Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Grotto: San Francisco's Book Factory

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The Grotto, the South of Market writers’ collective, is proving once again to be a very lucrative place to work. Clearly there are many talented writers renting offices there, but it looks like the cachet of the place also provides an added value when selling a book.

Take this recent posting from Publisher’s Marketplace about one Grotto resident’s recent book sale:

Melanie Gideon's The Slippery Year, pitched as similar to Elizabeth Gilbert and Nora Ephron, a bittersweet and wise month-by-month account of the year in her life during which, upon turning 43 and confronted with her own mortality, she chooses to wake herself up, embrace the passage of time, identify what matters (and what does not) -- and "finally decide to live," to Jordan Pavlin at Knopf, for six-figures, in a pre-empt, by Elizabeth Sheinkman at Curtis Brown UK (NA).

The six-figure sale comes after an excerpt from the book appeared in the New York Times’ Modern Love column. Gideon also wrote a well received children’s book called Pucker.

In the past year, nine of the Grotto’s approximately 30 writers have sold books. Many were sold for $300,000 - $600,000 and one may have even gone for more than $1 million. Writers are always happy to get big advances, but they don’t always want to advertise the fact, so I won’t attach numbers to names.

Some of the sales since January 2007:

Po Bronson, one of the Grotto’s co-founders, sold a “counter-intuitive examination of the new science of parenting,” to Jonathan Karp at Twelve. (He and Gideon use the same literary agency, Curtis Brown.) Now Karp’s imprint is called Twelve because it only publishes 12 books year. You know they look for books they think will sell a lot of copies, and that they pay their authors accordingly.

Jason Roberts sold Every Living Thing about the audacious, often-fatal program launched by scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), to compile a catalog of all life by sending acolytes to every corner of the globe (billed as "The Right Stuff of the 1700s"), to Star Lawrence at Norton, in a major deal, in a pre-empt, for publication in 2009, by Michael Carlisle at Inkwell Management.

Now “major deal” in Publisher’s Marketplace parlance means $500,000 and up. (I must reveal that Jason and I have the same agent.)

Allison Hoover Bartlett's The Man Who Loved Books: The True Story of a Rare Book Thief, A Book Detective, and the World of Literary Obsession to Sarah McGrath, executive editor at Riverhead Books, by James Levine

Allison and I are in a writing group together, North 24th, and I can vouch this will be a fascinating, utterly-compelling book. It came out of a piece she did for San Francisco Magazine. The article was included in the anthology The Best American Crime Reporting of 2007.

Ethan Watters', another Grotto co-founder, sold Crazy Like Us, exploring the imperialistic spread of the American perception of mental illness throughout the world, looking at the complexity of cross-cultural psychiatry, the spread of our syndromes around the globe, and the problems that come when the US inflicts its own definitions and treatment of mental illnesses and peculiarities on other cultures, to Dominick Anfuso at Free Press, in a pre-empt, for publication in January 2010, by Chris Calhoun of Sterling Lord Literistic .

(Now pre-empt means a publisher likes a book enough to pay more than other publishers to guarantee they get it.)

NPR commentator Andy Raskin's The Ramen King and I: Searching for God in a Cup of Noodles, his quirky efforts to meet the inventor of instant ramen noodles, who died earlier this year at age 96, to Erin Moore and Bill Shinker at Gotham, in a pre-empt, by Stuart Krichevsky at Stuart Krichevsky Agency (NA).

Raskin also had a piece in the Modern Love column in the Times about love and looking for a parking space. See “pre-empt” again.

Rodes Fishburne sold Going to See the Elephant, following the picaresque adventures of a young man in San Francisco seeking to be the greatest writer of his generation and unwittingly igniting forces larger than he could have ever imagined, to Kerri Buckley at Bantam Dell, by Fredrica Friedman at Fredrica S. Friedman and Company.

Laura Fraser, the author of the memoir, An Italian Affair, recently sold another memoir.

Cameron Tuttle, the author of The Bad Girls Guides, recently completed a five-book deal.

Grotto filmmakers Xandra Castleton and David Munro apparently just found a distributor for their film Full Grown Men.

Do you think it is something in the water?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What in the $$%@#&*%$# Did Binky Urban Mean?

Amanda "Binky" Urban

The acknowledgment section in Michael Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food is very curious.

After he thanks a long list of people, including his researcher and former student Adrienne Davich, (who is a friend of mine) he praises his literary agent Amanda “Binky” Urban. Now Urban is one of the most powerful agents in New York. She is so well-connected, so sure of her place in the publishing world, that she never puts a listing of any of her book deals in Publishers Marketplace. Many, many other literary agents and publishers list their deals, either to show the world what they are up to, get some buzz going for a book, or just to let aspiring writers know what books are selling.

Not Urban. Not Ever.

Pollan praises Urban for her “sage and unvarnished advice.” I’ve heard him talk about her and he says she is incredibly smart and very helpful in crafting ideas. “Binky is almost never wrong about anything,” he writes.

BUT … Pollan goes on to say that “when I left New England for laid-back California, she predicted I would never complete another book. Here’s number two.”

Now when I read that acknowledgement it made me wonder. Did Urban tell Pollan he would never write again because 1) there are no stories in California? 2) People are so lazy in California that can’t be bothered to write books. 3) Pollan would be too busy teaching at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism to have time to write another book. 4) California is a wasteland and all of the above apply?

Coming on the heels of the NBCC events in San Francisco, which were specifically designed to try and break down the notion of an East Coast bias, I find Urban’s attitude disturbing.

What do people have against California? How can everyone insist we are all just a bunch of vapid blondes? Even vapid blondes have an occasion interesting thought.

Of course, I can’t really know what Urban thinks just based on Pollan’s comments. I may be totally off-base. But I just want to insist to her and all the other East Coast-centrics that there are lots of good stories worth making into books in California. In fact, we think we start most social movements and then they move East toward New York City, not the other way around.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A New History of Berkeley I recently went to hear Charles Wollenberg speak about his latest book, Berkeley: A City inHistory. It was published on Jan. 23 by UC Press and looks to be one of those books that not only is a good read, but will make an excellent housewarming present for your favorite Bay Area hostess.

Wollenberg is one of the most knowledgeable historians of the Bay Area, having written books on the history of the East Bay, the region during World War II, ethnic conflict in California, and a book on California and Vietnam, done in conjunction with an exhibit at the Oakland Museum. He started this book as an on-line project for the Berkeley City Library.

While Berkeley is only a small city of 100,000 residents, it looms large in the national imagination. It is parodied as the home of Birkenstock granola-munching lefties or a place so politically correct that it’s debatable who would be a better dinner guest: Alice Waters or Huey Newton.

All jokes aside, Berkeley – and by extension the Bay Area – has been out in front of numerous social movements that subsequently swept the nation. On the top of my head I can point to the Free Speech Movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the movement toward organics and sustainability. Part of the avant-garde thinking reflects the presence of a major university smack in the center of town, but many Berkeley politicos have no association with Cal and still manage to come up with some interesting ideas.

Wollenberg, the chair of Social Sciences and Professor of History at Berkeley City College, has not written a traditional history that starts with the earliest settlers and continues chronologically until present day. While he provides a narrative sweep, he tries to write about the people and times that still resonate today. He writes about the railroad age, the Depression, World War II, and the 60s, sprinkling the book throughout with delightful tales about the people and places that make up the city. His book touches on the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the anti-war movement, and more.

I heard Wollenberg speak at a California Studies Dinner, a monthly meeting sponsored by the Department of Geography and the Townsend Center at UC Berkeley. It’s a group affiliated with the California Studies Association, which was formed about 20 years ago by Jeff Lustig, who teaches at Sacramento State. California Studies Dinners,

Every month about a dozen people gather at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club to discuss issues of relevance to California. I’ve wanted to attend their dinners for years but never had the time. I must admit I was amazed at the people who showed. Many of them had written important books on various aspects of the West, books that I have read in recent years to better inform myself about 19th century California. They were definitely a tough audience as between them they probably knew down cold the entire history of the state, from prehistoric times to the present.

There was Richard J. Orsi, a professor emeritus from Cal State East Bay whose book Sunset Limited: The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Development of the American West, 1850-1930, took him 30 years to research and write. There was William Issel, a professor emeritus from San Francisco State University, who has authored numerous book, including a fabulous one with Robert Cherney called San Francisco 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and Urban Development. Richard Walker, the author of The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area co-chaired the event.

Phillip Fradkin, who has just completed a biography of Wallace Stegner that will be published by Knopf in February, is a regular at the dinners. Peter Richardson, who wrote a biography of Carey McWilliams, who many consider the finest nonfiction writer on California, was there. I was delighted to run into Lisa Rubens, a historian who works at Cal’s Regional Oral History Project. Lisa gave me my first job out of Stanford way back in 1982. I helped research photos for a poster that described the history of California women. Malcolm Margolin, the founder and publisher of Heydey Books, was also there. So was Ava Kahn, one of the most distinguished chroniclers of Jewish life in California.

It was great for me as I feel as if I have spent the past few years in a self-dug hole, researching 19th and 20th century California. Then here were all these people who have the same interests as I do. As my friend Jan said, “Frances, you have found your people!”

Wollenberg will spead at Mrs. Dalloways’ Books on College Avenue in Berkeley at 7:30 p.m. on Friday Feb. 8.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

House of Mondavi goes into 8th printing

Julia Flynn Siler’s book, The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, has been a runaway success. The book was a fixture on the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list for months and had a brief perch on the New York Times bestseller list, and it continues to sell briskly. The House of Mondavi has now gone into its 8th printing. There are 57,500 hardback copies in print. That’s a huge number.

As someone at Gotham, her publishing house, noted: “We rarely see a hardcover continue to reorder at this rate when the paperback is imminent so this is a sign of how strong word-of-mouth is on the book, and bodes very, very well for the success of the paperback.”

Julie is a friend of mine, which is why I can’t help kvel (brag) about her success. As I’ve said before, the book is also a very good read.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Writers for Obama

Barack Obama won’t be there, but a host of literary lights will be shilling for him.

Writers Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Dave Eggers, and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) will be the hosts of a $1,000 a head fundraiser for Obama in Berkeley on Jan. 27. It will be at the home of Linda Schacht and John Gage. (Linda is one of the main organizers for the annual fundraiser for the Berkeley Library Foundation and her husband was one of the original employees of Sun Microsystems.)

Chabon has been one of the country's most vocal writers in support of Obama. He and his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman (who vaguely knew Obama in law school) declared their support for Obama months ago. In April 2007 they sent out a fundraising email telling people they were trying to raise $25,000 for the candidate. They’re not quite there yet, but they are close. They’ve raised about $20,000.

At the National Kidney Foundation Lunch in San Francisco in the winter, Chabon took his allotted 15 minutes to give an impassioned plea about Obama. Instead of talking about his life, his writing techniques, or his book, Chabon talked about how Obama was the only candidate to offer hope. Chabon also spoke to reporters on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall last week, once again telling those gathered that Obama inspired hope.

Apparently the authors are supporting Obama because of his positions, not because he likes their books. According to the Phawker blog, Obama admitted as much:

"Mr. Handler recently met Barack Obama, who told him unprompted that his kids have not read ANY of his books, but they did see the movie Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events. .... Mr. Handler would have lied and said his kids have read ALL of Mr. Obama's books -- if the shoe had been on the other foot."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I was really looking forward to Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, a novel about the Sarajevo Haggadah. I was taken by the fact that Brooks was taken by the Haggadah, a centuries-old richly illustrated book of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

The Haggadah has a fascinating history that Brooks tries to bring to life. She first heard of the Haggadah in the 1990s when she was covering the war in Bosnia for the Wall Street Journal. The book had disappeared from the Sarajevo National Museum and people speculated it had been burned or destroyed in the war.

Years later, the book resurfaced. It had been saved by a Muslim and squirreled away in a safe place, far from the mortar shells and sniper fire that made the streets of Sarajevo almost impassable. That was the second time the book, considered one of the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscripts in existence, had been saved. During World War II, the museum’s chief librarian, Dervis Korkut, smuggled the manuscript out from under the nose of a Nazi official who wanted to either destroy it or put it in one of Hitler’s personal libraries. Korkut gave the book to a Muslim cleric who hid it safely for the duration of the conflict.

Brooks’ book is really an impassioned plea for people of varying religions to see the humanity in one another rather than the differences. The main character in the book is an Australian rare book expert who is called to Sarajevo to repair the illuminated manuscript. Hanna, as she is called, finds small objects on the parchment pages, such as a single strand of hair, a whisper of salt, a stain that resembles wine, and an insect wing. Brooks than cuts back in time, tracing how each of those objects made their way into the binding of the Sarajevo Haggadah. She takes the reader on a journey, from the manuscript's imagined beginnings in Seville in 1480, to Spain both before and after the Inquisition that resulted in the expulsion or conversion of most of the country’s Jews, to Sarajevo during World War II and during the civil war of the 1990s and to Vienna.

The book does a nice job of showing the history of the Jews and their continued battles with those who would destroy them. Unfortunately, the narrative is uneven and at times I found myself feeling manipulated. I couldn’t believe that this writing came from the same author of The Year of Wonders, one of my favorite books, or the writer of March, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. While the sections dealing with Hanna, the Australian book restorer, rang true, some of the other parts felt forced. I had a particularly hard time with the secret vices of a rabbi who lived in Venice in 1609.

I am not the only one who was disappointed by parts of the book. Jerome Weeks, the former book editor of the Dallas Morning News, said People of the Book is not much more emotionally complex than Nancy Drew and the Mysterious Manuscript.”

Perhaps Brooks thought it would be difficult to lure readers to a novel about a religious text, so she chose the most accessible way she could think of to draw in readers. There’s lots of drama and conflict in the book, but very little true tension. I know her publisher was comparing it to Dan Brown’s DaVinci code, since the Haggadah is a codex that is decoded over the course of the novel. I don’t think it is sufficiently thrilling, as in thriller genre, to appeal to that kind of reader.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Frustration of Choosing Photos for a Book

This is Isaias W. Hellman sitting in the president's office at the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Los Angeles. I think the photo was taken around 1905. Note the telephone on the top of the desk.

I’ve been pulling together photos for possible use in Towers of Gold and once again I have run up against the bane of biographers: missing information.

The man I am writing about, Isaias W. Hellman, was a pack rat. If you delve into his papers at the California Historical Society, you can find all sorts of minutiae: newspaper receipts from 1890, dressmakers' receipts from the same period, plumbing bills, etc.

Then why are there so few pictures from his life?

I can not find a single picture of his parents or a portrait of him and his wife and three children. I have one picture – only one – of one of his daughters as a young girl, but none of his son and older daughter.

Since Hellman came to Los Angeles in 1859, this may not seem so unusual. It’s hard to find photos from that far back. Yet that logic falls apart when I realize I have a copy of his report card from Germany from 1854. If papers like that are still around, where are his photos of early Los Angeles?

One explanation is that a lot of his early photos burned up during the 1906 earthquake and fire. While Hellman’s house on Franklin Street was spared, the Wells Fargo Bank building on Pine and Montgomery streets was dynamited and then burned. So maybe a bunch of his stuff was reduced to ashes. I read a reference to this in a newspaper article, but I have not found any reference to this in his personal papers.

I don’t think I will ever know the answer. But as I collect photos (my editor asked me to submit about 40, which St. Martins will winnow down to 16) I keep fantasizing that an unclaimed photo album will turn up with photos no one has seen in decades.

I will just have to work around the missing pieces.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The 2007 National Book Critics Circle Finalists

More drinking and schmoozing at City Lights bookstore Saturday night where the NBCC announced its finalists for the year.

There were lots of writers/celebrities at the event, including Dave Eggers, Maxine Hong Kingston, Wendy Lesser, and many more.

A few observations: Joyce Carol Oates was nominated in two categories, in autobiography for The Journals and in fiction for The Gravedigger’s Daughter.

White Men, where are thou? All of the fiction nominees were either women or men of color, which seems an accurate reflection of America’s growing multiculturalism:

Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao
Hisham Matar, In The Country of Men
Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravediggers Daughter
Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher

You can find a complete list of nominees here.

About 17 members of the approximately 24-member board of directors holed up in a conference room at the San Francisco Chronicle on Saturday. Throughout the day they winnowed down a long list of semi-finalists to five authors in each category. When they arrived at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach they seemed weary, but happy.

The winners will be announced at a ceremony in New York City in March.

The NBCC Comes to San Francisco

There were drinks and conversation aplenty Friday night in San Francisco when the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors hosted two panels that looked at the state of West Coast and emerging writers.

About a hundred people crowded into a performance space in downtown San Francisco to hear comments from people like David Ulin, the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Oscar Villalon, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Jennifer Reese, a book critic for Entertainment Weekly, David Kipen, the NEA Director of Literature/BIG READ, Sandy Dijkstra, the literary agent, and authors Michelle Richmond, Greg Sarris, and Andrew Sean Greer, among others.

It was an attempt by the NBCC to broaden its reach and become less New York-centric. On Saturday, for the first time in its history, the NBCC will announce the finalists for its awards from City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

The group tried to engage themselves and the audience in the question of whether the West Coast is driving American literature. Presumably, since the West was once the frontier and people still gravitate here to remake themselves, the literature they produce is more forward-looking and innovative than that produced in New York.

As provocative as that notion is, the panelists couldn’t agree on its truth.

Jennifer Reese characterized the West Coast as a “goofy, artsy” place that is not “caught up in the intense noise of the literary community of New York.” David Ulin said West Coast writers had an advantage being “out of the fishbowl.” Living 3,000 miles away from New York gives Los Angeles writers the opportunity to fail or to try things that might not work, far away from the glare and scrutiny of the publishing world. Having this ability to experiment ultimately leads to more exciting writing, he said.

Ellen Heltzel of Bookbabes lives in Portland Oregon. She said the area attracts people interested in working in their own métier, not conforming to the tastes and dictates of the New York publishing scene. An example is the poet Gary Snyder, who pursued his own interests in Buddhism and the landscape of the west, His vision and drive had ultimately brought him international recognition. (and a Pulitzer Prize.)

Andrew Sean Greer, the author of Max Tivoli said writers living in New York can find themselves drawn into the literary scene at the expense of their own writing. While it’s a lot of fun to hang out at bars, go to readings, and mingle at publishing events, all that socializing makes it difficult for a writer to do the most important thing – finish his or her book. (Greer moved from New York to Montana to write and found that state TOO quiet, so he eventually moved to San Francisco.)

Mary Ann Gwinn, the book editor of the Seattle Times, said readers on the West Coast are more adventurous, which means writers are more adventurous.

The panelists tried hard not to reduce the discussion to an “Us versus New York” dialogue, and succeeded for the most part. They also seemed cognizant of not trying to elevate West Coast writing over that of other regions, while acknowledging its strengths.

The evening brought out lots of published and aspiring writers and the networking was intense. Mark Sarvas, the blogger behind The Elegant Variation and the author of the forthcoming novel, Harry, Revised, flew up from Los Angeles for evening. Kevin Smokler, the co creator of and author of Bookmark Now, came, as did Jason Roberts, an NBCC finalist last year for his biography, A Sense of the World.

Kemble Scott, author of Soma and the editor of the SoMa Literary Review came, as did New York Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar, author of the novel The Sand Café. Daniel Schifrin, the former director of literary programs for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, showed up. He has just been appointed “writer in residence” for the new Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Jane Ganhal, co-founder of LitQuake and the author liaison for the new author website, also made an appearance.

One last note: The participants from the first panel on emerging writers were asked to name some writers to look out for. Here are some of their suggestions:

Suzanne Kleid of City Lights Books recommended Cane Hayward’s memoir of growing up in the 1970s, The Hypocrisy of Disco.

David Kipen pointed out that Berkeley mystery author Cornelia Read had just won an NEA fellowship. (I have read her book, A Field of Darkness, and can highly recommend it.)

Michelle Richmond recommended Meg Waite Clayton’s forthcoming novel, The Wednesday Sisters.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Fame! Money! Glory!

The Chronicle ran an article this week on Redroom, a new site for authors. It looks like a terrific, easy-to-use, one-stop place to get information on writers.

When I read a book, I often Google the author and then have to wade through dozens of websites before I find the biographical information I am looking for. I am always surprised when an author does not have a website, but unfortunately many do not. Redroom will make it easy for authors to present information about themselves.

Redroom gathers authors together under one “roof” and gives them easily searchable categories. For example, I wanted to see what kind of history writers had signed up and could just click on the history category. There were more than 40 authors in that group alone.

Redroom was started by Ivory Madison, a “serial entrepreneur” who is as lovely as her name. Jane Ganahal, a former San Francisco Chronicle columnist and a co-founder of Litquake, is also involved with the site. You can see Ganahal’s influence, as lots of the writers are from the Bay Area.

The site also has a sense of humor. In the bios of the staff, everyone lists their age as 29, or not yet 29. That tongue-in-cheek reference harkens back to a time when a woman was considered old after 29.

This is the latest in a number of great writing sites recently developed. I have also enjoyed BookTour, which sends out a weekly email of authors touring in your area. San Francisco author Kevin Smokler is one of the site's organizers.

On a local level, Kemble Scott, author of the novel Soma, sends out a fabulous weekly email letter of Bay Area literary happenings.

San Francisco will be a happening place this weekend. The National Book Critics Circle is hosting a number of panels and will announce the finalists for its awards at 6 p.m. on Saturday at City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue. I am planning to attend the panel that poses the question:

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

The panel is at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at 111 Minna Street.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Is Blogging Harmful to Your Health?

The Scream by Edward Munch

Dan Fost, who took one of the Chronicle buyouts last summer, has an interesting story in the New York Times today about the high health cost of blogging. It seems that the stress from the requirement to post often can lead to heart attacks.

Dan uses Om Malik’s blog, GigaOm, as an example. The 41-year old owner of the popular site suffered a heart attack a few days ago. While he was a smoker, which probably did more to undermine his health than blogging, stress was a contributor.

“The trouble with a personal brand is, you’re yoked to a machine,” said Paul Kedrosky, a friend of Mr. Malik’s who runs the Infectious Greed blog. “You feel huge pressure to not just do a lot, but to do a lot with your name on it. You have pressure to not just be the C.E.O., but at the same time to write, and to do it all on a shoestring. Put it all together, and it’s a recipe for stress through the roof.”

That’s right. This new platform means people are reporters, editors, publishers, and advertisers rolled into one. But they also get to write about whatever they want, whenever they want, which is a huge luxury.

I’m going to ask Dan about the stress from freelancing.

Monday, January 07, 2008

East Coast Observations Flatiron Building

We just got back from a week in New York City (well, really New Jersey) and Washington D.C.

A few observations:

The Flatiron Building on Broadway and 22nd has been refurbished and it looks fantastic. Too bad I can’t say the same for the inside. I went to visit my editor at St. Martin’s Press. I got into a beautiful gilt, mirrored elevator and it made me feel like I was stepping back into another era. That fantasy was erased every time the elevator doors opened. The hallways are lit with fluorescent lights and the floors are covered with linoleum! Aren’t publishing offices supposed to be cathedrals to books? I guess not. (The individual offices are actually nice.)

It’s hard to find a good bookstore in Bergen County, New Jersey, but there are libraries everywhere. The county is made up of dozens of small towns, each with their own city halls, police departments, fire departments, etc. That’s an expensive way to run a community but the upside is that there is a nice library every few miles.

Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington D.C. is every bit as good as its reputation. I had to restrain myself from buying too many books. (I just had to have Geraldine Brook's new novel, People of the Book.) The staff is knowledgeable. One of the staff members, Barbara, blogs about the books she likes. (She just read Berkeley author Beth Lisick’s new book, Helping Me Help Myself.) The store’s events calendar reflects the area’s intense interest in politics.

Living in Berkeley means I never get to hear a conservative. But they are all over Washington D.C. I went to Starbucks one morning and eavesdropped on a quartet sitting at a nearby table. I first noticed them because their conversation seemed so interesting. I soon realized they were arch conservatives – but I still found their conversation interesting. One woman praised Clarence Thomas’ autobiography and then asked in all candor how everyone could have been snookered by Anita Hill. They went on to praise the war in Iraq and kevelled about George W. Bush.

The International Spy Museum in Washington is a lot of fun.