Monday, December 31, 2007

The Mascot by Mark Kurzem

On the last day of 2007, I find it fitting to recommend a truly astonishing book: The Mascot by Mark Kurzem.

To be honest, before I finished this book I was really lukewarm about the books I read in 2007. A few weeks ago I half-heartedly started collecting book recommendations from friends, but most just suggested one title or didn’t respond to my email. I didn’t mind so much because that’s how I felt about my year in reading: I read of lot of good books, but not a lot of great books.

I didn’t read most of the books that have made the Top 10 lists, such as the new one by Denis Johnson or Junot Diaz. I have Michael Chabon’s book on an alternative Jewish state in Alaska on my bookshelf, signed by the author but not yet opened.

In looking at the 35 books or so I have read this year, two stand out. I thoroughly enjoyed David Nasaw’s biography of William Randolph Hearst. It was an epic look at a fascinating man. Before I picked up The Chief, I thought I knew a lot about Hearst. I was wrong.

I also really liked Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. I loved her complex characterizations and interwoven stories, which were energized by a compelling mystery. This book isn’t for everyone, though. My husband loved it, but my daughter and a friend were mystified by my recommendation.

But The Mascot wins my book of the year award, not for the writing, but for the story. It is almost unbelievable.

The book tells the true story of Alex Kurzem, a 60ish Australian immigrant. When the book opens, Alex is starting to confront some uncomfortable memories about World War II. For most of his life, he has believed that he was the son of Russian pig farmers. Somehow, during the fighting in Latvia, he was separated from his family. Although he was only five years old, he managed to spend the winter wandering in the forests around his village.

Alex was finally rescued by a battalion of Latvian soldiers, who decided he made a great mascot. They dressed him in an SS uniform and took him around the countryside where they searched for “partisans.” (A euphemism for Jews.) The soliders thought Alex was their good luck charm. From a small age Alex witnessed the murder of hundreds of Jews at the hands of his protectors. He also experienced their kindness and love. He survived the war and emigrates to Australia with a Latvian Nazi family that had adopted him.

One day Alex shows up unexpectedly at the home of his son Mark, who is studying in Oxford, England. Unpleasant memories have started to intrude into Alex’s life and he asks his son for help discovering the source of the visions.

It turns out that Alex, was, in fact, a Jew who witnessed the slaughter of his mother and two younger siblings. Once he was rescued by the Latvian soldiers he had to hide his religion or face certain death.

The Mascot traces the journey Alex embarks on to discover who he is and where he came from. The central question is whether Alex was a victim of the Nazis or an accomplice to killing Jews. While he witnessed many massacres, he never participated in them Besides, he was younger than 10 and totally dependant on the soliders for survival.

I have read a lot of books about the Holocaust, but never one as strange and disturbing as this. It proves the old adage that life is stranger than fiction.

Other recommendations:

My friend and avid reader, Nancy Chirinos, sent me a list of her favorite reads of 2007:

Huck Finn--loved it
Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle
What is the Whatby Dave Eggers
The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez
The Sea by John Banville
What the Dead Knowby Laura Lippman
Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder
Death in a Strange Country--Donna Leon
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (graphic novel)
The Girls who Went Away by Ann Fessler
Embers by Sandor Marai
Mary by Janice Cooke Newman
The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugum
Ben in the World by Doris Lessing
Run byAnn Patchett
Lincoln's Sword by Douglas Wilson
Away byAmy Bloom--loved it

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Books

For the last dozen years or so, our family has had a Christmas tradition around books. Some years we do a book swap, and everyone brings once-coveted hardcovers to exchange. We are an eclectic group of readers, so the books up for grabs range from lots of mysteries and thrillers to cookbooks to books with a more literary bent. One year my brother snuck in a book with a manufactured cover. The title of the fake book was “I.W. Hellman: An Intimate and Comprehensive History” (With Over 500 Photos!)

Now, I had been working on a biography of I.W. Hellman for about three years at that point, and the thought that another book of that topic was already published AND put into a book swap made me roar with laughter. Steven and I must have laughed for 15 minutes over this joke; it was one of the best Christmas presents I ever received.

We still have this book-centered Christmas tradition, although lots of other kinds of presents have slipped into the mix. This year I gave both my brothers books, but not ones they will probably ever read. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I found two books with “Dinkelspiel” on their covers. One was “Dinkelspiel’s Letters to Looey,” written around 1900 by the author and screenwriter George V. Hobart. The other was called “Lady Rum-Di Doodle-Dum,” written by S.B. Dinkelspiel in 1914.

Now I have no idea who these authors are nor can I find out much about them on the Internet. I always grew up with the delusion that my family was the only Dinkelspiel family. I now know there are Dinkelspiels around the world, including in Sweden where Ulf Dinkelspiel serves in the government. But until recently I never knew Dinkelspiel was a character in a book or an author.

So what books did I get for Christmas this year?

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

That’s it. Only two books! What a drought! How will I survive? More importantly, what changed about our families Christmas tradition that I only ended up with so few books? I definitely must investigate.

Oh course, there’s no real need to feel sorry for me. I have stacks and stacks of books to be read by my bed and even more on my bookshelves. It’s just that I have book addiction. I usually try and curb it by taking books out of the library, but Christmas is one time I can indulge.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Los Angeles Times, Redux

Tim Rutten wrote an interesting piece on Sam Zell’s takeover of the Los Angeles Times, which happened on Thursday. He ruminates over the Tribune Company’s disastrous ownership of the paper, concluding that large corporations make terrible stewards of the news:

“The era of corporate accumulation has been an unmitigated disaster for American journalism. Money has flowed like a fiscal Mississippi into the pockets of investors and fund managers, draining one newspaper and TV station after another of the resources necessary to serve their communities' common good. Nearly every American newspaper and local television station sucked into one of the chains -- from the largest to the smallest -- during that period is today a lesser journalistic entity of less real service to its audience than when it was acquired.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Does the West Coast Drive American Literature?

The National Book Critics Circle is taking a show on the road and they are bringing it to San Francisco.

For those unfamiliar with the group, it's a collection of independent - and influential - book reviewers. Each year they nominate works in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry for an award. It's considered one of the most prestigious literary awards in the country.

The NBCC board will hold its board meeting in San Francisco in early January and announce the finalists at City Lights Books at 6 pm Saturday January 12.

Before that, though, the group is holding a series of seminars that examine the literary world. I am particularly interested in going to this one:

NBCC LitPanel #3,111 Minna Gallery, Zappa Room,6:30 pm


The jumping off point for this discussion is the comment Sam Tanenhaus made to NBCC board member Ellen Heltzel of BookBabes when he became editor of the New York Times Book Review.Oscar Villalon, San Francisco Chronicle Book Editor and NBCC board member moderates.

Mary Ann Gwinn,Book Editor, Seattle, NBCC board member
Ellen Heltzel,BookBabes, Portland, NBCC board member
Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly, NBCC member
David Ulin, editor, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Blog Fatigue

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. I note blog fatigue setting in.

Longtime blogger and noted success story (he gets thousands of hits a day) Ed Champion has declared the end to Return of the Reluctant.

“This morning, I filed for divorce from Return of the Reluctant, citing irreconcilable differences. It was an amicable parting. No children, no property to squabble over. No embarrassing deposition testimony read to the jury. No alimony. Reluctant and I have had ourselves a good time over the years. But I’m a different person now. And I finally confessed to a good friend on the phone that I really had nothing more to say about books or the literary world in the Reluctant format. And I laughed for ten minutes over how absurdly simple the choice was. When something stops being fun, it’s pretty easy to become decisive.”

My blog has been limping along, although I am trying a bit harder. My friend Tracey Taylor, who writes Not a Soccer Mom, is spending more time at her professional blogging gig than her personal one. She writes a blog about real estate for Redfin Realty. It’s actually very entertaining.

Elizabeth Speiers, who started the MediaBistro line of blogs, admits she is missing in action.

"I don't really blog anymore, so when I update here, I tend to cram a bunch of little things into one post so that my mom and the two other people who check this site regularly can get everything in one go."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Goodbye, Kitty Cat

I have death on my mind today, as my cat was hit and killed by a car yesterday. I went out on a walk in the early morning and then picked up my older daughter from a friend’s house. When we pulled into the driveway, she saw Cuddles lying prone on the front steps. He looked as if he could be sleeping, but unfortunately he was not.

Our entire family feels torn apart. We all had different relationships with Cuddles and used to joke about which cat each of us loved more – Cuddles, a gray 8 year old tabby, or Owen, a 16 or 17 year old brown tabby. Now those jokes seem hollow.

Of course I always knew I would feel bad when one of the cats died. But what makes Cuddles’ death so difficult is its unexpectedness. We were all conducting our lives normally and then – WHAM! – someone we loved was gone.

Life is so ephemeral. We just tend to forget it in good times.

There was no note, no message from the driver of the car. Either they were deliberately cruel or were unaware they hit a cat.

We buried Cuddles underneath a California lilac bush in our backyard. My husband could barely look at his body; he loved him so much. My daughters gathered rocks to put on his grave. Charlotte wrote his name on a flat rock. Later on, we put down flowers. They look so lonely in the rain.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

What Good is the Web Anyway for the Book Business?

The Internet has been around in full force for about 20 years and reporters are still trying to figure out how it impacts the publishing industry.

If you look at a recent article in the newspaper amNew York, you will learn that being a popular blogger does not necessarily make you a popular author.

But if you look at another article, this one in the New York Times, you will discover that having a hot property/topic/subject on the web can make you a best-selling author.


Which is it? The web is a bust. The web is a miracle.

I guess I would have to say neither and say it is time to stop writing these kinds of articles. Isn’t it obvious by now there is no foolproof, sure-fire way to sell a book? Those bloggers with big names, like Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette fame, and Jessica Cutler, formerly of Washingtonienne fame, couldn’t translate their on-line popularity into bestseller-dom. Their smaller-than-expected book sales even came after there had been dozens of articles written about them.

Yet the New York Times has a story today that argues some people who have given their work away for free on the web have become bestselling authors. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been available at for three years. It was released in hardback in April and has gone on to sell almost 150,000 copies.

In some ways I find this encouraging. It means people aren’t persuaded by corporate media hype – at least not all the time. They find books that are quirky and distinctive, even though some of those books don’t seem commercial.

Of course, when I went out to sell my book (or my agent did) I tried to capitalize on the fact that I had a blog. I think I included a reference to it in my marketing materials. When the deal was announced on Publishers Marketplace, I characterized myself first as a blogger and then as a reporter.

It was a waste of time. Although I enjoy blogging for my ability to write about anything at any time, it certainly hasn’t raised my public profile in any significant way. That could be due to my shortcomings or to the fact that there are just too many darn blogs out there for one to really matter. (I prefer to think it’s the latter reason, not the former)

There just is a lot of noise in the world and the fantasy of using the Internet to break through is just that, a fantasy. Everything comes down to word of mouth, from movies to books to new restaurants.

I guess the phone is still a good invention.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Kite Runner, the Movie

I got to see a sneak preview of “The Kite Runner” with 150 kids from my daughter’s high school. We all walked up Bancroft Avenue in Berkeley to the Pacific Film Archive, a process that took about a half an hour and crowded the city streets.

The kids were all from Berkeley High’s International High School and they had just finished reading The Kite Runner. With the book fresh in their minds, they turned out to be harsh critics of the film.

I would say the film is a lot like the book: Manipulative, predictable, but it pulls your heart strings. The acting is very good, especially Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, the two boys who play Amir and Hassan, the central protagonists in the book. They are sweet and innocent in the film and effectively convey a friendship that crosses class boundaries. (Amir is a Pashtun, a Sunni Muslim and Hassan is Hazara, lower class and a Shia Muslim). The man who play Amir’s father, Hamayoun Ershad and Shaun Toub, who plays his friend, Rahim Kahn, are also very good.

It’s the script that feels forced. I winced at the opening scene where Amir, a grown up, gets two cartoons of his newly published book delivered to his home. He opens the book and the dialogue with his wife is so stilted it’s ridiculous. The script is written by David Benioff, who wrote the fabulous 25 Hours. This is not one of his best efforts.

But the central core of the story – the destruction of Afghanistan and the downfall of a proud civilization – is very moving. Afghanistan was a beautiful, vibrant country until the Soviet invasion, at least according to the film. The Soviets destroyed the place and the Taliban finished it off. (There is no mention of the time in between when the war lords were engaged in a bitter, violent, civil war.)

The high school kids disliked the film for all the parts of the book it left out. In the book, Hassan has a hare lip and his father is disfigured and the gap between the ruling and lower classes in Afghanistan is much clearer. In the film, the small Hassan is adorable and seemingly as educated as Amir. In the book, another central figure tries to commit suicide. There is no mention of that in the film.

The actors in the film mostly speak Dari, a dialect of Persian, and it will be interesting to note audiences reaction to a film with so many subtitles. It was great for a group of high school students in a program that emphasizes internationalism, however.

Another pleasure of this film is seeing all this terrific Middle Eastern actors. Where have they been? They were uniformly engaging. I couldn’t keep my eyes off Atossa Leoni, who plays Amir’s wife. Khalid Abdalla, who plays the grown up Amir, also was terrific. These actors deserve to be cast much more frequently, not just relegated to ethnic roles. We live in such a multi cultural world. Let’s see a better reflection of our world up on the big screen.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Bay Area Book News

Mill Valley writer David Sheff’s new memoir will be featured at 6,500 Starbucks around the country. Beautiful Boy tells the story of his son’s addiction to methamphetamine.

Julia Flynn Siler’s book The House of Mondavi has been named by BusinessWeek as one of the ten best books of 2007.

Andy Ross, the longtime owner of Cody’s Books, has stepped down as president. He said the changing nature of the book business has tired him out.

Chronicle reporter Lance Williams and former Chronicle reporter Mark Fainaru-Wade (who now works for ESPN) sold the rights to Game of Shadows to HBO Films.

Former San Francisco police chief Earl Saunders and his co-author Bennett Cohen have sold the film rights for their book, The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness and Civil Rights to Dreamworks.

Grotto founder Po Bronson won a first place award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his New York Magazine article on parental praise. Bronson also sold a book on the topic to Jonathan Karp at Twelve.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Perfect Tree

Did you know that the American chestnut tree once spread from Georgia to Maine? Its green canopy was so dense that people talked about how a squirrel could traverse thousands of miles through the tree tops without ever stopping? The tree was such a perfect specimen that its wood was used for everything from fence posts to furniture and its nuts were prized for their sweetness and nutritional value.

Unfortunately, the American chestnut tree is almost extinct, felled by an blight that was inadvertently brought to the U.S. on an Asian variety of chestnut. While the virus did not seriously damage the Asian trees, it killed off millions of acres of American chestnut forests.
The death of the American chestnut tree struck those living in Appalachia particularly hard. The tree was well-loved and well-used in the mountains of Virginia, and its disappearance transformed the culture of the region. Old timers in the area still talk reverently about the tree, as if it were a living, breathing creature.

I didn't know any of this until I read Susan Freinkel's fascinating book, American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. Freinkel, a science writer whose work has appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, Discover, Health, and Reader's Digest, movingly recreates the history of the tree. The book also documents the work of a cadre of scientists dedicated to saving the tree. Even though there are just a handful of American chestnuts left -- none of which are healthy enough to produce nuts -- there are men and women in the United States who refuse to let the species die.

Freinkel's book also touches on another theme. What responsibility do humans hold to try and preserve species? If they die naturally, is our obligation different than if they died because of human-related causes?

I went to Freinkel's book release party a few weeks ago. She is a member of North 24th, my writing group, and we held a celebration for her. The guests were a cross-section of Bay Area media types. Mary Roach, the author of the bestsellers Stiff and Spooked, was there. She wrote a blurb for Freinkel, calling American Chestnut "a perfect book." Nan Weiner, the executive editor of San Francisco Magazine came, as did my brother, Steven Dinkelspiel, the president of the magazine. Jim Steyer, who started Common Sense Media, showed up, as did Betsy Blumenthal, an avid reader and executive at Kroll Associates.

Unfortunately, the story of the American Chestnut tree is not unique. Other species, such as the elm tree, have been decimated by disease. The California coastal oak is under attack. Thousands of those trees are dying from a mysterious blight that can't seem to be stopped.
But Freinkel's book is not a downer. The scientists determined to find a cure for the chestunt blight or to create a hybrid strain that can resist attacks againt it are inspirational. I hope they succeed.