Friday, March 30, 2007

(Sean) Wilsey vs. (Dede) Wilsey, Round Two

San Francisco is being treated to another round of the Sean Wilsey vs. Dede Wilsey celebrity fest, but this time with less bite.

Sean Wilsey’s bestselling memoir, Oh The Glory of It All, really stuck it to his stepmother, whom he characterized as a husband-stealing, stepson hating, monstrosity. Dede supposedly hired a lawyer to stop Sean from writing about his unnatural lust for her and her vicious ways. The controversy was great media fodder, and Sean’s book became a bestseller.

But that was before the world knew that Dede Wilsey raised $200 million for the new De Young museum and pledged to raise another $500 million for a new hospital for children, women, and cancer in UC’s Mission Bay Development. A woman with that kind of fundraising prowess is to be feared, indeed.

Julian Guthrie, a Chronicle reporter, wrote a profile of Dede for this month’s San Francisco Magazine. The article draws a more complex portrait of Dede than the one sketched out in Sean’s memoir. She comes across as a dedicated woman, one driven to be the city’s uber-fundraiser The photos accompanying the story show Dede in her sumptuous bedroom where her monogrammed duvet cover and pillowcases look like they are made of 700-ply Egyptian cotton. There are also lots of pictures of Dede’s dogs, who are like family to her.

At the end of the article, the reader has to ask: “How bad can this woman be when she raises so much money for charity?” According to Sean Wilsey, this portrait is a complete calculation, a triumph of PR marketing.

Guthrie writes: “But even as she embarks on her biggest campaign yet, Wilsey’s persona of tough-minded saint remains colored by a deeply personal attack. A year before, she had endured the assault of stepson Sean Wilsey’s scathing memoir, Oh the Glory of It All. Wilsey was depicted as the clich├ęd evil stepmother, a Cruella De Vil with a pack of Maltese. The book received enviable reviews and publicity, with juicy excerpts in publications from coast to coast, from the New Yorker to the San Francisco Chronicle. Though Wilsey dismissed the voyeuristic page-turner as a pack of lies, and friends and family circled protectively around her, the media coverage turned her into a bauble-hungry caricature.

Then, this past January, the barbs were out again when W magazine published a story on San Francisco’s social scene that portrayed Wilsey as self-absorbed and flighty. She was photographed for the article at home, flanked by a servant and clad in an emerald green dress and jaw-dropping jewels. “My mother read it and told me not to,” says Wilsey of Kevin West’s piece, which included a painful scene in which Wilsey gives a toast to her son Trevor and his new wife Alexis at their wedding ball, but talks mostly about herself. “If your mother says not to read it, you know it must be bad.”

What’s interesting about Wilsey, though, is that neither the censure nor the acclaim seems to have much effect on her at this point. Her friends and foes alike remark how single-minded she is, and in interviews she comes across as funny and chatty but also ferociously determined and blunt—definitely not a lady who lunches—someone with zero self-doubt and no problem talking about herself or saying things an image consultant would have tried to halt midsentence.”

Now Sean is coming to town with his mother Pat Montandon, who has written her own memoir, Oh the Hell of it All: A Memoir. The pair will talk at an event on April 18 at 826 Valencia, the non-profit writing organization set up by Dave Eggers. It features other memorists Peggy Orenstein, Lisa Gray Garcia and Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon. At $100 a seat, it’s an expensive ticket. Of course, 826 does such great things that attendees have to regard the money as a donation.

Meanwhile, Sean is still pointing out that Dede is a calculating woman. Slate is sponsoring memoir week, and Sean (and others) wrote about what it is like to write about family members:

“My stepmother, Dede, whom I did not consult, was so enraged by what I wrote about her that she hired a lawyer and threatened to sue me. Then, she hired a publicist. She's been making regular appearances in glossy magazines ever since.”

More than a year after Sean’s book came out, he and Dede are still slugging it out in public. We’ve seen Round One. Round Two is approaching. Will there be a Round Three?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

How Messy Are Reporters' Desks?

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Well, the producers of the movie, Zodiac, didn’t do such a good job recreating the clutter of the 1970s Chronicle newsroom. (Too neat) The makers of HBO’s The Wire, don’t want to make the same mistake, so they are taking pictures of reporters’ desks.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Bay Area Literary Doings

Lindsey Crittenden’s moving memoir, The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray, has just been released. Crittenden writes about how learning to pray helped her through the death of her brother and parents. It’s a Bay Area book through and through – Crittenden was raised here, she was living in Berkeley when she stumbled into All Soul’s Church and gave prayer a try, and she now lives in San Francisco.

I went to Crittenden’s book release party at the Mechanic’s Institute and heard her read a poignant description of looking at her brother in the hospital as he hovered in the netherworld between life and death. The passage was beautifully rendered. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review. You can read about her here or go see her at Book Passage on April 15.

Michelle Richmond’s newest novel, The House of Fog, is officially being released today. With that title, I don’t have to tell you where it’s set. I haven’t seen this book yet, but I loved Richmond’s last book, Dream of the Blue Room, which was set in China. She’s launching her book on April 4 with a reading at Books Inc at Opera Plaza, followed by drinks at Hotel Rex. She’s also blogging this week at the Book Passage’s new blog. I think this is modeled after the author’s blog run by Powell Books of Portland.

Two other Bay Area writers have recently sold their books. These are from Publisher’s Marketplace:

Martha O'Connor's TINK, a reimagining of Tinkerbell from Peter Pan as a fierce Gaelic faerie born as a changeling to a band of 19th-century gypsies, to Peternelle van Arsdale at Putnam, in a pre-empt, for publication in late 2008 or early 209, by Mary Evans at Mary Evans (NA).

O'Connor's first book was the wildly successful The Bitch Posse.

Meg Waite Clayton's THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS, about five young wives who meet in a neighborhood park and form a bond over love, children, marriage, infidelity, illness, books, and writing, and who support each other through the best and worst of times, all set against the backdrop of the 1960s, to Robin Rolewicz at Ballantine, in a good deal, by Marly Rusoff at Marly Rusoff & Associates (NA).

Clayton’s first novel was The Language of Light.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The 1918 Flu Pandemic

Life has been so busy these last few weeks that I haven’t been able to post. It’s been work, kids, volunteer activities, all compounded by a broken computer. My Acer laptop has conked out on me twice in the past 18 months. It’s not a good feeling when your book is stored on the hard drive. Luckily, I’ve gotten much better at backing up my data. I learned that one the hard way.

I’ve gotten to delve into the 1918 flu pandemic that killed anywhere from 20 to 100 million people worldwide. The grandson of the man I am writing about, Isaias Hellman, was stationed in an Army camp near Waco, Texas when he came down with the flu. It progressed into pneumonia and he almost died. His niece and her husband did die, leaving two orphaned boys.

Hellman’s grandson was one of the lucky ones. This flu not only attacked the very young and the very old, but healthy young adults in their twenties and thirties. It would start with the familiar aches and chills but then the body would hemorrhage and the lungs would fill up with fluid. Sometimes people would be healthy in the morning and dead by night.

The flu hit the Bay Area in late September/early October. It was the height of World War I and the papers did not want to panic the populace. So they downplayed the issue. The Chronicle did not put a story on the epidemic on the front page until October 25, a week after the Board of Health ordered all schools, churches, and theaters closed and a day after the Board of Supervisors ordered everyone to wear gauze masks. About 3,500 people died in San Francisco.

It’s so much fun to do these mini-history courses and then put them in the book. I went and read various newspapers of the time, found letters describing the epidemic and San Francisco’s deserted streets and even found official government health reports on the Internet. I’ve gotten to do these mini-research seminars throughout the writing of the book. I’ve learned about the Nevada Silver boom of 1859, the settling of Lake Tahoe, the San Francisco graft trials, the San Francisco earthquake, the history of Jewish emigration to the U.S., the social mores of upper class women, and the development of banking in the West.

There have been so many fun tidbits I’ve learned. Did you know Delmonico’s restaurant in New York pioneered the a la carte menu? Before that diners had to take whatever the restaurant wanted to serve them. Did you know that most Californians scorned paper money and preferred to use gold coin? Did you know that in 1859 the predominant language spoken in Los Angeles was Spanish, followed by French? English came in a distant third. Did you know that Los Angeles favored the Confederacy during the Civil War? San Franciscans were for the Union.

Now I know that more than 650 women in UC Berkeley’s Home Economics Department made 8,500 gauze masks within three days. Each mask was four layers thick and took 15 minutes to sew.

Maybe I should apply to be on Jeopardy!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres

Looking at Julia Scheeres, you would never know she had the childhood from hell.

Tall, slim, lovely-looking with long blonde hair cascading past her shoulders, Scheeres seems the epitome of chic and savvy. Her grace comes naturally, as does her smile.

That is why her memoir, Jesus Land, now out in paperback, is so devastating. Scheeres grew up in an austere Calvinist family in the Midwest. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a devoted church member. When Scheeres was three, her parents adopted a new son, an African-American boy named David. A short time later they adopted another black son.

Scheeres’ book is primarily an homage to her brother David, whom she considered her best friend in life. For many years the two of them were soul mates who weathered their parents’ fundamentalism together. It is only when they begin a new high school in Indiana where David is one of the only black students do the two drift apart. Scheeres wants to fit in so badly she rejects her brother and his blackness.

Naturally, David acts act against this meanness and his parents decide to send him to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. Scheeres, who had been abused for years by her other brother, is caught sleeping with her boyfriends. Soon she is on a plane for the Caribbean.

Escuela Caribe, run by New Horizons Youth Ministry, is a school unlike any other. When students first arrive, they are not allowed to do anything without the permission of an instructor. They cannot move or walk without asking permission. They cannot eat, talk, or answer a question without explicit approval. They are not allowed to talk to a member of the opposite sex. The ability to gain personal freedom is tied up in how fervently these students profess a belief in God and a willingness to subject themselves completely to the will of the institution. The school professes to use Christian theology to transform its students, but abuse is at the core of its mission.

When Scheeres first arrived, she had not seen her brother for months. School officials allowed them to talk for ten minutes, but then the two were forbidden to make contact until Scheeres worked her way up the school’s deportment ladder. Scheeres learns to play the game well and soon becomes the top student in the school. There is a wonderful scene when she and David are supposed to walk to their volunteer job at an orphanage, but they stop by a bar and drink pina coladas. They haven’t been free and happy in months, and they experience pure joy at getting to hang out together without the threat of spying eyes. Of course they get caught.

This is really a love poem to David, who died in a car accident when he was 20. The only reservation I had about this book, and it is not a big one, is that Scheeres never brings her parents front and center in the book. We never learn why they embraced religion so tightly. Her father is a respected doctor, yet he is a tyrant at home. I would have liked to see more scenes of her parents and gotten a better understanding of who they were.

Monday, March 12, 2007

More Bookstore Blues

The San Francisco Business Times is reporting that Cody’s new San Francisco store on Stocketon Street might be closing.

A real estate broker is quietly shopping the space around.

It’s amazing that such a good bookstore in the heart of San Francisco’s downtown, where there is lots of foot traffic, can’t make it.

In Berkeley, local independent booksellers are happy at the news that the Barnes and Noble on Shattuck Avenue will close on May 31. I understand how they feel, but the closure will leave an already dull downtown area even more listless.

And don’t forget that Black Oak Books, further up on Shattuck, in the heart of the Gourmet Ghetto, has put itself up for sale.

Another cheery way to start the week.

Friday, March 09, 2007

NBCC Award Winners

The National Book Critics Circle announced their awards yesterday and Kiran Desai won for The Inheritance of Loss. I haven’t read the books in the fiction category so I don’t have any opinion on who should have won.

I have read a number of the books in the biography category, however, and I am surprised that Julie Phillip’s biography, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, won. I am near the end of this book, and while it is interesting, I don’t think it resonates as deeply as Debby Applegate’s, The Most Famous Man in the World: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, or even Jason Roberts’ A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler.

Tiptree was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, who became a popular science fiction writer in the 1970s. What I liked about Applegate’s book, as well as Roberts’, is the sense of the times in which their subjects lived. Applegate did a fantastic job of talking about the political and moral issues of Beecher’s times, which included the Civil War, the rise of a more liberal Christian theology, and the fight for women’s equality. Of course, Beecher was embroiled in many of those pressing issues, so perhaps it was easier to draw that larger portrait. Roberts also did a fine job of explaining the world from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries.

Phillips does not create as vivid portrait of Tiptree’s times, although she focuses some of the book on the question of the emancipation of women in the 20th century. Sheldon was born into a world where women were expected to be mothers and wives, although Sheldon’s own mother was a famous African explorer and writer. Sheldon tries on different personas throughout her life, as a painter, a WAC during World War II, an analyst in the precursor organization of the CIA , a chicken farmer, a wife, a doctoral candidate in psychology, before finally finding her voice as a “male” science fiction author. The critics were impressed by Phillips’ ability to vividly draw the various portraits of Sheldon, and Phillips effectively lifts the veil on this enigmatic author. I kept looking, however, for that deeper peek into the outside world. I am a journalist and in my brain I keep hearing my Columbia journalism professor say, “Context, context, context.”

I was pleased to see that Daniel Mendelsohn won for “The Lost,” his book about trying to understand what happened to his great uncle’s family during the Holocaust. Although I loved Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, The Lost is ultimately a much more ambitious book that looks at people’s reactions during war. Bechdel’s book is an intimate look at her repressed gay father and their relationship.

Simon Schama’s book Rough Crossings beat out Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree. I haven’t read it yet but can testify that the other nominees wrote really good books, so I think I will give Rough Crossings a try.

Of course, the value of awards is the attention they bring to books. All the nominees probably got a boost, if only to be able to put a shiny sticker announcing their nomination on the paperback editions of their books.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Tournament of Books

The annual Tournament of Books, that zany, diverting, and very satisfying on-line book competition, launches tomorrow. This year it has a new twist.

Instead of just watching as writers, book critics, and bloggers read books and compare them against one another, in a sort of NBAA bracketed-style competition, mere observers can now participate in the contest. The Tournament of Books has created the “Book Bloggers’ Office Pool.” Six bloggers have tried to predict the winner of the contest, and readers can compete to win the entire flight of books by choosing the blogger that correctly guesses the winner. Entries must be sent by 6 pm EST tonight.

It’s a lot easier to see that to write. Look here for the contest.

Two bloggers chose The Echo Maker by Richard Powers as the ultimate winner, two chose Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, one chose Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart and one chose Half of a Yellow Sun by

I personally am going to root for Gwenda Bond, of the blog Shaken and Stirred. She is voting for The Road.

I love these kind of contests. I love the notion that almost ordinary people with good literary tastes get to weigh in on excellent books. I love that there is no real prize attached, just the warm glow you get when someone appreciates your work. This is fun, not serious, although any press about a book can bring it more readers.

Here is the complete list of competing books. Powell’s is offering them for sale at a 30% discount during the competition.

Candidates for TMN’s 2007 Tournament of Books

Click on titles for 30 percent discounts on all candidates

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson
Arthur and George, Julian Barnes
Brookland, Emily Barton
English, August
, Upamanyu Chatterjee
The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford
Pride of Baghdad, Niko Henrichon, Brian K. Vaughan
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, Peter Orner
The Echo Maker
, Richard Powers
Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon
, Sam Savage
Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart
Alentejo Blue, Monica Ali
Apex Hides the Hurt, Colson Whitehead

Friday, March 02, 2007

Los Angeles Times Book Awards

The Los Angeles Times has announced its nominees for the best books of 2006. It’s always interesting to see what crossover there is with other awards. In this case, Debby Applegate’s biography of Henry Ward Beecher got a nod (it’s also a candidate for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography) Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost was nominated for biography. (I think it was in the general nonfiction category in the NBCC awards) and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower was one of the New York Times best books of the year. Terri Jentz’s Strange Piece of Paradise made at least two lists.

I will point out that two Bay Area authors are being honored: Peter Orner was nominated in fiction for The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. (I have this book sitting in the back of my car; I think this nomination will get me to finally put it at the top of my TBR pile) Janice Cooke Newman, who teaches writing in the Bay Area and wrote a non-fiction book on international adoption, was nominated in the First Fiction category for her historical novel on Mary Todd Lincoln, called Mary.

The Los Angeles Times awards are interesting because they offer a western sensibility, often recognizing books that are overlooked by East Coast critics. The newpaper’s editors announce the nomination in New York, but the awards are given out in Los Angeles.

No announcement, however, about the rumored changes to the book section.

Update: Ed links to this story from Publisher's Weekly about the LA Times Book Review. It seems the editors are still tossing around ideas for the section, but it doesn't look like it will remain a stand alone section in the huge Sunday paper.