Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Michael Pollan and the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey

The scene at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus Tuesday night seemed more like a rock concert than a lecture.

More than 2,000 people braved chilly rain, even a little hail, to cheer on two of the country’s biggest proponents of sustainable, organic agriculture, Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods. The “grocer and the reporter,” as the men described themselves, were greeted like rock and roll stars. There was spontaneous applause throughout the talk and shouts of agreement at what the men said. At the end of the evening, many members of the audience stood to give an ovation.

The talk had its origins in May 2006, shortly after publication of Pollan’s book, in which he criticized Whole Foods for its over-reliance on “industrial organic.” Pollan suggested that Whole Foods bought too much of its food from large organic farms rather than smaller local producers. He also said that eating organic food from South America and other parts of the globe missed the point, since it took so much fossil fuel to transport the products to the supermarket.

Mackey sent Pollan a 16-page single spaced rebuttal and then invited him to talk at the Whole Foods headquarters in Austin. The two men had an hour and a half “mutually productive and enlightening” exchange and then agreed to post Mackey’s letter – and Pollan’s response – on the web. The dialogue was picked up by bloggers and the mainstream press and prompted a flurry of articles about the true value of organic – and whether Whole Foods was an ally or an enemy of the movement.

Mackey confessed on stage that Pollan’s book had damaged the company’s reputation, and insinuated that it might have led to the company’s recent stock price drop. “After your book was published, it immediately became open season on Whole Foods,” said Mackey. “The media likes to build people up and tear them down. […] Our stock was highly valued. You took some of the air out of our tires.”

“Michael, I am not blaming you for the fall off of the stock price …. Very much,” said Mackey.

It was astonishing to see a CEO of a publicly traded corporation acknowledge his company’s foibles so publicly, and Pollan praised him for his honesty. “His willingness to engage with critics sets him apart from just about every other CEO in the food industry,” said Pollan.

Pollan’s book clearly had an impact on Whole Foods and Mackey announced some progressive initiatives his company will take to promote sustainable agriculture, improve the treatment of animals, further the development of artisan products from around the world, and ensure fair treatment of workers.

§ Whole Foods will start a $30 million venture capital fund to support small producers of artisan products around the globe.

§ Whole Food will create a $10 million fund each year to lend money to local farmers.

§ Whole Foods will start a star rating system to assess how humanely a company treats its animals. It hopes the system will become an industry standard.

§ It will create a similar star system for other products that looks at how a company treats its employees, how it enriches its soil, how it treats the environment. “There is a demand for “Beyond Organic,” and this kind of rating system has the potential to meet that demand,” said Mackey.

§ Whole Foods will go into business with Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance to offer products with a certification that its producers are paid well.

There was a lot more at the talk, including a disturbing video of animals crowded into pens and led to slaughter without anesthesia. For another view, read Peter Merholz’s description. Click here to link to a webcast of the two-hour event.

Marian Burros has an article today "Is Whole Foods Straying From Its Roots?"

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Zodiac Killer Mania

When I was about 10, the Zodiac killer shot cabbie Paul Stine outside the house of my mother’s best friend.

I remember how shocked I was. The bullet that pierced Stine’s skull shattered the serenity and complacency of the lives of everyone in that tony Presidio Heights neighborhood. This was an area of large mansions, wide sidewalks, leafy trees – the whole bit. Schoolgirls in uniforms walked to school everyday, mothers pushed children in their strollers, and kids played in nearby Julius Kahn playground. Until the killing, the neighborhood had seemed a safe place.

I remember my mother saying that her friend’s son might have to testifiy at a trial because he saw something that night.

The 1970s were a scary time in the Bay Area. The Zebra killings came after the Zodiac killings. Patty Hearst was kidnapped from Berkeley and the nation watched in horror as a firefight erupted between the Los Angeles police department and the SLA. Jim Jones ordered the deaths of 800 people and Dan White killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harry Milk.

As the San Francisco Chronicle’s pink section suggests, the Bay Area is due for a little reflection this week as the new movie, Zodiac, opens. It tells the story of the elusive, and ultimately unsuccessful, hunt for the Zodiac through the eyes of a Chronicle cartoonist.

The pink section has lots of interesting stuff on the time, including some pieces by former cop reporter Duffy Jennings, who worked on the case. San Francisco Magazine also has an interesting article by Charles Russo, accompanied by chilling period photographs.

I wonder if the movie will resurrect any of the long-simmering angst those of us who grew up in the Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s surely have beneath the surface. It's not the anxiety of wondering whether the Zodiac will kill again -- he hasn't communicated with the police or Chronicle since 1978 -- but the feeling that order can quickly dissolve into chaos. It doesn't take much.

While I am mentioning the Zodiac, I would be remiss not to point out a provocative article about former San Francisco Chief of Police Earl Sanders in this week’s SF Weekly. The Zodiac movie is creating a lot of buzz, but the book Sanders wrote on the Zebra Killings has not generated a lot of talk since its release four months ago.

Writer Ron Russell points out that a lot of people think Sanders overstated his role in investigating the black-on-white Zebra killings, as well as pumping himself into a hero for bringing a landmark racial discrimination suit against the police department. Russell calls the Zebra book an attempt to restore polish to Sanders reputation, which was tarnished in the Fajita-gate scandal. Anyway, it’s an interesting read.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Inside Workings of New York Times Book Review

The NYTBR is so clouded in secrecy that it doesn't even publish the names of its editors. Now one of those insiders REVEALS ALL about the review, except for the burning question of why Editor Sam Tanenhaus doesn't like Ed Champion's brownies. (via Maud Newton)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Lights! Camera! Action! The Live Oscar Blog!

Need a little spice in your Oscars? A hit in the ribs to get you through the three and a half hour spectacle that really could be condensed to a half hour? Then click on to the Bay Area's very own Ed Champion and his live Oscar blog featuring bloggers from around the country (myself included) It's already off to a rousing start with a dry and not-at-all deprecating Tao Lin post on carbs and the value of thinness. Myself, I am living for the red carpet fashion show.

You don't have to wait until Sunday for action.

Los Angeles Times Book Section to get a Makeover

LA Observed, one of my favorite blogs, has this unfortunate news: The Los Angeles Book Review section may be folded into a new tabloid-size opinion/criticism insert that would be put in the SATURDAY newspaper.

I can understand the stand-alone section, even though this one has a bizarre twist: it would be 2-sided. That means you could read the book review and then flip the section over and turn it upside down to read the commentary section. (And won't that peculiar format drive off some readers?)

But Saturday papers have a lower readership that the mega-Sunday papers that people tend to linger over.

Book sections just don’t make money .. I guess. The LA Times Book Review is an excellent section, one of the best in the country, and I fear for its future. The Chronicle had to downsize its review section last year and has tried to make up for it by running more weekly reviews in the daily paper. The same number of books may get reviewed but the skimpiness of the Sunday section always seems to announce to me that books are not a priority in our culture.

And they say that the Los Angeles Basin has the most readers and book buyers in the nation.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ghost Word

The Daily Californian wrote an article about Berkeley bloggers on Wednesday, and Ghost Word was featured. The web site has two pictures of me, one good (above) and one less flattering. That's me in my office. I really do smile on occasion.

It's been about two years since I started this blog and I have managed to keep writing despite the pressures of a busy life. I try to focus on books and the Bay Area literary scene, but snippets about journalism creep in every once in a while.

It's one of those days I would like to diverge into media. A few weeks ago I went to see a premiere of Rory Kennedy's new documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. It's an exploration of the military culture that permitted low level soldiers to degrade, beat, and abuse Iraqi prisoners. While one general was demoted and punished for her role in the scandal, the real people responsible, those who wrote the memos condoning abuse, those who turned their heads, were never held accountable. Kennedy's documentary will be shown on HBO Thursday and it does a remarkable job of drawing a disturbing portrait of America's military might.

After watching this documentary, go see the exhibt of Fernando Botero's drawings of Abu Ghraib at Berkeley's Doe Library. Botero is the artist known for his roly-poly figures; men with rolls of fat that give them a pleasing roundness. Botero draws these figures in his exhibit, only this time they are being beaten, urinated on, exposed, and humiliated.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan is on a roll.

Tolan, a professor at Berkeley’s journalism school, won the George Polk Award for radio reporting February 19th for a radio series done in collaboration with his students, Early Signs: Report from a Warming Planet.

Tolan’s students fanned out around the globe to report on signs of climate change in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Canada and elsewhere. The nine-part radio series was cosponsored by the journalism school, Salon, and Living on Earth Radio.

Tolan’s prize comes as his book The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East is a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. That tome tells the story of a Palestinian and an Israeli who lived in the same house, one before the 1967 war and one after. The house and their relationship become a metaphor for Arab-Israeli relations and the positive links that can be forged between the two groups.

Tolan’s work can currently be heard on public radio stations around the country. His latest radio show is World@Work, a 24-part series on working conditions around the globe. It’s a co-productionof Marketplace and Homelands Productions, Toland’s company.

What makes Tolan’s accomplishments all that more interesting is that he is an independent radio producer. He is not permanently attached to any radio station, which means he has to go out and raise the funds to produce his shows. In this age of conglomeration, his maverick style and probing series deserve acclaim.

BBC's The State Within

I’ve been watching the BBC miniseries, The State Within, these last few days and I am struck at the vision of America conveyed in the show. The State Within tells the tale of a terrorist bombing of a British airliner taking off from Washington’s Dulles airport. The main protagonist is the British Ambassador to the United States, played by Jason Isaacs.

The producers of this mini series are showing the bleakest, most mercenary side of American capitalism. The story lines are complex and intertwined, but involve an American multinational arms company, a former Soviet country ruled by a dictator, a British Muslim terrorist, an American Secretary of Defense, and a British black man on death row.

I was disgusted with the United States after I finished watching the show last night. It showed in detail an execution by lethal injection. There were clear sign’s of the man’s innocence, yet his death was railroaded by a corrupt politician, whose own puppet strings were being manipulated by the evil American corporation. Even though the scenario was fiction, it seemed entirely plausible.

Essentially, the creators of this mini series are using it as an opportunity to comment on all the worst aspects of U.S. power – the collusion of corporate money, government, dictatorial regimes and greed, things that are hinted at but rarely proved.

Watching this as Iraq implodes and thousands die reinforces my sense that our country’s worst impulses have gotten out of hand. Greed and progress have always been part of the American dream; now they dominate.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Literary Events in San Francisco

Kemble Scott is the pen name of a first time author whose novel, Soma, -- a “no holds sexpose of San Francisco” -- is about to be released. I haven’t read the book yet, but I wanted to praise Scott for another service: his listings of literary events in the Bay Area.

Every Friday, Scott sends out an email listing of author readings, talks, book signings, lectures, etc. I don’t know how he collects the information, but it is the most complete list I’ve seen. Other print and on-line publications list literary events, but they are usually scattershot.

You can get your very own list of listings in your very own inbox by signing up here.

Pretty soon, Scott will include his own name in his listings as his book launches with a big party at Le Colonial in San Francisco on February 26th.

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.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Declining Bay Area Bookstore Scene ... Again

The Los Angeles Times describes the struggles of Bay Area bookstores.

"I'd be really hard pressed to come up with a single social or demographic trend that is in favor of bookstores," said Tom Haydon, whose Wessex Books in Menlo Park was for decades the best secondhand store in the 50-mile stretch between San Francisco and San Jose.

Unable to find a buyer, Haydon closed Wessex in June 2005.

"It's a lost cause," he said.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Reading and Writing Biographies

San Simeon

I have been on a biography kick for the last few months. I suppose I am trying to figure out the best way to write the biography I am working on. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, they say.

It turns out that there are two distinct forms of biographical narrative: one packed with information and details about a life and one that is short on detail, but long on narrative. The latter turns out to be a better read, but one that is soon forgotten. The former can be a chore to complete, but provides a more lasting understanding of a subject.

I just finished reading The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst by David Nasaw. As a native San Franciscan, I grew up with the name Hearst firmly imprinted on my mind. There was the San Francisco Examiner, owned by the Hearst family, the fabulous Hearst amphitheater at UC Berkeley where I got to sit in the first row when I was sixteen and stare lovingly at my idols, Loggins and Messina, and Hearst Avenue.

Then there was Patty, kidnapped out of her Berkeley apartment by the SLA. She turned into Tania, the armed revolutionary, and her father Randolph set up free food distribution centers in San Francisco as part of her ransom. When I was 16, I snagged two tickets to Patty’s trial, and watched her with a thrill throughout an afternoon’s testimony.

So I started to read The Chief thinking I knew a lot about William Randolph Hearst. I had actually learned about his father, George, not from watching Deadwood, where he is a recurring and despicable character, but through research on my book. (My subject, Isaias W. Hellman, ran for the Senate against George Hearst in 1887) George was an uneducated miner who made millions in the silver mines of Nevada, the gold mines of South Dakota, and the copper mines of Colorado.

I soon learned, however, that I knew nothing about the son. Some of the myths about the man are true: he was a boor, an autocrat, he turned into a reactionary in his later years and he did build a magnificent playhouse at San Simeon, which he lorded over with his mistress, the actress Marion Davies, at his side.

Other myths aren’t true: he didn’t start the Spanish-American war; he didn’t invent yellow journalism, although his papers mastered the form; and he didn’t live an isolated and broken life like Charles Foster Kane, the protagonist of Orson Welles’ movie, Citizen Kane, which is supposedly based on Hearst.

Nasaw did a wonderful job showing Hearst’s strength and weaknesses. He took 600+ pages to tell the story of Hearst’s life, so you see it is the kind of biography that provides every detail Nasaw can squeeze in. It took me five weeks to read this book, but I enjoyed it every time I picked it up. My biggest complaint is that Nasaw didn’t provide much historical context for Hearst’s life, which spanned the early days of the West, two world wars, and an anti-Communist crusade. He just assumed the reader would know the background of all these world events. That, or his editor told him to remove the information because the book was already too long.

I have just picked up Jason Roberts’ critically-acclaimed biography of James Holman, A Sense of the World, How a Blind Man Became the World’s Greatest Traveler. Now Roberts has done the exact opposite of what Nasaw did. He does not have a lot of information about the details of Holman’s life. He uses basic details of Holman’s life and extrapolates from there. For example, the distinguishing fact of Holman’s early childhood was that his father owned an apothecary shop. Roberts doesn’t know much about the family homestead, or what they ate or wore. So he goes off in a riff about apothecary shops in England in general.

He does the same for other elements of Holman’s life –there are riffs on serving in the British Navy in the early 19th century, what doctors usually did to treat blindness, etc., how most blind people learn to navigate. Roberts doesn’t know critical details about Holman’s life, so he circumvents these lapses by distracting the reader and talking about something else.

It works. It may not be classic biography, but it is a compelling read.

So that makes me ask, what is biography for? Is it to faithfully recreate a life, providing details that can bog a reader down? Or is it to entertain a reader and give a delightful, if slight, sense of a life?

I have been approaching my own biography with the sense I had to create a historical record and provide details that would illuminate the settling of California. Now I wonder.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The World is Hungry for News of Gavin Newsom's Affair

I really wasn’t all that excited by the news that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had an
affair with the wife of his campaign manager. But I guess I am in the minority. The Chronicle’s website got a record number of hits Thursday, garnering 4.8 million hits.

That’s 400,000 more than its last record-breaking day, which was Election Day 2006, according to Editor and Publisher.

In recognition of the importance of new media over old, the Chronicle decided to break the news of the affair on its web site rather than waiting for the next day’s newspaper. SFGate posted the article at 8 pm on Wednesday.

"Even two years ago, there would have been one article and there would have been a great debate about posting it on the Web the night before," Peter Negulescu, the Chronicle's vice president for digital media, told Editor and Publisher. "Today, we push it out to the Web site, it gets picked up by people like Drudge and Google News and the next day people are commenting on it. The press conference comes, we have raw feed of the video and the amount of content we can package around it is huge."