Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wallace Stegner

Philip Fradkin’s new biography of Wallace Stegner has just been released, both to acclaim and criticism. Fradkin is speaking Thursday night at the Mechanic’s Institute and I am hoping to attend.

I have read and enjoyed many of Stegner’s books. While Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize, my favorite was always Crossing to Safety, about the friendship of two couples who are very different in temperament and upbringing.

And since I went to Stanford, I knew about the prestigious Stegner writing fellowship program that has helped along the careers of many illustrious writers, including Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey. Robert Stone, Raymond Carver, Larry McMurtry, and Vikram Seth, among many others.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my mother recently attended a lecture on Stegner and later informed me that he has been accused of plagiarism. Apparently Angle of Repose is based on the letters and unpublished memoir of Mary Hallock Foote, who moved to California in the 19th century. Entire pages were lifted almost verbatim from Foote’s work.

These accusations of plagiarism aren’t well known, despite the fact that Stegner is considered one of the West’s greatest writers. The author and playwright Sands Hall created a play about the controversy, called Fair Use, and other biographers have discussed the plagiarism, but Fradkin's book places the issue front and center. It's a complex question because Stegner apparently had permission to use Hallock's material. He acknowledged her contribution in Angle of Repose, but didn't reveal the extent to which he relied on her writings.

In an editorial published in the Los Angeles Times, Fradkin wrote:

“The book evolved in the following manner. After hearing Stegner lecture in 1954, a graduate student asked if he thought that Foote would be a proper subject for his dissertation. She would, Stegner said. Her letters and manuscripts were obtained from a relative of Foote's in Nevada City, Calif., and brought to the Stanford University library. The student failed to produce anything, and by mutual consent, Stegner took over the subject in 1967.

Foote had died in 1938, and her closest relatives were her grandchildren. Stegner dealt solely with one, Janet Micoleau, who he had met in Nevada City through mutual friends. When she thought it necessary, Micoleau contacted two sisters for concurrence in her dealings with Stegner.

Stegner assured Micoleau in 1967 that the book would contain no recognizable characters and "no quotations direct from the letters." Was this all right with her? She replied that the family would "be delighted to have the MHF materials used as background." Stegner thanked Micoleau for her "blanket approval."

He wasn't sure at first if the book would be a novel or a biography. He settled on a fictional account because "she just wasn't a big enough figure for a biography to be a big book."

Stegner's concept of the book kept evolving. He then told Micoleau he wanted to mix fact with fiction. He was bending the characters "so you may not recognize your ancestors when I get through with them."

At most, Stegner assured her, he was using only selected paragraphs from the letters and memoir. (Actually, the borrowed passages would be considerably longer.) Would she read a draft of the manuscript? "I'm having to throw in a domestic tragedy of an entirely fictional nature," Stegner warned.

Micoleau declined. She was busy, and a 600-page manuscript was a lot to read. "I'm sure all concerned are content to trust your judgment," she wrote Stegner. "We all wish you well with the undertaking and have no desire to censor or interfere with it in any way."

The subject will surely come up this weekend, when Fradkin and others put on a weekend long conference on Stegner at Pt. Reyes in Marin County.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

New Tabloid-Sized San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

The new tabloid-sized San Francisco Chronicle Book Review arrived on my doorstep today, and I must pronounce it a success.

The Chronicle’s editors reduced the size of the section to save printing costs, but it has the unintended consequence of making the review feel more intimate and cohesive. Editor Oscar Villalon has taken the opportunity to introduce some fun, bright features to the review, like a literary cartoon drawn by Lisa Brown, a children’s book author and the wife of Daniel Handler, and a section called “Blurbs.” In the February 24th edition, the Blurb section asks writers Anne Lamott and Jack Bouleware to name the best book that features San Francisco.

There is also a new section named “Lit Pics” where the editors recommend previously reviewed titles. In another addition, kids reflect on the best books they have read recently. There are still literary listings but they get a pick-me-up with a column named "In Town" which highlights some author talks. The Chronicle’s best-seller lists are also there.

Of course, it would be great if the book review got an extra two pages. There are four major reviews in the section and five shorter reviews of books for young readers. That’s around the same number of reviews that have been appearing in the old broadsheet format. It’s hard to imagine that adding a few more pages would cost a lot, but apparently it does.

Last note: The cover reviews are of Philip Fradkin’s new biography, Wallace Stegner and the American West and Irving Yalom’s book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death. Both books were praised.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Literary Tidbits for a Rainy Day

Cody’s Books is packing up its Fourth Street store and moving to Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. Not a bad move, me thinks.

Stephen Elliot of the Grotto makes a sale.

The latest on Laura Albert, aka JT Leroy, as revealed in the LA Weekly.

Lindsey Crittenden, author of the memoir, The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray, connects with prisoners in San Quentin.

Daniel Handler and Andrew Sean Greer dressed up in tuxedos and served martinis and cheese balls to Amy Sedaris at a recent talk at City Arts and Lectures.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

San Francisco Chronicle Book Review will Shrink ... Even More

Well the newspaper business has been imploding all around the country, but the Bay Area continues to lead the way. (This is one time I wish California wasn’t a trend setter)

Just two day after Dean Singleton’s Media News announced that its papers must immediately cut reporters, (which round is this? Two? Three? Four?) the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that it is combining sections in an attempt to cut printing costs.

Starting this week, the Book Review Section will shrink to tabloid size and will be inserted inside the Insight section. Readers will still be able to pull out the book review, which means technically it is not being discontinued. The four-page broadsheet will become an eight-page tabloid, but editor Oscar Villalon says the number of review should remain the same. The Chronicle runs about 7-8 reviews on Sunday and 4 during the week.

The Sunday Book Review was once hefty and vibrant. It's still clinging on, but its slow death is a loss to the very literate and literary Bay Area.

Remember 8 years ago when Chronicle’s readers were so outraged by the plan to fold the Book Review into another section that they bombarded Editor Phil Bronstein with angry emails and letters? The outpouring of support was so strong that not only did Bronstein rescind the changes, he created a full-size, stand along book review section.

Bronstein left earlier this month. The Chronicle has a new editor, Ward Bushee, with a mandate to stop the bleeding. This is one of his bandaids.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher is a hoot. Some of the time.

That’s the feeling I took away from Tuesday’s opening of “Wishful Drinking” at Berkeley Repertory Theater. During the almost two-hour, one-woman play, which details Fisher’s parents’ marriage, her own disastrous liaisons, her addiction to drugs and her battle with manic depression, I found myself alternately laughing out loud at Fisher’s acerbic reflections on her life, and daydreaming.

The play is marred by Fisher’s peculiar delivery style. First of all, I was surprised by her appearance. She came out on stage in a free flowing long black skirt and tunic, clearly much heavier than she used to be. Her voice was also different, which I found disconcerting. It was smoky and gravelly. She delivered some of her lines too casually, which ramped down whatever tension there was in the narrative. And she smokes clove cigarettes and sips Coke Zero constantly throughout the performance, which may be a technique to make it look like there is some action, but proves distracting.

Yet I really enjoyed myself. Fisher has lived her life bright in the Hollywood spotlight, with all its perks and perils. She has been at the top and the bottom, and she shares it all with the audience.

The evening was enhanced considerably by the presence of the people who figure so prominently in the play. Fisher’s parents, the crooner Eddie Fisher and the actress, Debbie Reynolds were there, although they were deliberately seated at opposite ends of the theater. The director George Lucas, who cast Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars, traipsed through the theater during intermission, followed by a posse of what looked to be young teenagers. Fisher pokes fun of Lucas’ stern, never changing countenance in the play, and he definitely looked movie-star don’t touch me formidable as he paraded around.

I was sitting in the balcony, just a few feet away from Eddie Fisher, who is in his 80s now, bound to a wheelchair, with thin hair. Fisher showed lots of pictures of her father during the show, from the days when he was married to Reynolds and then Elizabeth Taylor, to his succeeding marriages. Fisher is a charmer, according to his daughter, and you could still see that spark in the elderly gentleman who sipped white wine during the performance and caused his companion to laugh many times during intermission.

It’s clear that Fisher’s parents’ troubled marriage has scarred her deeply; growing up the daughter of Hollywood scandal is not easy. Yet Fisher is able to turn much of her pain into humor. My favorite bit of the play is when she diagrams her parents’ various romantic entanglements in order to determine whether her daughter, Billie, was related to her boyfriend, the grandson of Hollywood Producer Michael Todd and Elizabeth Taylor.

Fisher decided they were not related by blood, but were related by scandal.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Leslie Crawford, a friend and member of my writing group North 24th, wrote a wonderful piece this month for San Francisco Magazine all about the anxieties caused by global warming. We know its coming (or is here, if you haven’t stuck your head in the sand like George W. Bush). We try to do our part by changing to compact fluorescent light bulbs and walking whenever possible, but the depressing reality is that our environment is disintegrating at a rapid rate. Some people are so frightened and paralyzed by this that they seek out the attention of therapists.

Well, it was a great story, which was to be expected as Leslie is a wonderful and insightful writer. San Francisco Magazine is big and glossy and chock full of fashion ads but it also offers cutting edge journalism. Its editor Bruce Kelley always manages to put out a magazine that I actually want to read, rather than flip through. And did I mention that my brother, Steven Dinkelspiel, is the president of the magazine?

All of this is a long way of saying that the New York Times ran a front page story on Saturday about eco-Moms, women who get together to try and use environmentally safe products in their homes. Mentioned prominently in Patricia Leigh Brown's piece was Leslie’s article from San Francisco Magazine. There was even a sidebar on eco-anxiety. And by 9 am California time, the story was the second-most emailed story from the Times.

This is just one more example of how California is on the leading edge of social and political movements. Not only are we organizing to fight global warming, we are in the forefront of a self-help movement to assist us in the long battle.

By the way, Leslie and her son Sam are the authors of City Walks with Kids: San Francisco, a boxed deck of 50 cards that map entertaining walks parents can do with their kids (Chronicle Books 2007).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Is Hollywood Cruel to Writers?

Maria Van Trapp sold away the rights to her memoir for only $9,000 and didn’t reap any of the profits from the enormously successful “Sound of Music.” She had to watch from her mountaintop home in Stowe, Vermont as the producers of the musical and movie made millions. She never got over it.

While giving away prose to the movies for nothing may not be Michael Chabon’s problem, (see below) it apparently afflicts other writers. Poor Deborah Gregory. Her bestselling series Cheetah Girls was made into two Disney movies, with a third on the way, and the Disney merchandise machine spewed out dolls, toothbrushes, video games, etc.

How much has Gregory reaped? A mere $125,000.

Hollywood is cruel to its writers.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Michael Chabon's Not Even Last, but Two Times Ago, Book to become a Movie

Joel and Ethan Coen, whose film “No Country for Old Men” is racking up honors and money, will direct an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

The producer will be Scott Rudin, who put together the screen version of Chabon’s Wonder Boys. He also is developing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for Paramount.

Come to think of it, the movie version of Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh should be out soon.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Want a Piece of San Francisco History? It's (illegally) for sale on Ebay.

This apparent theft of hundreds of old photographs from the San Francisco Examiner archives makes my blood boil. The donor got an $18.4 million tax write off for giving the photos to UC Berkeley, yet they are showing up on Ebay. (via Peninsula Press Club.)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

That Musty Smell

When I got into a tussle with SFist, a corporate/local website, someone on the site called me a “noted lover of the way old books smell.”

I thought it was an incredible characterization, both for its impertinence and its accuracy. I do love old books, libraries, archives, and manuscripts. I was at the Judah L. Magnes Museum on Monday looking at its rare book collection; I got to hold in my hand a book transcribed in the 16th century. Let me tell you, it was a thrill.

So I was astounded that someone could hold that love against me. I had never considered an appreciation for old books an insult, but to a twenty or thirty something who was being deliberately snarky to draw attention to a website, liking something other than hyperlinks is apparently an anachronism. The Internet is clean, fast, interactive and involves very few bodily functions. (like smell.)

I got a chance this week to combine the old and the new. As part of research for my book, I read a lot about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. It plays a big role in the last third of the book and I have one scene-based chapter where the walls are tumbling down and the fire rages.

I went on Ebay to browse its old books, which I had never done before. I noticed that there were a slew of books about the earthquake, many of them first editions published in 1906. Before I knew what my fingers were doing, I had bid on about five of them! With bids going from 50 cents to $15, I figured I couldn’t go wrong.

Well you know where this is going. So far I have won every bid. I now have a “collection” of earthquake books. My library has a “focus.” None have arrived yet, but I am looking forward to taking a deep breath to smell the must and age emanating from the pages.

Monday, February 04, 2008

A few Bay Area Literary Tidbits

Andy Ross, the former owner of Cody's Books, is going into the agent business. According to Publisher’s Marketplace, Ross is forming the Andy Ross Literary Agency in Berkeley, CA. "Ross will focus on general nonfiction, politics and current events, history, biography, journalism and contemporary culture.”

Well, this is a good sign. We know Ross has excellent taste in books, as his bookstores were among the most diverse and interesting in the country. (Even if they struggled to compete.) It will be fascinating to see what authors he finds.

A British article on the rise of Dave Eggerspublishing empire.

Ethan Rarick’s new book on the Donner Party hasn’t shown up in Bay Area libraries yet, but the New York Times already has a review. It’s called Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West. Quick assessment: read it.

Rarick wrote a great book on former California Governor Pat Brown, which was published by UC Press. His new book is published by Oxford Press. This is the first narrative account of the Donner Party since 1936, according to Rarick, and the book incorporates some new scientific findings about the ill-fated wagon train.