Sunday, January 28, 2007

All Things Michael Pollan

You know he’s permeated our culture. After reading his cover story on “nutritionism” in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, I clicked on Technorati to see what bloggers had to say about the piece. I looked around 10:30 am Pacific Time, which is 1:30 pm on the East Coast. There were already dozens of links to the story, most of them praising his opening lines: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Now six hours later, Technorati reports that even more bloggers have used the term “Michael Pollan,” today. And I am one of them.

I am so interested in this because Pollan’s ascent is like viral marketing. He has always been a smart, engaging writer and his third book, The Botany of Desire, was a bestseller. But The Omnivore’s Dilemma hit a nerve among a certain group of Americans, and its concepts on the overproduction of corn, the dangers of high fructose corn syrup, and the high cost of eating organic food that has been transported thousands of miles have entered the mainstream like never before.

Even Pollan admits that the stars lined up for this book. It has surprised him as well. From its publication, The Omnivore's Dilemma has sold well and it keeps on energizing, just like the bunny. The New York Times named it one of the top 10 books of the year and just last week the National Book Critics Circle nominated it as a finalist in its non-fiction category. It’s still on the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma even provoked a cat fight. Pollan criticized Whole Foods for its reliance on fruits and vegetables from large, corporate organic farms over produce from local organic farmers. He argued that transporting the food had a hidden cost, and that it was a mistake to use that much fossil fuel.

Now people in the Bay Area can watch Pollan and the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, argue this point before a live audience. The two will talk about organic food and agriculture at Zellerbach Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus on February 27.

Pollan also will talk with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll in a more intimate setting on March 13th at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 2727 College Avenue, Berkeley. This is a benefit for Park Day School. Michael’s son used to attend (my daughter goes there) and he has graciously agreed to do an event even though he no longer has a connection to the school.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I Don't Think Laura Ingalls Wilder Would Like This

What are they doing to children’s literature?

Newsweek has a story that says the publisher of the Little House on the Prairie series will remove the iconic, charming art of Garth Williams from the books and replace it with photos of models dressed up to look like Laura and Mary Ingalls.

"Girls might feel the Garth Williams art is too old-fashioned," Tara Weikum, executive editor for the "Little House" series told Newsweek. "We wanted to convey the fact that these are action-packed. There were dust storms and locusts. And they had to build a cabin from scratch." (The new tag line: "Little House, Big Adventure.")

Aaaaahhhhhhh!! This goes against my most basic sensibilities. I grew up on those books and those pictures. I read and reread the Little House series countless times and I even named my favorite doll Laura. I always planned to name a daughter Laura but that got ruined in college when I dated a man for months before he revealed to me he actually had a girlfriend named ….. Laura.

I know I am being a fuddy-duddy in my desire to see the Little House books retain their classic art. It’s not even a defensible position in my own household, because neither of my daughters has ever taken to the series. I read them the books but they never adored them the way I fantasized they would. Perhaps their appreciation was tainted by watching Melissa Gilbert on the television show.

So my dismay over this news is a reaction to my own nostalgic feelings and a desire to ignore the demands of the marketplace. To be frank -- and I hate to admit this, I think the books will probably sell better with cool looking prairie girls on the cover. Young readers probably will relate better to contemporary pictures. (The art director just better not smear their faces with a touch of Lancome or Benefit lip gloss.)

The books already went through a makeover. Garth Williams was not the original artist. Helen Sewell did the first set of illustrations and Williams’ pictures were first included in 1954.

Be prepared for more of this. Apparently, new covers are planned for A Wrinkle in Time and Bridge to Terabitha. The publisher of Charlotte’s Web just released a new version of the book with Dakota Fanning, the star of the movie, on the front. She replaces another iconic illustration drawn by …. Garth Williams.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Home Sweet Home

Amy Tan has moved from San Francisco, the setting of her novels, to Sausalito, across the Bay. Apparently she feels “like such a traitor.” (via California Authors)

That begs the question of how many other “San Francisco” writers live elsewhere. Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida are often called San Francisco writers, although they live in Marin County. So does Isabel Allende. A number of the people affiliated with the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto have their homes out of town, including Jason Roberts, whose book was just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in Marin, too. His colleague, Tom Barbash, author of The Last Good Hope, also lives in Marin.

Is there a pattern emerging here? Are San Francisco writers tired of the small spaces and high costs of the city fleeing to Marin where there is more land? (They certainly won’t find any bargains there.)

Is there a certain cache associated with being a writer from a big city? Does a writer sound more provincial is she says she is from Mill Valley or Oakland?

Well we know Michael Chabon does not suffer self-doubt from living in Berkeley. He wrote a whole article about the place for Gourmet Magazine in 2002. I guess winning the Pulitzer Prize makes that kind of angst unnecessary.

Michael Lewis has no qualms either. He and his wife, Tabitha Soren, now a photographer but once an MTV host who interviewed Bill Clinton, also live in Berkeley. Lewis has been writing all about the birth of their third child, a son named Walker, for Salon. He was born at Alta Bates, the center of birthing in the East Bay.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

National Book Critics Circle Award

The National Book Critics Circle announced their finalists on Saturday and the West Coast is well-represented. On a personal note, I know three of the finalists, Michael Pollan, Sandy Tolan, and Jason Roberts, and feel a vicarious thrill by their nominations.

But the nominations are a reminder how many good books are out there and how few I get the chance to read.

Here are the nominees. The winners will be announced March 8.


Patrick Cockburn, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso)
Anne Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade (Penguin Press)
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Press)
Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (Ecco)
Sandy Tolan, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East (Bloomsbury)


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (Knopf)
Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss (Grove/Atlantic)
Dave Eggers, What is the What (McSweeney’s)
Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land (Knopf)
Cormac McCarthy, The Road (Knopf)


Donald Antrim, The Afterlife (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin)
Alexander Masters, Stuart: A Life Backwards (Delacorte)
Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (HarperCollins)
Teri Jentz, Strange Piece of Paradise (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)


Daisy Fried, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again. (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Troy Jollimore, Tom Thomson in Purgatory. (Margie/Intuit House)
Miltos Sachtouris, Poems (1945-1971) (Archipelego Books)
Frederick Seidel, Ooga-Booga (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
W.D. Snodrass, Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions)


Bruce Bawer: While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the WestFrom Within (Doubleday)
Frederick Crews, Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays (Shoemaker & Hoard)
Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon(Viking)
Lia Purpura, On Looking: Essays (Sarabande Books)
Lawrence Wechsler, Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences(McSweeney's)


Debby Applegate: The Most Famous Man in Amerca: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Doubleday)
Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968 (Simon& Schuster)
Frederick Brown, Flaubert: A Biography (Little, Brown)
Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (St.Martin's Press)
Jason Roberts, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler (HarperCollins)

The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing:

Winner: Steven G. Kellman

The finalists:
Ron Charles
Donna Rifkind
Gideon Lewis-Kraus
Kathryn Harrison

The Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement:

John Leonard

Monday, January 15, 2007

More Cold and Mold

It’s friggin’ cold again in the Bay Area and the news, once again, is not good. Here’s even more detail on why Black Oak Books has put itself up for sale.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Winter Silence

The Bay Area is going through a cold snap, which makes it hard to run up my front steps (there are more than 30 of them) in the mornings to get my newspapers. But it also means the sky is crystal clear and sound seems muffled. As I was coming back down my stairs yesterday morning I paused. I couldn’t hear any car noise. All I heard was the chirping of the birds. Just a few squeaks as they flew from tree to tree, but it was a lovely way to start my morning.

A little mea culpa: I linked to the Gawker poll on the country’s most annoying literary couples. Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida were outscoring Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman by a few tenths of a percentage point. While Vida and Eggers may annoy some people, they are both undeniable talented. This week, both have books on the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list. Her book, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, is making its first appearance on the list, coming in at #3. His book, What is the What, has been on the bestseller list for 19 weeks. This week it is number #5, down from last week’s #1.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Michael and Ayelet

Gawker is running a totally crass, yet amusing, contest to annoint the World's Most Annoying Literary Couple. I regret to say that our Berkeley townies, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, are losing badly in this race. They are being beaten by a few percentage points by the San Francisco luminaries, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The current front runners are a Brooklyn duo, Jonathan Safran Froer and Nicole Kraus.

Vote for your least favorites.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Adam Hochschild

I am in the thick of writing my book and am wrestling with all sorts of esoteric stuff, like how to manage the transitions between narrative and exposition and how to tell if a primary document like a letter or diary entry or newspaper account can be trusted.

There are lots of seminars and conferences for writers just starting out, but it is almost impossible to find a place to talk about these kinds of thorny issues. I always thought that the Neiman Conference for Narrative Non-Fiction, given every year in Boston during the darkest days of winter, would provide that kind of in-depth discussion. But three people from my writers’ group, North 24thAllison Hoover Bartlett, Julie Flynn, and Katherine Neilan – attended last year and said the organizers presume everyone is writing for a daily newspaper. So the lectures are geared towards getting going on a book, not how to wrestle the demons that attack in the middle.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the discussion I attended Wednesday at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto was nothing short of wonderful. The Grotto, a collective in the south of market area of San Francisco, is made up of about 40 writers, most of whom have published books, magazine articles, and poetry. The Grotto members also read one another’s work and bring in well-know authors to talk about craft. You can see who has come by examining the autographs on the red walls of the conference room: Gay Talese’s signature is one that stands out.

Yesterday, Adam Hochschild, the author of numerous non-fiction books, including Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in a Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, which was a finalist for a National Book Award, gave a talk at lunch. I was lucky enough to be invited because the level of discussion about non-fiction narrative was the best I have every experienced.

First of all the room was filled with published authors – Jason Roberts, who wrote the biography, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler, Todd Oppenheimer, who wrote The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved, and Gerard Jones, who wrote Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, among other books. There were many fiction and memoir writers as well: Victor Martinez, Caroline Paul, Rachel Howard, who wrote The Lost Night, Melanie Gideon, the author of Pucker, Julia Scheeres, Marianna Cherry, and others. Neil MacFarquhar, a reporter for the New York Times and the author of The Sand CafĂ©, also dropped by.

Hochschild said it takes him at least four years to complete a book. He usually spends six months reading books on a topic and taking notes. He then makes a detailed outline which involves taping multiple pieces of paper together so he can “draw” a map of the narrative. He puts in rising and falling lines for suspense points in the narrative and the lines cross if he is braiding together different characters. He often takes another piece of paper to outline each chapter and uses even more paper to create a list of characters and their personal timelines.

“Making that outline is possibly the only thing harder than writing a first draft,” said Hochschild.

But once he has completed the outline, he has a good sense of the structure of the book, which is critical to any narrative. “The main thing about structure is to have it,” said Hochschild. “If you don’t have one, (the book) is shapeless and it’s the difference between a mammal and an amoeba.”

Hochschild then spends a year writing a first draft, trying to figure out the ways he can increase the story’s drama and tension. (Don’t give away the end of the story at the beginning, for example). He often thinks of his books like the three acts of a movie: the first part lays out the problem, the second part introduces complications, and the third part leads to resolution. After he finished his draft, he can see the holes in his story and he spends the next two years doing more research and rewriting.

Hochschild has written about many different topics: apartheid in South Africa, King Leopold’s brutal regime in the Congo, the movement to end the international slave trade. He is now working on a book about World War I that weaves the story of the 16,000 conscientious objectors in Britain with that of the generals and commanders who promoted the disastrous practice of trench warfare.

Hochschild’s books are filled with characters whose lives reflect great moral dilemmas. Finding someone to personify an issue is one of the more difficult tasks of journalism. An author sometimes needs to interview dozens of people before finding the one who can bring an issue to life.

Hochschild said he often reads academic texts to finds figures to focus on. Historians often mention people in passing, but the nature of their writing doesn’t lend itself to drawing vivid characters. For example, he was reading an academic text when he came across a reference to a Lord Gardenstone, a Scottish abolitionist with “an unfortunate interest in pigs.” The author noted him briefly, but the mention caught Hochschild’s interest. He soon found out that Gardenstone was obsessed with pigs and he turned into a character in Bury the Chains.

As for my question on how to weave narrative and exposition? Hochschild recommended using as many suspense points as possible to hook the reader. Then he suggested I step back and provide the historical context. The reader will want to know how the story finishes so he will keep on going until the drama plays out.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Vikram Chandra Hits Town

Vikram Chandra is descending on the Bay Area this week. But since he lives part-time in Berkeley, perhaps it’s more accurate to say he’s emerging from his Rockridge home into the bowels of bookstores around town.

Chandra is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel Sacred Games set in Mumbai, a 900+ page tome that almost everyone says is a page turner. He was profiled this week in both the Chronicle and Contra Costa Times. (Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post doesn’t like it quite so much.)

Proof that he is hot? There are 26 holds on his book in the Berkeley Public Library System. (I’m at #10).

Chandra will speak at 7 pm tonight at Cody’s on Fourth Street. He will be at Book Passage in Corte Madera Thursday at 7 pm, and at various other spots.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Death on the Page

Ericka Lutz, an Oakland writer and the granddaughter of Tillie Olsen, the author who died on New Year’s Day, has written a piece for Literary Mama about saying goodbye to her dying grandmother.

Apparently Calvin Trillin’s new book, About Alice, is a moving and loving tribute to his late wife, the subject of many of his essays. It originated as a New Yorker essay and is now a 96-page book. Lots of buzz about this one. People like it more than Joan Didion’s tribute to her late husband, Year of Magical Thinking

I looked at another book about dying a few days ago, although it’s not being marketed like that. It is Annie Leibovitz’s latest book and it’s called A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005.

Leibovitz is best known for her celebrity portraits, like the ones she took of Demi Moore while pregnant or Whoopi Goldberg immersed in a tub of milk.

This book has some celebrity shots, too, but it’s much more personal. Though there are pictures of Leibovitz’s aging parents, the real heart of the book documents the life and death of Leibovitz’s long-time partner, Susan Sontag.

It’s amazing how Leibovitz coveys her devotion in only a few shots. The early parts of the book have numerous snapshots of Sontag in exotic locales – on the Nile River, in Mexico, in other places the pair traveled for work or pleasure. Leibovitz includes a few photos of the notes Sontag wrote for her novel, The Volcano Lover. There are also some shots of a naked Sontag asleep on a couch or in a bed, loosely covered by sheets.

The first hint of trouble comes from the photo of Sontag in the bathtub, one breast exposed, her hand covering the scar where her other breast had once been.

As Sontag was dying, Leibovitz took very few pictures. There is one where Sontag is in a hospital bed hooked up to IV with all sorts of tubes running in and out of her.

The next photos are of Sontag in a Seattle hospital after a bone marrow transfusion. Sontag’s trademark black hair with the white swath in the front is gone, replaced by white stubble. Her body is so bloated by medicine it’s not clear if she is a man or a woman. She is unrecognizable.

The next photo shows Sontag on a stretcher being lifted into a small plane. Then Leibovitz shows her dead, stretched out on a funeral platform. She doesn’t look anything like her old self. Her hair is short and white and she’s dressed in a silk loose gown. She’s nothing like the fierce Susan Sontag of the public imagination, dressed in black using her sharp wit to offer incisive observations about the culture.

I am surprised Leibovitz included these photos because they are so intimate and raw. They show a human being at her most vulnerable, just as she is about to face death. There’s nothing pretty here. But maybe that is Leibovitz’s point. She loves Sontag – when she is beautiful and when she is not.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Black Oak Books for Sale

Heidi Benson pointed out in today’s Chronicle that Black Oak Books has put itself up for sale. A fellow bookseller told me that their expansion into San Francisco was probably the culprit, as it’s hard to sustain two stores at once. Black Oak is one of those venerable Berkeley bookstores that has a great selection of new and used books and a lively events calendar featuring provocative authors. They also offer decent prices for used books. I am keeping my fingers crossed, but that hasn't helped in the past.

That news and the announcement that Advanced Marketing Systems has filed for bankruptcy is not a good way to start the New Year. AMS owns Publishers Group West, based in Berkeley, and that could mean a lot of local people lose their job. AMS is $200 million in debt to numerous publishers, including Random House and Simon & Schuster.

Publishing may be headed for a shakedown, just like the newspaper business. It’s only going to get uglier.