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.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Bay Area Reporter to Head up Neiman Program on Narrative Journalism

Constance Hale, a longtime Bay area journalist and former editor of Wired and Health magazines, has just been appointed the new director of the Neiman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University.

Hale got this job after setting up a series of fantastic conferences at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, including the one that David Halberstam spoke at in April right before his death. She is an accomplished teacher and freelance writer as well, with her stories appearing in the Atlantic Monthly, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, among others.

With so many journalists losing their newspaper jobs because of cutbacks, the world may soon see a spurt of narrative nonfiction books. Connie will now be at the center of this world, organizing the well-respected Neiman Conference on Narrative Nonfiction that occurs every December, working on a website devoted to narrative, and reaching out to newsrooms to encourage narrative.

For years, the Nieman Foundation has done a superb job of nurturing top reporters in traditional media,” Hale said in a press release. “But newsrooms across the country are now in turmoil and journalists have new, urgent questions about how to tell stories. I look forward to helping them explore new ways to report stories and bring insight and skill to everything from print to video, from broadcast to podcast.”

I’ve known Connie for years through a loose association of freelance journalists. I think she is a wonderful fit for the job.

Monday, August 13, 2007

This is Going to Be an Interesting Book am a big fan of HBO's series, The Wire, which takes a look at the epic struggle between Baltimore's drug dealers and police. There are no good guys or bad guys in the show. Everyone is tainted. The drug dealers, at least in the first two seasons, were better organized than the police and ran their operations on principles learned in business school. The police, in contrast, were often just out for themselves.

Two seasons ago the creators introduced one of the creepiest characters of the series. It was "Snoop," a young woman who didn't seem to have a shred of compassion for anyone. She was a gun for hire, loyal only to the drug dealer who hired her. When she killed, her face was expressionless.

I soon learned that the producers of The Wire had hired a number of Baltimore street kids and one of them Felicia Pearson, who played Snoop. Pearson's life story was as chilling as it gets. She was born addicted to crack and was thrown into the foster care system. She started to deal drugs when she was a teenager, and was sent to jail after she killed someone, apparently in self-defense. Upon her release, someone introduced her to David Simon, the creator of the show. He hired her to play a thinly-veiled version of herself.

Pearson sold her memoir, according to Publisher's Marketplace:

Actress Felicia "Snoop" Pearson and David Ritz's GRACE AFTER MIDNIGHT, about growing up on the rough streets of Baltimore, transforming from a cross-eyed crack baby to a hardened teenage drug dealer, spending her adolescence in prison after killing a woman in self-defense, and turning her life around with a role in HBO's The Wire, to Karen Thomas at Grand Central, in a good deal, by Michael Harriot at Vigliano Associates (World).

The Wire presents such a bleak portrait of urban America. The story of Pearson is a reminder there are small victories amid all the despair.

Dean Singleton Busts The Union

Oakland Tribune and other ANG reporters kiss their union goodbye.

Carl Hall, local representative for the Newspaper Guild, says they won't roll over and die.

The Chronicle looks at Yusef Bey's former empire. Still, no follow-up to what Chauncey Bailey was investigating.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Will Chauncey Bailey's Death Prompt Other Reporters to Get the Full Story?

When investigative journalist Don Bolles was murdered by the Mafia in 1976 in connection with a story he was reporting, dozens of his friends vowed not to let his death stand unchallenged. They convened in Phoenix, Arizona and took up where Bolles left off, eventually producing a 23-part series on organized crime dubbed “The Arizona Project.”

Bolles’ murder and the response of his colleagues made journalism history and is now part of journalism lore. Right now reporters have another opportunity to avenge the murder of a colleague.

Chauncey Bailey’s death last week apparently came about because of his investigation into the Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland, a long-standing institution that served as a sort of training ground/boot camp for young, troubled black men and women. Those involved with drugs or violence would enter the bakery or related spin-off businesses, such as Uhuru House, and reemerge dressed in suits and bowties or long gowns with head coverings. They seemingly went from troubled to respectable in a short period of time.

Reporters in the Bay Area got used to seeing members of the bakery community, led by Yusef Bey, show up at meetings of the Oakland City Council or Alameda Board of Supervisors. They were always polite and remote and definitely not particularly interested in talking to white reporters.

In 2002, Chris Thompson wrote a long piece for the East Bay Express about the reality behind the façade, and it including accusations of rape of underage girls, intimidation and violence, and misuse of county and city funds. Still, officials continued to support Bey and his businesses, according to Thompson. In Oakland, a city with an African-American majority, black officials are eager to help what they perceive as successful black organizations. In exchange, they get votes. It's a complicated relationship and a sensitive one to write about for a newspaper.

Bailey apparently looked into the Black Muslim Bakery years ago, and was threatened for his attempts, according to Thompson. He was taking another look when he was gunned down last week by a young man connected to the bakery,

Will history repeat itself? Will the reporters at the Chronicle and Tribune (at least the few who are left) now go out and report the story that Bailey was trying to get? Will the mainstream press set aside its snobbishness about the quality and advocacy of the Oakland Post, the paper Bailey edited, to go hard after the story?

It certainly isn’t an easy story to get, but the atmosphere is a lot safer now that the police and politicos and the public are paying attention. But so far, a week after Bailey’s murder, all I have seen are stories that play up his death, but don’t take a close look at the inner workings of the Bey empire. (The elder Bey died a few years ago, but some of his family run his businesses.) While the articles are good, the pieces don’t go far enough, don’t unveil the polite mask that obviously concealed a gang of thugs.

I think – and hope – that some serious investigations are in process, and that their absence is a timing matter rather than a reflection of the massive cuts that have taken place in recent months in newsrooms around the region.

The response of the papers in the Bay Area will reveal just how damaging the recent cuts actually are. It will take time and many reporters to uncover the truth behind this story. Let's hope today's reporters and editors are as loyal as Bolles' colleagues and do justice to Bailey. Let's hope the bosses decide to spend the money it takes to do the job.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Even Amy Tan Gets Rejected

I am up at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, where aspiring authors workshop their writing and listen to authors, agents, and editors talk about the publishing business. The conference has a long tradition of inviting back alumni who have been published, and I came to hear two friends read from their work. (We attended Squaw together in 2004.) They were Julia Flynn Siler, who wrote the House of Mondavi, and Beatrice Motamedi, whose essay appears in the anthology, Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing By Women of the Iranian Diaspora.

Amy Tan was a participant at Squaw in 1986, and, as everyone knows, went on to great fame. (As did many other Squaw participants, like Michael Chabon, Janet Fitch, Alice Sebold, and more.) But when Tan attended the conference, she was like everybody else: unpublished, unagented, and unknown.

For inspiration, someone has posted a stack of Amy Tan's rejection letters. The New Yorker rejected at least two of her stories, and a bunch of publishers, including Pantheon, rejected her book, which went on to become the bestselling Joy Luck Club.

“I am glad to have had a chance to see Amy Tan’s stories and proposal from THE JOY LUCK CLUB,” Pantheon Books Editor Sara Bershtel wrote Sandra Dykstra, Tan’s agent, in November 1987.

“Her work contains many lively moments and surprising images. But finally I felt the distances and differences she seeks to explore, and which strike me as the main agenda of the stories, were too often announced by the narrator herself in exposition, leaving little for the subtler turns of the narrative to accomplish.

I am sorry I can’t see a place for the project on our list. It’s a great subject and I wish I could be more enthusiastic.

The New Yorker also turned Tan down:

“KNOWING THINGS” is written with energy and style, but I don’t think the story quite comes off,” wrote New Yorker editor Frances Kiernan in July 1986. It seems a little schematic, when what you want is a blend of irony, black humor, and feeling. “

But then the New Yorker editor goes on to encourage Tan. “END GAME seems a good deal more successful and also seems closer to what we would like to see from you. The details are fresh and striking, and the writing draws the reader into the story’s world.

I hope you will send us more of your fiction soon.”

Maybe these are above cut-of-the-mill rejection letters. But for aspiring authors, they can offer hope.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The New Face of the Chronicle

Here is a complete list of all the Chronicle reporters who are leaving or will be leaving the paper in the next few weeks. A few surprises: Joan Ryan, the award-wining feature writer and columnist; Karola Saekel, the longtime food writer; Neva Chonin, who writes about popular culture, and Catherine Bigelow, who has been reporting society news.

Phil Bronstein has apparently told his pared down staff that the paper will become more nimble by focusing on four key areas, which Bronstein calls master narratives. They are local politics, green living, real estate, and technology.

According to the East Bay Express:

“Bronstein reportedly envisions a paper whose staff will not simply report, but seek to effect positive change in the community and drive public policy.

List of reporters, editors, photographers, other staff

Anna Badkhen, reporter
Colleen Benson, business editorial assistant
Catherine Bigelow, society columnist

Darryl Bush, photographer
Mark Camps, reporter sports
Neva Chonin, columnist features
Rob Collier, reporter
Karola Saekel Craib, reporter food
Will Crain, copy editor
Janine DeFao, reporter
Christine Delsol, deputy travel editor
Rick Delvecchio, reporter
Keay Davidson, science reporter
Ed Epstein, reporter Washington bureau
Chris Feldhorn, copy editor
David Finkelstein, editorial assistant metro desks
Dan Fost, technology reporter
Louis Freedberg, columnist
Penni Gladstone, photographer
Blake Gray, wine reporter

Jessica Guynn, senior technology reporter
Patrick Hoge, reporter
Vanessa Hua, reporter, demographics team
Fran Irwin, copy editor food

Lance Jackson, graphic artist
Jason Johnson, reporter
Heather Jones, copy editor
Daniel King, editorial assistant features
Marshall Kirkland, Sacramento bureau editorial assistant
Christina Koci-Hernandez, photographer
David Lazarus, columnist business
Ilene Lelchuck, reporter, demographics
Greg Lucas, Sacramento bureau reporter
Kevin Lynch, reporter sports
Liz Mangelsdorf, photographer
Glen Martin, reporter, environmental issues
Mark Martin, Sacramento bureau reporter
Ross McKeon, reporter, Sharks, NHL
Scott Mattoon, nation/world editor
Laura Perkins, research librarian
Suzanne Pullen, reporter, ChronWatch
Ed Rachels, graphic artist
Rick Radin, copy editor
Wanda Ravernell, copy editor features
Joan Ryan, columnist
Steve Sande, features editorial assistant

Pia Sarkar, business reporter
Anne Schrager, photo tech
Kathy Seligman, features writer
Joe Shoulak, info graphics artist
Chuck Squatriglia, reporter
Thor Swift, photo tech
Kat Wade, photographer
Diana Walsh, reporter

Michael Weiss, features writer

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Oakland Journalist Gunned Down

I was driving around in my car running errands today when I turned on the 2 pm news to hear the shocking headline “Prominent journalist gunned down in Oakland.”

The radio has teaser headlines on every broadcast, but this was the first time I felt an actual chill travel through my body. Who could this be? I thought. Was it anyone I knew?

The news was local and I had to wait five long minutes through the national news before hearing that Chauncey Bailey, a former Oakland Tribune reporter who had recently been made editor of The Oakland Post, an African-American community paper, had been shot and killed while walking downtown.

This blows my mind. Bailey had worked in the East Bay for many years and sort of straddled the line between journalist and advocate on the show Soul Beat on the local cable station. He was not a conventional, dispassionate, journalist, but was very committed to covering important issues affecting the East Bay and African-Americans. While I did not know him, his byline was familiar.

Bailey was dressed in a suit and tie, walking around 14th Street and Alice around 7:30 am when he was accosted by a masked gunman. The police say it was a deliberate assassination, not just random violence.

I know this area well. Bailey’s office at the Oakland Post was at 14th and Franklin, in the same area where I once worked for the Mercury News. 14th and Alice is on the way to City Hall, the Oakland Public Library, the county administration building, the courthouse – in short, in the center of civic life. It’s not a bustling spot, since Oakland’s downtown is a little under populated, but it is a fine area. (There was another murder about a decade ago at a nearby Jack-in-the Box.)

I can’t imagine what Bailey might have written or advocated to get himself killed. I am afraid that there is a link between his profession and death.

Oakland’s homicide rate has been steadily rising in the last two years after taking a dip for a brief period. There were close to 150 murders in 2006. It’s so crazy. African-Americans are getting killed routinely in Oakland and San Francisco and other cities, but the death rate doesn’t seem to alarm anyone. It’s the kind of problem that the governor and president should be addressing, but it seems to be the concern mostly of mayors, councilmen, and police.

We all construct a veneer of respectability and just pray that our lives are not interrupted by death, illness, or calamity. Bailey was just on his way to get breakfast from MacDonald’s, a trip he apparently made everyday. But someone who thought he could resolve his beef with Bailey with a gun rather than conversation intervened to disrupt that routine.