Thursday, September 25, 2008

The World is Changing Rapidly

The financial crisis has changed the American system so rapidly that my book -- which hasn't even been published yet -- has some parts that are already out of date.

Last week Lehman Brothers, founded by one of Isaias Hellman's brothers in law, filed for bankruptcy. On Friday, the 118-year old law firm Heller Ehrman, a San Francisco institution, will dissolve.

The firm is named after Isaias Hellman's two sons-in-law, Emanuel Heller and Sidney Ehrman. Heller was a young lawyer when he set up his firm in 1890. He soon met Hellman, who had just moved to San Francisco to take over the Nevada Bank. Soon, Heller was doing much of the bank's legal work. When the Nevada Bank merged with Wells Fargo, Heller took over that work as well. Heller married Hellman's oldest daughter, Clara Hellman, in 1899.

Sidney Ehrman married Florence Hellman in 1904 and soon joined the firm. That's him in the photo at Lake Tahoe.

Both my father and grandfather worked at Heller Ehrman.

Two historical ties now severed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

No Editors on Deck at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

I heard over the weekend that Regan McMahon, the last editor standing at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, had taken a buyout, leaving the section without an editor.

I e-mailed Regan, but she did not respond until today, when the SF Weekly had an article about the matter.

“When SF Weekly contacted McMahon Monday morning, she said people in the publishing world didn't know about her imminent departure, and she feared that once they heard the news, they'd freak out.”

Apparently, the Chronicle is going to advertise for a replacement for Oscar Villalon, who left the book review just a short time ago.

A few years ago this news would have caused loyal readers to protest. But with the economy collapsing around us and newspapers dying, who is really going to complain?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Berkeley Bowl Bans Reporter Who Reveals Too Much

The Los Angeles Times took a close look Monday at Berkeley Bowl, the city’s most revered and quirky grocery store, and used it as a prism to analyze the city’s residents.

But the piece, which ran on the newspaper’s front page, so infuriated the owner, Glenn Yasuda, that the reporter has been banned for life from the store. (And be sure to read the comments to the two articles.)

Apparently, that fate awaits all of us who shop there and occasionally sample the produce. If you nibble and don’t pay (put down that grape!) you are asked to sign a “no trespass” agreement.

Who knew the rules were so strict? I just thought it was a pain to park.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse I have just started to read Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee which tells the evolution of Alice Waters and her world-famous restaurant. I am not very far yet – currently Alice is protesting at UC Berkeley in the 1960s – but I stumbled upon this “family tree” of all her progeny restaurant offspring. It notes that they have started at least 12 outstanding restaurants in the Bay Area, including Pizzaiolo, Camino, Oliveto, and Zuni CafĂ©. (I have sampled 10 of the places.) In addition, many have gone on to become personal chefs for the uber-rich.

So far, McNamee’s book is breezy and a little on the light side. But maybe the beginning is the like an appetizer: meant to whet my appetite before the heartier main course.

Did you notice how I crossed out progeny and inserted those other words? I just did that so I could use my new, favorite writing tool The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. I heard about it, sadly enough, upon the death of David Foster Wallace. He had contributed a number of entries. I was clued into the book by Lisa Gold, who writes a blog called Research Maven. My kind of gal.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Too Busy to Blog

I have been so busy gearing up for the release of my book, Towers of Gold, that I have been too busy to blog.

Here’s why:

I have an editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times about the mortgage meltdown. Here are the first few paragraphs:

“It's ironic that, as the mortgage crisis pushed Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc. into bankruptcy and probable demise, the storied finance house couldn't find a savior in its hour of need. Had Lehman turned a similar cold shoulder to Los Angeles more than 125 years ago, the contours of California's evolution likely would have been much different.

In 1875, when Farmers and Merchants Bank was on the edge of financial collapse, threatening to undermine Los Angeles' fledgling economy, Isaias Hellman, the bank's co-founder and the city's most astute financier, turned for help to a venerable East Coast institution: Lehman Bros.”

I also have been working hard on my website and am happy to report it is finished. You can view it here. Since my last name is so strange and I want people to be able to find me, I had to buy a slew of urls with my name misspelled. So in addition to finding me at and you can find me at or or

And to think I could have taken my husband’s last name: Wayne.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

More Bad News from Los Angeles I keep following the Metroliner crash in Los Angeles.

Now there's news that David Foster Wallace has committed suicide. How sad. He was only 46.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Writers for Obama*Y_/SenatorBarackObama1.jpg With two months left before the election, Bay Area writers are stepping up their efforts to raise money for Barack Obama.

Ellen Sussman, the editor of Dirty Words, is hosting a $250 a head fundraiser with literary agent Ted Weinstein at her house in Los Altos on Sunday October 5. Dave Eggers, Daniel Handler, Ann Packer, and Tom Perrotta will be there. Top Bay area chefs, including Laurence Jossell of Nopa, will prepare lunch.

Ayelet Waldman, the author of the Mommy Track mystery series, sent out an email to just five of her writer friends asking for a donation of one of their books. Those writers forwarded the email to other writers and within a week Waldman had received hundreds of books in the mail, according to the Los Angeles Times book blog. She and her husband, Michael Chabon, will auction off the books at a fundraiser in San Francisco. Alice Waters will cook for the event. The couple has already raised $100,000 for Obama.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Gearing up for a Book Tour

It’s two months until my book comes out, and I have been getting some good news:, the author and reader social networking site, has named me its “Rising Star” this week. My picture and profile are featured on the site’s home page. Please check it out and pay me a visit.

Towers of Gold has been chosen as a selection for both the History Book of the Month Club and the Military Book of the Month Club.

So far, I have about 25 speaking engagements set up. I will be speaking at the Commonwealth Club on Monday Oct. 6 as part of Litquake, in a panel called Scandal, Intrigue, and Drama in California history.

I will be on West Coast Live, the radio show, on October 4th. Some of my other speaking engagements include various Jewish book festivals, the California Historical Society, the Mechanics Institute, and the Huntington Library in San Marino.

My website is about to launch. It will not only focus on me, but will include a large section with lots of photos. I am trying to capture the atmosphere on the West Coast during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is starting to get fun!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Great News for Researchers and Historians

When I first started working on Towers of Gold, I spent hours in the basement of Doe Library at UC Berkeley, looking through old newspapers. At one point my brother asked me if the Los Angeles Times had been digitized and put on line, and I scoffed. Everyone knew that the only papers that were searchable on the web were the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Well, guess what. A few years into my research the entire run of the LA Times went on line. Now I can look at issues dating back to 1881 from the comfort of my home computer. It's been a remarkable help in finding information.

Google announced on Monday that it is planning a major initiative to digitize hundreds of newspapers from around the country. I have already found Google Books to be extremely helpful. (I found out about a major scandal about my subject, Isaias Hellman, because of a reference made in a 1908 book that had been scanned by Google.)This is a major, wonderful breakthrough.

I hope Google digitizes many of the papers that are no longer around but exist only on microfilm. I would love to see the Los Angeles Star, the San Francisco Call, the San Francisco Bulletin, and others

UPDATE: Scott Martelle, the author of Blood Passion, correctly reminds me that ProQuest already publishes a bunch of historical newspapers on-line,such as the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. I didn't mean to imply that some newspaper sources didn't exist; I am just excited that soon it will be easier to access papers from a home computer. It's a lot easier to browse for hours in the comfort of your own home rather than from the hard seat of a library.

Bay Area Literary News

Kathryn Ma, a San Francisco writer, has won the David Nathan Meyerson Fiction prize from the Southwest Review for a short story called “All that Work and Still No Boys.”

The prize adds to Ma’s long list of achievements. Her short stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices and she was a finalist for the Bakeless Prize and the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

Jim Shepard, the novelist and short story writer served as judge. This was what he said about Ma’s story:

"Kathryn Ma's 'All That Work and Still No Boys,' with the kind of brisk and wry dispatch that its protagonist would recognize, negotiates the minor and major agonies of a family crisis, as well as the subterranean stresses of the inevitably accompanying family history, with an enviable grace and a loving but clear-eyed even-handedness. The characters and relationships are beautifully observed, and rendered with a clarity and a compassionate insight that honors both their pain and their ongoing attempts, however imperfect, to pitch in on one another's behalf."

Joe Quirk is one of the funniest Bay Area writers – and he doesn’t write comedy. He writes about biology. I first saw him in 2007 at the Carmel Author and Ideas Festival. He talked on the stage for 15 minutes about reproduction and kept the audience rapt – and laughing – the entire time. Quirk has a new book out, It’s Not You, It’s Biology: The Science of Love, Sex, and Relationships, and he is making the rounds of Bay Area bookstores. He will be appearing Monday, Sept. 8 at Books, Inc on Park Boulevard in Alameda.

The LA Times has a long feature about Amy Tan's Bonesetter's Daughter and its journey to becoming an opera.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Stephanie Meyer Saga Continues

A few weeks ago I wrote about how my 13-year old daughter, who is generally indifferent to books, was consumed by the Twilight quartet. When my older daughter had devoured the Harry Potter series, I hadn’t been surprised because she loves books so much.

But Juliet has never had a close relationship with words, so I was delighted when she chose to read Stephanie Meyer’s books in one fell swoop instead of walking around the streets of London.

Last night, around midnight, as I was dozing in my bed, Juliet ran into the room to announce she had just read 100 pages. Of what? I thought as I lay there, not really focused on her words.

“On Stephanie Meyer’s new book about Edward.”

Oh yes, I remember reading earlier this week that Meyer had a book that had been leaked on the Internet. Meyer had not been finished with the book, called Midnight Sun, and in fact had not been pleased with its form at all. Yet she was so annoyed that someone had put her work on-line that she ended up posting the partially-completed manuscript on her own website.

The bad news about this is Meyer is so ticked off, she may not continue working on Midnight Sun.

The good news is that readers like my daughter Juliet are finding the work and are staying up until midnight to read it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Oh Vanity! Otherwise Known as the Author Photo

Vanity is a tricky thing. You think you have it under control, but then it comes out of nowhere to remind you of its firm grip.

I have been experiencing this first hand in the last few months as I prepare for the preparation of Towers of Gold. I am referring, of course, to that cursed being known as the author photo.

As I thought about that small picture that soon would grace the back cover of my book, I imagined it to contain equal parts glamour and seriousness. I wanted a picture that showed my best qualities, yet signaled that I was a hard-working journalist, someone who spent years in archives researching my subject, Isaias Hellman.

Or did I? Maybe I wanted a photo that showed a fun, freewheeling me –someone who didn’t really exist but who seemed to promise a breezy, uplifting read.

My first attempts at an author photo were amateur. I had my children and some of my friends take my picture. When I went up to Sea Ranch this spring, I forced everyone to stop on a walk and shoot me leaned up against a gnarled and very interesting tree. When my family and I were dining on an outdoor patio in the Louvre in Paris, I had my oldest daughter take some photos with the I.M. Pei glass photo in the background. She shot another one when I was standing on the porch of Hellman's house in Tahoe.

Suffice it to say, these amateur photos looked amateur.

That was why I was so happy when I learned that my friend Mike was coming to the Bay Area to go golfing with my husband and some buddies. I thought that Mike, for sure, would come up with my ideal author photo.

As it turned out, there was too much golf and too little time for anything else. On his way to the airport, Mike took about 15 minutes to take my picture. Unfortunately, the light was crummy. My clothes didn’t look good, anyway.

Then I talked to some author friends whose photos I admired. They all told me they had hired a photographer who came with a stylist. It was expensive they said, but worth it. So I decided to go the fancy route. I hired the photographer who came with the stylist. Alas, it was not to be. The photographer and I fought – well, didn’t get along is a better way of putting it – and the deal collapsed. No stylist for me.

I went into frenzy at that point. A friend of mine told me her son was a budding photographer. I went to their house one evening and he took rolls and rolls of pictures of me. This was not digital photography, but film. I was ecstatic. I was sure this was going to be the photo!

I didn’t count on final exams. Or the whims of a teenager. Months elapsed. No photos. No photos.

In desperation, I called the photographer who shoots the pictures at my kid’s school. We set a date. I did not have a stylist. I tried to be my own stylist. Bad mistake. (Never let a 48-year old woman wear a sleeveless shirt to a photo shoot, no matter how convinced she is that her upper arms are well toned.) But the photographer and I spent a productive afternoon wandering around UC Berkeley. With its old buildings and branching trees, it seemed a perfect spot for an author’s photo for a book about old California.

Finally, after months of trying, I had a small collection of pictures of myself. Now came the moment of reckoning. Which one should I use? The very artsy one made by the teenager? (He finally came through) The soft-focused outdoor shot by the professional? The extreme close-up of my face done by Mike?

Did I happen to mention that vanity is a tricky thing? That no one image ever does one justice, and that it is too hard to decide what the right message is to send out into the world? So I have covered my bases. Here’s the score:

1) The artsy photo is on my (forthcoming) webpage.

2) The soft-focus, outdoorsy one will be at the back of the book.

3) The close-up is the picture on my blog page.

See below.

The moody, artsy photo

Posted by Picasa

The soft. outdoorsy photo

Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

How Does a Techno-Phobe become a Techno-Expert?

I’ve decided to make September my technology month. As a 48-year old woman who has tried, with just a smattering of success, to stay au courant with the web, I am vowing to try harder.

I have had a blog for more than three years now. When I first started it, I thought I was pretty hip. “I’m a blogger,” I used to tell people at cocktail parties.

But it only took about six minutes before everyone was a blogger and my efforts were no longer cutting edge.

I’ve dabbled in Facebook. I’ve read about Twitter. I’ve set up a account. I am about to launch a website for my book, Towers of Gold, which will be released in 10 weeks.

But with the demise of book sections around the country, along with the wholesale layoffs of my reporter friends (whom I had secretly hoped would want to write feature articles about my book) I now realize I need to amp up my on-line presence.

This will not be easy for a techno-phobe.

In the past few days I have been playing around more on Facebook. If you are out there, and I know you, however vaguely, I will try and become your friend. Be warned.

I had a plan to delve further into technology, which involved frequent blog postings, mood updates on Facebook and a stab at Twitter. And then, just two days after I started, I heard of ANOTHER social networking tool. (My heart sunk. How does one keep up? ) Salon has created something called Open Salon, which is a place where you post blogs and if the editors like them enough they will put something on the home page of Salon WHERE SIX MILLION PEOPLE CAN READ IT.

The pressure is on.