the Chronicle and left in August in the recent wave of buyouts and layoffs.

San Francisco MD Josh Bazell's debut novel BEAT THE REAPER, a genre-bending thriller narrated by a charismatic and dangerous hitman-turned-doctor, to Reagan Arthur at Little, Brown, in a major deal, for seven figures, for publication in July 2009, by Markus Hoffmann at Regal Literary (NA).

UK rights to Jason Arthur at William Heinemann, in a good deal, at auction, for one book, by Lauren Pearson at Regal Literary (UK/Commonwealth).

Dutch rights to Pieter Swinkels at De Bezige Bij, in a pre-empt.

Dr. Josh Bazell works in the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Buying Books versus Taking Them Out from the Library

In the last five days I have spent more than $100 dollars on books, not a huge sum, but not a small one either. I bought Scott Kemble’s Soma, Jason Roberts’ A Sense of the World, Kevin Devlin’s The Numbers Behind Numb3rs, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, Charles Shields’ Mockingbird, and Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. They were all paperbacks.

In the same period, I took three books out of the library: Ann Packer’s Song Without Words, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story.

Looking at this small sample, it seems that I buy more books than not. But the opposite is the case: I rarely buy hardbacks, unless they are by my friends, and I only occasionally buy paperbacks.

As an aspiring author who hopes lots of people will buy my book, how do I defend this position? I admire and respect so many writers and I root for them and cheer them on even when I don’t know them. This should translate to buying lots of books, but it doesn’t.

When I first started this blog I wrote about my obsession with working the hold lists at various libraries and the rental bestseller list at the bookstore A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland. The bookstore no longer has a rental program, much to my dismay, but I have continued to finesse the books I have on hold at the Berkeley and Oakland libraries. I can’t tell you how much pleasure I get from hearing about a book and then rushing to reserve it, gaining a third or fourth or occasional first place in line. If I don’t rush, there can be 30 to 40 holds on a book.

I could go out and buy these books, but I get a lot of satisfaction from the chase. It’s perverse, and doesn’t support authors, but it gives me purpose in life. How many people think about their library hold list a few times a day? Not many, I can guarantee.

For the last few weeks, I have maxed out the number of holds I can place with the Berkeley Public Library. The limit is 16, although a librarian told me yesterday the limit might soon go to 60! So I have had to cancel some books I had reserved (sorry Martha Raddatz, but your book on the Iraq war was just taking too long. Ditto Nancy Horan. A friend I respect told me she found Loving Frank a bit contrived) Just yesterday I added Shalom Auslander’s new memoir to the list, so I am maxed out again.

Here is what I am waiting for:

What you Have Left by Will Allison

He’s taught fiction at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers a few times. I’ve heard him read before, and he is wonderful. His publisher took out a full page ad in the New Yorker touting this book, but I don’t know if it has gotten much recognition. (Oops, I just checked and saw this book has been declared lost. Now I may never get it.)

Four Seasons in Rome: on Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr. He is the son of the novelist Harriet Doerr. I heard this one was great. It’s a memoir about the time he spent at the Rockefeller Foundation on Lake Como.

The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt. This is a novel about Britain during World War I and an East Indian mathematician. My husband and daughter love math, so I thought they might enjoy this.

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. One of the hits of the season. I could have purchased it for $12 at Costco, but didn’t. What’s worse: buying from a chain or getting it from the library? I bet the author would encourage me to buy, regardless of place.

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold. (This, too, is for my daughter, who loved The Lovely Bones)

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta. I really enjoyed Little Children.

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer. My friend Ilana DeBare said not to miss this one.

Trashed by Alison Gaylin. Then there are those books I reserve and can’t remember why. I think this one is a mystery featuring a reporter.

The Genetic Strand, by Edward Ball. I really do love nonfiction and this one could be good.

One Drop, by Bliss Broyard

How Starbucks Saved my Life : A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else by Michael Gates Gill. This sounds hokey but actually has gotten some interesting reviews.

As you can see, my reading tastes are eclectic. I probably should focus but what fun is there in that?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Seymour Hersh on Bush and Iran

Here's the New Yorker article Seymour Hersh talked about at the Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival. In it he says Bush is looking for a new pretext to bomb Iran. His attempts to create fear about a widespread nuclear program in Iran didn't produce much support, so he's changing his message to argue bombing is needed to support American ground troops fighting in Iraq.

Of course, Bush's new press secretary Dana Perino belittled the piece. That's par for the course, according to Hersh. Bush completely ignores the media and barely pays attention to his own party, unless they are part of the neoconservative branch.

Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival

I spent about 24 hours at the Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival, and to my surprise, I found it exhilarating. And exhausting. The format was different than anything I had experienced, and it created an environment where you were bombarded with the thoughts and words of various authors.

The really big names like Frank McCourt, Sy Hersh, Elizabeth Edwards, Douglas Brinkley, and Doris Kearns Goodwin got to speak by themselves for about an hour. Otherwise there were sessions where four or five authors came on the stage and spoke for about 15 minutes each. They weren't there to read; they were there to entertain, to showcase their personalities .

I have seen many authors read, but I never quite realized how authors today are required to be bright, witty, and quick with a quip. Some authors at the festival were excellent at this. Joe Quirk, author of Sperm Are From Men, Eggs Are From Women, gave a short lecture on sex and biology that had people doubled over laughing. Kevin Devlin, the Stanford professor who has a math show on NPR, was also entertaining.

Irshad Manji, the Canadian journalist who wrote The Trouble With Islam kept the audience enraptured with her talk about personal responsibility and courage in the world. She obviously has given this talk dozens of times at universities around the globe, and she does it convincingly. She went on way too long, however, perhaps not realizing that she was cutting into the time of other writers.

What these kind of conferences do well is expose participants to writers they may never have heard of and may have never sought out. I really enjoyed seeing Lolly Winston, Kemble Scott, Amy Wilentz, Judith Freeman, Tamin Ansary, and Robert Scheer, among others. There were a few I wish I could have heard, but I had to leave before their presentations, including Goodwin, Brinkley, Jason Roberts and Beth Lisick.

Hersh and McCourt were worth the whatever the conference organizers Jim and Cindy McGillen may have paid them. McCourt talks in a lilting Irish accent and is charming and funny and self-deprecating. He spoke about teaching at a vocational high school in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the lengths he had to go to make the kids interested in writing.

Hersh spoke after lunch on Saturday and his talk immediately changed the tone of the conference. He spoke about the Bush administration and the small group of neoconservatives who have hijacked foreign policy, despite the complaints of more moderate Republicans and much of the rest of the country. Hersh also spoke about the article he has in this week's New Yorker about new plans to bomb Iran. He said the Taliban are poised to take over Afghanistan and any bombing of Iran might lead that nation to bomb Pakistan in retaliation. And as we all know, Pakistan is very unstable and had many nuclear weapons. Hersh ended his talk by saying he thought the US would live through this dark period. Robert Scheer came on stage next and said he disagreed with Hersh. He had interviewed every president since Nixon (except the current one) and that America is giving in to its darkest impulses.

Was this conference worth $500 a ticket? Clearly, most of those attendees didn't have to think twice about the price. Most were in their 60s or 70s and obviously very wealthy. There were many women with beautifully coiffed blonde hair and fingers and wrists decked in diamonds and gold. I saw a lot of Chanel, Burberry and other designer goods. The authors were more poorly dressed than the attendees. The audience looked happy, and looked like they felt they had gotten their money's worth.

These people clearly love books and were delighted to meet so many authors. They were buying four to six books at a time at the book table (staffed by Borders, not an independent bookstore.)

The weather was beautiful, the Sunset Center was a great place to spend a day, and the conversations -- on stage and off -- were stimulating. I would definitely go back next year.

Photo Identification: Frank McCourt and Irish singer Shannon Miller; Irshad Manji signing books; Elizabeth Edwards signing books; Joe Quirk, Julia Flynn Siler, Lolly Winston, and Kemble Scott hanging out in the Green Room; Bridget Kinsella and Jason Roberts at the festival.

Friday, September 28, 2007

What Race Means in America

I heard Bliss Broyard on Fresh Air on Thursday, talking about her book, One Drop, which discusses her father’s decision to spend his life as a white man, rather than as the black man he was born.

Broyard’s father was no ordinary man, but was Anotole Broyard, the book critic for the New York Times and a writer of strength and wit in his own right. In his two memoirs, Kafka Was the Rage, detailing his days as a bachelor in Greenwich Village after World War II, and Intoxicated By My Illness, focusing on his upcoming death from prostate cancer, he never reveals that he has some black blood.

He never told his children, either. His wife revealed that salient fact to them as Broyard lay dying.

There were always rumors about Broyard’s identity, and he was ultimately “outed” by Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard scholar, in a mesmerizing article in the New Yorker, which you can read here.

Bliss Broyard's book explores the legacy of her father's decision and how she adapted to a new sense of her own identity.

I am fascinated by books which explore how Americans are not what they think they are. Edward Ball’s book, Slaves in the Family, looks at his ancestors and their long legacy of owning slaves. In his upcoming book, The Genetic Strand, he dissects his family’s genetic code to see whether he has any African-American or Native American blood.

Another fabulous book on race in America is Neil Henry’s Pearl’s Secret. Henry is a descendant of a white plantation owner and a black slave, and his book traces two branches of the family, one white, one black. He finds that the black descendants of the original couple have done much better in America than their white counterparts. In the course of his research, which takes him to archives and dusty municipal buildings all over the South, Henry is confronted with race and what it means to be black in America.

I don’t have any indication that my ancestry is anything but Jewish, German, Irish, Scotch, etc. One daughter of mine has very dark skin, however, and people are endlessly asking her ancestry. Perhaps there is a drop of gypsy blood along the line. Who knows?

But the question of origin interests me, since racial identity plays such a critical role in American history.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival and Other Musings

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A number of people have told me that they saw the announcement of my talk at the Magnes Museum too late to attend. They saw it too late because they are checking my blog less often, now that I am posting less often.
I guess I am in kind of a lull. I am working hard on my book and that consumes a lot of my energy. I keep seeing events that I think I should blog about, or read books on which I should offer commentary, but somehow I put it off.
But I will be going to the Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival this weekend, and plan to take lots of pictures of all the glamorous authors and participants. I promise I will post them.
This is the festival that was literally thrown together in a few months by Jim and Cindy McGillen of Carmel. Despite the short timetable, the organizers have lined up a fabulous set of speakers, including Seymour Hersh, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Douglas Brinkley, Elizabeth Edwards, Frank McCourt, and John Grogan.
Bay Area authors also will be well represented. I am going as a guest of Julia Flynn Siler. Other authors include Tamim Answary, Jason Roberts, Kemble Scott, Beth Lisick, and Lolly Winston, among many others.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Interstection of Journalism and History

I am going to be talking at the Judah L. Magnes Museum on Thursday September 20 about the intersection of journalism and history. In writing my biography of Isaias W. Hellman, I have used the archives of the Western Jewish History Center, an incredible repository of photos, letters, diaries, and newspapers detailing the Jewish contribution to the settling of the West.

I am going to talk about combining a variety of sources to write historical narrative. Normally in journalism, a reporter goes out and interviews people about a topic, reads the literature, observes the scene and then writes up a report.

But recreating history is not so neat. Generally there is no one to interview and you can't observe the scene first hand. So you have to hunt for clues in old newspapers, letters, photographs, etc. I will be talking about how to mine primary sources to write narrative. I will also be talking about Hellman and the Jewish experience in California in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Magnes is located at 2911 Russell Street in Berkeley. I will talk at 6:30.

Monday, September 10, 2007

They Called Me Meyer July

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When Meyer Kirshenblatt was 17 years old, he left his home in Apt, Poland for Canada, little realizing he would never see the town again. He grew up in a Jewish community rich with tradition and religion and that way of life -- and most of the inhabitants -- were killed during the Holocaust.

Kirshenblatt lived a full, happy life in Toronto and it wasn't until he was 71 years old that the press of his childhood memories prompted him to start painting scenes of his youth. Now 20 years later, the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley is putting on an exhibit of 65 of his paintings, titled They Called Me Meyer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust. It's an amazing show of scenes of shtetl life, done in bursts of color and dotted with humor. It's the first time the paintings have been exhibited and when they leave the Magnes in January, they will travel to museums around the world.

Kirshenblatt and his daughter, the renowned scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, have also written a beautiful memoir about pre-Holocaust Apt, looking at Meyer's life, his painting, and their intellectual collaboration. The book, published by UC Press, got a starred review in Publishers' Weekly.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and her father were at the Magnes opening on Sunday, and she said something I found provocative and true: that these paintings are "memory as a weapon against the traumas of history."

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Who is the Most Popular Author At Google? A number of my friends have been lucky enough to be tapped as Google Authors – you know, the writers who get to take a trip to Google headquarters in Mountain View or Santa Monica or New York and talk to Google workers while they snack on Google-prepared lunches. Oh, yes. Google buys a bunch of their books and then passes them out to those attending the talk.

I first heard of the Google Authors program when Pamela Mazzola and Nancy Oakes, authors of the gorgeous cookbook, Boulevard, visited the Mountain View campus in 2005. Since then the program has become well known, with write ups in various newspapers. A few other friends, Neil MacFarquhar, who wrote The Sand Café, and Julia Flynn Siler, who wrote The House of Mondavi, have also been tapped.

Google does more than pass out an author’s books. The company also films the author’s talk and posts it to YouTube, creating one of the most vibrant libraries of literary lectures around.

So guess who are the most favorite authors, as judged by the number of times their videos have been viewed? It’s an eclectic list.

1) Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great. His video has been viewed 25,536 times. (In just two months!)

2) Cory Doctorow’s video has been looked at 15,039 timers.

3) James Randi’s video has been viewed 10,838 times.

4) Neil Gaiman’s has been looked at 9,916 times.

5) Bess Vanrenen’s video has been looked at 7,689.

6) Elizabeth Gilbert’s video has been looked at 6,322 times.

7) Andrew Keen’s has been viewed 5,737 times.

8) Julia Flynn Siler’s video has been looked at 2,227 times.

I will confess I have never heard of some of these authors. Randi is a magician, Vanrenen is the editor of the anthology Generation What? Dispatches from the Quarter-Life Crisis. Andrew Keen is the author of The Cult of the Amateur.

The author viewings pale compared to viewings of political candidates.

1) Ron Paul’s video has been viewed 234,017 times

2) Hillary Clinton’s has been viewed 44,363 times in the past six months.

3) John McCain’s has been viewed 18,152 times.

4) John Edwards has less traction. His video has been looked at 7,997 times.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Harper Lee Won't Talk to You. What Do You Do Now?

The biographer James McGrath Morris has started a new monthly on-line newsletter, and his September issue is a gem.

In it, Charles J. Shields describes walking to meet various publishers to discuss his just-submitted proposal for a biography of Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

“My agent Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management sent my book proposal to about a dozen publishers,” Shieeds recounted in The Biographer’s Craft. “We were excited when several editors said they'd like to meet me and discuss the idea. I remember we were walking down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan when Jeff's cell phone rang.

I could tell right away by his expression that something was wrong.

Someone--a mole in publishing (though I prefer to think of the person as a wart)--had copied my entire proposal and sent it by Fedex to Lee. As Jeff and I were blithely meeting with editors, she was already feeling grateful that some thoughtful soul had tipped her off, and by God she wasn't going to cooperate with me. Or, as she so often responds to requests from journalists, "Hell, no!" In fact, she had started calling friends and asking them not to speak to me. I was thunderstruck and Jeff, in his endearing way, began to worry (he wouldn't feel right if he wasn't worried about something) that the whole project was blowing up.

What I had planned to do before we were double-crossed was this: first, I would get a reputable publisher for the book, and then I would contact Lee. I would tell her that accuracy and fairness were my biggest concerns. I would explain that I wanted to work with her, and would even send her the completed manuscript for corrections. Keep in mind that this is chancy. Whenever you write a biography of a living person and permit him or her to read the manuscript, you run the risk of having it filleted. Result: a hagiography, to use an old-fashioned word, a biography that treats its subject with undue reverence because all the juicy parts have been removed. Still, I thought a biography of the mysterious Harper Lee, author of one of the most popular books of the twentieth century was worth the chance.

I never got the opportunity to work with her. She cut me dead. Never heard from her, only from her sister, Alice Lee, a lady in her nineties, who said imperiously that she was not pleased that I was writing about her sister."

Fortunately, Shields was tenacious, as his book, Mockingbird, was widely admired and won all sorts of awards.

The issue also contains an interview with Janet Malcom, who just wrote a biography of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, focusing on their years under Nazi occupation.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

David Halberstam's New Book to be Promoted by Other Writers

A group of powerhouse non-fiction authors will embark on a series of readings for the new book on the Korean War from the late David Halberstam.

Shortly after Halberstam was killed in a car crash last spring, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Anna Quindlen called his widow and offered to promote the book, according to an AP article. They will be joined by Joan Didion, Seymour Hersh, Samantha Power, and Bill Walton in readings for The Coldest Winter around the country.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Guilt-Free Reading

You've heard of carbon credits? Now there are paper credits, too.

A new company is offering to make reading guilt-free -- for a small sum. Pay into a fund, and every time you buy a new book, the company will plant a tree.

About 20 million trees are cut down each year to make virgin paper, and founders of the company hope to offset this consumption. "Every book you read was once a tree," reads the company website. "Now you can plant a tree for every book you read."

The company, based in Novato, Ca, and Delaware was started by a group of Israelis, including "eco-entreprenuer" Raz Godelnik. He was the co-founder of Hemper Jeans, which produced jeans made from hemp. (Which is still illegal to grow in many parts of the U.S.)

I figure I read about 50 books a year. Planting 50 trees would cost me about $47.

The founders list their favorite books on their website, too.

Monday, August 20, 2007

More good feelings from The WIre

It's The Wire week here on Ghost Word. Gee, I wonder when the show comes back on?

Anyway, in another it's too good to be true story, the man who inspired the machine-gun totting yet ethical drug dealing Omar, got married this week to the woman who inspired one of the show's many drugged out characters. She was nothing but a junkie on the street when he started to call her from prison, where he was serving time for murder. The matchmaker? None other than David Simon, the show's creator.

Their marriage got a large write-up in the New York Times' wedding section:

"Among those at the wedding were Mr. Simon, the executive producer, writer and creator of “The Wire,” and the cast members Dominic West, who plays Detective James McNulty; Sonja Sohn, who plays Detective Shakima Greggs; and Andre Royo, who plays Bubbles."

Friday, August 17, 2007

Summer Reading

Summer is almost two-thirds over and I have the uncomfortable feeling that I haven’t had enough good “summer reads” this year. When I was traveling in Italy I got to read for hours a day, but since my return I haven’t gotten back my rhythm. What that really means is that I haven’t read any truly satisfying books.

My favorite books so far this summer:

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. This isn’t a new book (it was an LBC pick last summer) When I first picked it up a few years ago I couldn’t get into it, but I devoured it on my second attempt. It’s a series of linked murders that go unsolved for decades. It’s utterly engrossing and keeps the reader guessing.

First Fire by C.J. Box. I don’t read a lot of mysteries but I have read every book in this series about a Wyoming game warden whose main job is to prevent wildlife poaching but who often finds himself in the thick of murder and corruption. The first book in the series was fabulous, and the rest less so, until now. I am happy to report that the latest book is as good as the first.

House of Mondavi by Julia Flynn Siler. I’ve written extensively about Julie, a good friend. While I read much of this book in manuscript, I hadn’t sat down and read the whole thing from front to back. Once I started, I couldn’t stop, and found myself angry when I got distracted. This is really a fun read and I am not just saying that because Julie is my friend.

Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster. I saw a sign in a bookstore that declared this a “perfect novel.” Shortly thereafter a friend told me how much she enjoyed this story of a recently divorced man who sheds his suburban life for a new home in the bustling city. This is a story about the new American family, one blended because of love and proximity, not blood.

I got this email from Ilana DeBare, a friend and business writer at the Chronicle:

“It's not often I get excited enough to want to start spewing out emails about a book, but I just read one that I wanted to share. Anyway, it's called The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer, and it just came out in hardcover. It's about a wealthy Jewish Iranian family where the father, a gem cutter, is imprisoned by the revolutionary regime shortly after the overthrow of the Shah. The book alternates between the father in prison, the mother, the son who is stranded in Brooklyn studying architecture, and the nine year old daughter. It is a truly horrifying glimpse of the Iranian revolution. But it is also a nuanced picture of a marriage that has dulled over time, and love and regret; of how even non-identified Jews can't escape their identity; class dynamics between servants and their employers; and what happens when people who have been accustomed to status, luxury and comfort their whole lives suddenly find it taken away. It's a great book.”

Some less well-loved reads:

Visiting Life: Women Doing Time on the Outside by Bridget Kinsella.

Kinsella is the west coast representative for Publisher’s Weekly and is a well-respected member of the Bay Area literary community. She was all over the radio and television with this book, which details her platonic romance with a convict at Pelican Bay Penitentiary in northern California.

The beginning of the book starts strongly as Kinsella describes falling in love with her first husband and the sense of betrayal she felt at his departure when he discovered he way gay. The break-up forces her to reevaluate everything, move across the country to California, and cast about for new ways to survive. She sets herself up as a literary agent and someone sends her some writing by Rory Mehan, who is serving a life sentence for murder. Kinsella is so impressed with Mehan's writing that she decides to visit him at Pelican Bay prison, which is about a seven hour drive from the Bay Area. When they meet, she is astounded at his perceptiveness. He is just glad to get a female visitor and within moments is romancing her. They fall in love and the rest of the book is the story of their platonic romance.

I just never felt comfortable with Kinsella’s description of her romance with Rory. Perhaps I was bewildered that she could fall for his pap and overblown phrases. Here was this accomplished woman with a deep neediness that is helped by a man with no education and a violent background. How can she believe him? She didn’t seem to question the relationship deeply enough and although she hints throughout the book that she knows she will one day leave him, that he is just a temporary diversion, she never has to make the difficult, final break because he comes down with a fatal disease. He decides not to seek treatment, so Kinsella gets to avoid a final break.

How to Talk to a Widower by Joe Tropper – I loved Tropper’s last book, The Book of Joe, but found this one much less funny and moving. It’s actually kind of depressing as the protagonist, a young widower, is still mourning his wife throughout the entire book. Tropper introduces several comic situations, such as having the protagonist’s pregnant twin sister leave her husband and move in to provide company, but the juxtaposition of comedy and serious intent didn’t work for me.

Living in a Foreign Language by Michael Tucker. This is a case of a book getting published because its author is a celebrity. Tucker and his wife, Jill Eikenberry, played two lawyers on the hit television show L.A. Law. The story details their lives after they leave the limelight and their attempts to find new meaning away from the glare of stardom. At some point they travel to the Umbrian region of Italy and buy and fix up an old cottage,

The book doesn’t really have any narrative momentum. I picked it up because I had just visited Umbria and wanted to get a deeper perspective on the region. Tucker is best at describing the food he eats and cooks. His writing really comes alive as he talks about visiting the small butchers and grocers near his town or the simple, yet sumptuous, meals, he eats at various restaurants. It’s a good book to read to make your mouth water, but it will leave you feeling vaguely empty.

The Manny by Holly Peterson – Peterson was a protégé of Tina Brown’s and has had a long career in network television. Her father is Pete Peterson, one of the richest men in the world, and it is this part of her background that Peterson uses for The Manny. The book is a glimpse into the lives of the uber-rich of the upper East Side. “Wheels up at 3!” is one of their favorite phrases, meaning their private plane will depart at 3,

In many ways this is typical chick-lit: lovely, unappreciated woman lives with scoundrel, meets a new man, gets together with new man. The difference here is that the new man is the family babysitter, or Manny.

Peterson got $500,000 for this novel and will get an equal amount for her second book. The main reason to read this book is to glimpse inside a world where people appear to be totally out of touch and obsessed with their bodies, their décor, and their clothes.