Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thursday Literary Musings

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. It’s a good day for readings in the Bay Area.

I am planning to hear Meg Waite Clayton tonight at A Great Good Place for Books in Montclair. Her new novel, The Wednesday Sisters, has received high praise and is already a bestseller. It’s the story of five women over the course of 40 years.

Annie Barrows, one of the two authors of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a delightful story about the island of Guernsey and its eccentric inhabitants after World War II, will be talking tonight at Mrs. Dalloway’s on College Avenue. Barrows’ aunt and co-author, Mary Ann Shaffer, a former bookseller at Book Passage, died before publication of their book. The publisher is really pushing this one, and it is bittersweet to think that its creator never got to revel in her success.

East Bay author Ericka Lutz is trying to become the #1 blogger on Redroom. Help her out by paying her a visit. The deadline is July 31. She is both poignant and amusing. I especially enjoyed reading about her bouts of envy.

Tiny Pt. Reyes is becoming a literary destination, after the success of the recent conference on Wallace Stegner.

Anne Patchett reveals the sad truth about book tours.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Poetry in the Mountains

Sorrow seemed to be the theme last week at a benefit for the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Five acclaimed poets read some of their work to a large and appreciative crowd at the ski resort nestled in a valley in the Sierra Nevada. It was the capstone to a week of workshops and lectures that brought together 60 emerging poets with an internationally-known faculty.

It was the first time in 30 years that Oakley Hall, the co-founder of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, was not on hand. Hall died in May. His absence cast a pall over the evening.

Sharon Olds read a poem she had written that week that was an ode to Oakley and all that he had done to create a nurturing environment. She, and others, kept referring to the ‘extended family” that was Squaw. Olds has been teaching at the workshop for much of her professional life; there was a picture of her as a young woman hanging on the wall of the lecture hall.

Robert Haas read two poems that he had written that week. They dealt with the sorrow he felt on the recent death of his brother. In the poems, Haas pictured his brother on a slab in the mortuary and went from there to reflect on their relationship. While Haas has achieved international success – he was the U.S. Poet Laureate -- it seems that his brother was troubled, had difficulty holding down a job, and lived in a small and not altogether attractive apartment. Despite the sadness of his brother’s life and death, Haas managed to include some lighter moments that elicited laughs from the audience.

Lucille Clifton was rolled to the podium on a wheelchair, although she insisted she really could walk. I had never heard Clifton before and I was delighted by her sense of humor and short, yet penetrating poems. (That's her picture above)

Actually, that was my feeling for the entire evening. I only read poetry occasionally, but after hearing these poets (Dean Young and CD Wright also read) I know I have been missing something wonderful. I was fully engaged and delighted. It probably helps to have poets talk about how they came to write a particular poem, which these authors did.

The workshop for fiction, non-fiction and screenwriters begins August 2. There will be another benefit on August 3 where writers read short snippets from the work of Oakley Hall. This should be fun, as Hall has written more than 15 books, and the roster of talent at Squaw is always amazing. The readers could include novelists Amy Tan, Diane Johnson, Mark Childress, and others.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hellman's House at Sugar Pine Point

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The Bucolic Life at Lake Tahoe

I am Lake Tahoe-bound for a few days for both work and pleasure

I will be talking about the life and times of Isaias Hellman at Living History Day at Sugar Pine Point at noon on Saturday, July 26. Sugar Pine Point is the Hellman’s former summer home. Starting in the late 1890s, he bought land along the lake, during a time when Lake Tahoe was not a popular vacation spot. He eventually amassed more than 2,000 acres and 2 miles of lake shore and built a beautiful rustic mansion.

The state bought the property in 1968. Each summer, the park service hosts a day where people dress up in costumes and discuss the people who have lived at Sugar Pine Point. Native Americans talk about how the Washoe used the property during the summer, a re-enacter dresses like General Phipps, who lived in a log cabin on the land, and others dress in art deco clothes to represent a more modern era. There are also tours of the house.

I will talk about how Hellman came to build the house and the kinds of activities the wealthy enjoyed.

I also will be dropping by the poetry benefit for the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Thursday night. Lucille Clifton, Robert Haas, and Sharon Olds, among others, will be there.

I am also planning to visit Virginia City, the home of the Comstock Lode. One of Hellman’s business partners was John Mackay, who made an immense fortune in the silver mines. Mackay used some of the money to open the Nevada Bank in 1875, which was the richest bank in the country with a capitalization of $10 million. Yet, just 15 years later, the Nevada Bank was almost bankrupt. Hellman bought it, turned it around, and eventually merged it with Wells Fargo.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Goodbye, Los Angeles Times Book Review

When the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News were imploding a year ago, I wrote extensively about the layoffs and the damage the downsizing would do to local news coverage.

Well, the newspaper business has only gotten worse since then, with draconian cuts at papers around the country almost a weekly occurrence. At some point I made the conscious decision not to follow the news on my blog. It was too depressing to dwell on the collapse of an industry I had so eagerly joined in 1984.

But I can’t stay silent anymore about what is happening to the Los Angeles Times, one of the country’s best newspapers. A lot has been written about how the new owner Sam Zell has insulted reporters throughout the former Tribune chain and how he instituted a byline count as a way to determine which reporters to fire. While he was once regarded as a savior from the Tribune company, he is now regarded as a loose – and dangerous – cannon.

The LA Times laid off 150 reporters in the past month, an astonishing number. I don’t even know how the newsroom is coping with the sudden downsizing. The latest publisher is also out. There have been so many editors and publishers in the last few years that it is hard to count.

But I have to speak up about the decision to fold the Los Angeles Times Book Review section. Apparently, this Sunday will be the last time the book review will stand alone. In August, book reviews will be folded into the Calendar section.

This is a travesty. The Times book review is one of the most interesting sections in the country. Its reporters, like Josh Getlin, who was laid off, consistently produced excellent glimpses into the world of authors and publishers. As the writer and lawyer Daniel Olivas observed, the Book Review created an intellectual framework for a city that is better know for its vapid pursuit of looks and glamour than discourse and discussion. It’s influence was even broader than just in Los Angeles; many others read the reviews on its website, providing an antidote to the New York-centric view of books and writers.

And I have a personal regret. My book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, deals extensively with the development of Los Angeles from 1859 onward. I had fervently hoped, even fantasized, that my book would be prominently reviewed in the Los Angeles Times when it comes out in November. I believe my book has new information about the creation of Los Angeles, particularly how Hellman, acting like a behind the scenes puppeteer, created lending policies that transformed the state. It is, I think, an important and not well-known aspect of California history.

My subject isn’t sexy or glamorous or even timely. But it has merit and it makes a contribution. The demise of the Book Review and other book sections in the country means a lessening of information, a truncation of the exchange of ideas that don’t always fit into the current celebrity-crazed marketplace.

My forthcoming book is only one of thousands coming out. If the Book Review is going from six stand-alone pages a week to a smattering of reviews in the Calendar section, how many books will go uncovered? It’s already exceedingly difficult to get a book reviewed; now it will be that much harder.

I hope that Sam Zell and his minions reconsider their decision and let David Ulin, the editor of the Book Review, and his cadre of reviewers continue creating one of the most interesting public intellectual centers in Los Angeles.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Good Summer Reads

Well, my five weeks in London are over. I leave tomorrow for San Francisco. I can’t believe how fast the time has gone, how much I have seen, and how little I have blogged.

But I did get a lot of reading done! And I read a lot of good books:

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. I picked up an advance copy of this novel at BEA and got the chance to meet Curtis at a Random House party. She was very personable and was dressed casually – definitely not aiming for the high glamour, high gloss authoress look.

I liked Prep. I didn’t love it. I really really enjoyed An American Wife and highly recommend it. The book is based on Laura Bush, but it transcends her particular life. It is the story of an intelligent Midwestern teenager named Alice Blackwell whose life is transformed when she causes a car accident. (This happened to Bush) Alice turns from a girl who feels she has a wide-open future to one who must clamp down her feelings and desires because she doesn’t want to stick out. When she is close to 30, she meets a charismatic, blue-blooded Republican named Charlie whose politics and attitudes toward race and poverty clash strongly with hers. Yet she is drawn to his enthusiasm, his charisma, and his sexual nature. They marry, but when he is elected President, she finds she disagrees with many of his policies.

This book made empathize with Laura Bush and provided an explanation for why someone could fall in love with a man like George Bush, whom I consider a boor. It is a reminded that all of us, even the most evil men like Hitler or Stalin, have good attributes. The book shows that the good and bad can easily coexist and are not necessarily incompatible. I guess people could argue that a book that humanizes George Bush is not necessarily a good thing as we are coming up on an important election. I don’t feel this way. I read this book non-stop – at least the first two-thirds. It slowed down for me a bit after this, but I still recommend it highly.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Cindy Snow, who works at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, really liked this book so when I went to BEA I picked up a galley. The publisher has high hopes for this novel, for it has sent out 7,500 galleys to build buzz.

The book is told as a series of letters between a London writer and the residents of Guernsey, an island between Britain and France. The time is 1946, at the end of World War II, when Brits are still feeling the pinch of the war. London has been bombed to bits and there is little food or fun.

Writer Juliet Ashton has just published a book based on a humorous column she wrote during the war. She is casting about for her next book topic when she gets a letter from a man on Guernsey. He had purchased a used book that had her name in it.

The book is told as a series of letters between Juliet and the inhabitants of Guernsey. The island had been occupied by the Nazis during the war, and one night some of the residents met clandestinely to share a roasted pig. Their feasting was illegal. At the end of the evening, some of them were questioned by the Germans and they claimed they had been conducting a regular meeting of their book group, which they called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society.

Initially, I was put off by the folksy tone of the letters. I thought they were hokey. But the writing grew on me and I became as fond of the folks on Guernsey as the protagonist did.

The author of the book Mary Anne Shaffer, sold it to Random House but then became ill. She brought in her niece, the children’s author Annie Burrows, to help refine the manuscript. Sadly, Shaffer, who lived in the Bay Area, has died, and won’t get to see the success of her book. The Wall Street Journal wrote about her death and the book's unexpected success.

City of Thieves by David Benioff. Benioff, the author of The 25th Hour and the screenwriter for Troy, has written a novel ostensibly based on the story of his grandfather, who survived the siege of Leningrad during World War II. There’s been a lot of talk about whether this story is true or not, but who cares. Benioff spins a wonderful tale about Lev, whose father, a poet, was disappeared by Stalin, and whose mother and sister have fled east to escape the approaching Germans. Lev refused to leave, for at 17 he has the sense that he must prove himself to be a man. Through a series of events, Lev gets arrested for looting and is offered a reprieve from execution if he can find a dozen eggs for a colonel who wants them for his daughter’s wedding cake. He meets an Aryan-looking Army deserter in prison, and the two trudge out in the cold of the winter on an impossible search. Of course, along the way, Lev discovers who he truly is and learns the meaning of friendship. The book is a good, quick read, if slightly sentimental, but I liked it.

Here are my other reads. I would rate them as fair:

American Lightening: Terror Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum.

When I picked up this galley at Book Expo America, I swore under my breath. It’s the story of the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building by the McNamara Brothers. It's a great story full of drama and pathos and I had been thinking of writing something on this topic.

While the book has some gripping scenes and is based around the famed detective William Burns’ search for the bombers, it doesn’t really work. Blum has done a lot of research and has some good characters, but he is so intent on writing a narrative non-fiction work that he leaves out a lot of history and context. Consequently, the book feels false and the reader is left with big questions about the political climate in Los Angeles at the turn of the century. And the connection with the beginnings of the movie business is really tenuous.

The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown. Suffice to say it took me 8 weeks to finish this book. I learned a little about the British monarchy, which is why I bought it, but not enough to justify 500+ pages.

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly – Enjoyable, but not nearly as good as the Lincoln Lawyer.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Book to Buy Before I Leave England When I was preparing to come to London, I was thrilled to learn that the London Literary Festival would be on from July 5 through 19. I had all sorts of images in my mind of how I would while away the days listening to wonderful authors talk while I gazed at the slow-moving waters of the Thames.

When I arrived and looked at the schedule, however, I realized I had never heard of a single author at the Literary Festival. I was surprised by my ignorance. I knew the literary world was different in the U.K., but I didn’t think it was that different.

I have tried to plunge into some new British authors, but without much success. In the U.S., I usually buy a book after I have read a few reviews or poked around on the Internet. I rarely buy a book blind.

But I didn’t have that cultural knowledge with me in England, so I bought a few books after a quick perusal. I bought The Outcast by Sadie Jones, (advertised everywhere, including in huge ads on the Underground) The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas, (excellent cover and beguiling black edges) and The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark. All had great blurbs by respectable newspapers and critics on their back covers.

You can guess what has happened. So far, I haven’t managed to finish a single book. I’ve gotten 50 pages in, but none have really grabbed my attention. (That’s the least I can ask while on vacation, right?) I haven’t given up yet, but my disappointment makes me realize that the “filter” I use in the states is more effective than not.

But here is a book I plan to buy today. It won something called the Samuel Johnson Prize yesterday, a prestigious prize for non-fiction published in the U.K. The winner gets £30,000, about $60,000. The book is called The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale.

Here is a description from the press release announcing the winner:

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale, a pacy analysis of a murder case in a Wiltshire country house in 1860 which inspired detective genre writers including Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

“The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a dramatic page-turning detective yarn of a real-life murder that inspired the birth of modern detective fiction. Kate Summerscale has brilliantly merged scrupulous archival research with vivid storytelling that reads with the pace of a Victorian thriller. The book is a rare work of non-fiction that mimics suspense genre and leaves one gripped until the final paragraph.”

I’ll let you know what I think.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Literary Lives in Britain It’s almost entirely possibly to look at England through the lens of its writers. At least that’s what I have been trying to do during my sojourn here in London.

When you walk through the streets, there are blue oval plaques attached to many houses. These plates list the famous people who once lived in that building. These are everywhere. And it is amazing who has lived here. Beyond the most obvious people, like Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Samuel Coleridge, there are people of other nationalities who have spent extended time in London. Karl Marx worked on Das Kapital here. Benjamin Franklin was here, as was John F. Kennedy. The city has been installing these plaques since 1896 and it’s a great way to bring history to life.

Then there are places that are firmly linked to one particular writer. We took a trip to Bath, which is rich in Roman and royal history. Despite amazing ruins and an extraordinary church, the town is closely identified with Jane Austen, who put Bath and its society at the center of many of her novels. When we took a tour of the city, the tour guide kept pointing out where scenes from Austen’s novels took place. There is the Royal Crescent, a set of Georgian houses, and the Circle where the actor Nicholas Cage just bought no. 7. There is the gravel walk that various characters used to stroll.

My 16-year old daughter adores Jane Austen. She has read most of her books and has seen the most recent version of Pride and Prejudice, the one with Keira Knightly, more than a dozen times. (We have a running debate in our family whether that version, or the one with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is better) So even though we walked through Bath, we felt compelled to go to The Jane Austen center even though the Rick Steves’ guide book said to skip it. The entrance fee was £10, more than $20, which was high. But what if we could extract one juicy morsel about Austen, a piece of trivia we didn’t know? So we forked over our money only to walk through a building whose centrepiece was an exhibit of costumes from a recent BBC movie about Austen called “Jane Austen Regrets.” The clothes were Ok. The best part of the center was the giftshop, which had great postcards filled with Austen trivia. In short, it wasn’t worth the entry fee.

In contrast, the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street was worth every bit of its £6 entry fee. (a little more than $12) The museum couldn’t buy 221B Baker Street -- the actually address of Holmes and Watson’s apartment in the books – but it is located nearby. Holmes is a fictional character, but somehow it didn’t matter. The museum has recreated his apartment with lots of great 19th century objects, and put wax figures representing some of Holmes’ most gruesome cases on the top floor. It was a lark.

On Monday, my daughter and I went to the British Library, the single most magnificent collection of manuscripts I have ever seen. How I long to be a reader there! As much as I enjoyed doing research at the Huntington Library, where readers (ie researchers) are coddled and honoured, it can’t compare to the pomp of the British Library. The library moved in 1998 into a new building which does a great job of showcasing its vast collections. As you walk up the stairs to the reading rooms, there is something called the King’s Library housed behind a four or five story high glass case. The shelves are filled with leather bound volumes. There are numerous tables all around so you can sit and work on your laptop and glance up every once in a while at all the tomes.

There is a special exhibition gallery for the Library’s treasures. In a one-hour period I saw the Magna Carta, one of Shakespeare’s folio’s, a Beowolf manuscript, John Milton’s Commonplace Book, Thomas Hardy’s much-revised manuscript of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Sylvia Plath’s handwritten version of her poem Insomniac, Captain James Cook’s 1775 journal, Lenin’s 1902 application for permission to use the British Library (he applied under an assumed name) and lyrics from the Beatles.

Very very fun.

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