Monday, February 12, 2007

Calvin Trillin

Sometimes I think Heidi Benson has the best job in the news business. She’s the books reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and if there is any region that is teeming with authors, readings, creativity and controversy, it’s the Bay Area. Of course Benson only gets to touch lightly on the literary community, and many would argue her footprints are so light as to be indistinct.

But, as we sadly know, publishers spend few advertising dollars in regional newspapers, preferring to front load their funds for spreads in the New York Times. That is one reason why book sections are dying or, like the Chronicle’s, growing smaller. The book editor at Mercury News doubles as the travel editor and only has freelance help.

This is a long way of saying that Benson had a great interview in the Sunday Style section with Calvin Trillin about his new bestselling book About Alice. (The Chronicle tries to sneak book news into unexpected places since there is such a small budget for reviews.) Many readers have compared this portrait of Trillin’s late wife as similar to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. I suspect Trillin’s portrait is a bit brighter.

Trillin, as readers of the New Yorker know, comes to San Francisco regularly to visit one of his daughters and his two granddaughters. One time he was talking at City Arts and Lectures when someone asked him about Alice. This is from Benson's piece:

“There was the time, here in San Francisco, when he was giving a talk at Herbst Theatre as part of City Arts & Lectures. Someone asked how Alice liked the way she was portrayed in his work. (He has said that "About Alice" is an attempt to clarify the "sitcom" version of their life, in which she played the straight man, George Burns, to his screwball Gracie Allen.)

Trillin leveled with the audience. He said Alice thought his portrayal made her sound like "a dietitian in sensible shoes."

Then the questioner asked if Alice was in the audience. "When I said she was, he asked if she'd mind standing up. Alice stood," he writes. "As usual, she looked smashing. She didn't say anything. She just leaned over and took off one of her shoes -- shoes that looked like they cost about the amount of money required in some places to tide a family of four over for a year or two -- and, smiling, waved it in the air."

Retelling the story over lunch, he leans forward to share what is not a secret: "I won't claim I was completely unmindful of her appearance."

As Valentine Day approaches, it's fun to hear Trillin wax about the love of his life.

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