Saturday, August 30, 2008

Reading for the Labor Day Weekend It's Labor Day Weekend and I am heading up to a lake in Sonoma County for the holiday. I plan to leave all my heavy lifting/reading behind. I have been working hard on writing content for a website, and I am ready for a little escapism. But I am not talking about chick lit kind of escapism, but the kind of literary novel that is fun and easy to read but has a little heft.

In my book bag:

Mary by Janis Cooke Newman

My friend Nancy Chirinos strongly recommended this to me last year. I bought it and put it on my shelf and promptly couldn’t find it. Two nights ago, while searching in a completely different area than I thought I had left it, I found it. The receipt was for March. That’s how long it has been misplaced. I started it that night and I am hooked.

Goodbye and Amen by Beth Gutcheon

I really enjoyed Domestic Pleasures. When I did a little research on Beth, I discovered her husband was my eight grade English teacher! (It’s a small world) I’ve been meaning to try her again and I’ve heard good things about this novel.

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee

It’s the Slow Food convention this weekend in San Francisco. Since I won’t be there, reading about Alice Waters may be the next best thing.

Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones

I have heard this described as a “spare fable.” Perfect for the end of summer.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Oscar Villalon, Books Editor, to Leave the San Francisco Chronicle The Chronicle has completed another wave of buyouts and one name on the list sticks out: Oscar Villalon, editor of the Book Review Section.

Villalon joined the book review a decade ago and has served as its editor for seven years. He oversaw a serious downsizing of the Sunday section, which went from a stand-alone to an insert in the Insight section. Despite its diminished size, the Chronicle book section is still one of the few remaining separate sections.

Publishers Weekly reports that deputy editor Regan MacMahon will take over.

Let's just hope this news doesn't precede an announcement that the book section will be killed.

Update: News comes that the Sacramento Bee has offered buyouts to 55% of its staff.

Further update: Oscar Villalon says (via e-mail) there are no planned changes to the book review section.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Insights from the Publishing Front Alan Rinzler is sort of an institution around the Bay Area. A former associate publisher at Rolling Stone, editor at Simon & Schuster, Grove, Macmillan, and Holt, he now executive editor at Jossey-Bass in San Francisco, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons. Rinzler has worked with Claude Brown, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Shirley MacLaine, and many other authors. For many years he has held a class at Cody’s about how to get published (Now that Cody’s is closed, will he still hold the class?) He even critiqued people’s manuscripts for free.

I have met Alan a few times, although he would not know me if he saw me on the street. But he is hard to miss. Tall and lean, he has a head of brilliant white hair. He walks a lot – we live in the same hilly neighborhood in Berkeley -- and I often spot him around town.

Alan set up his own website a few months ago, and recently he has added a blog about publishing. It’s informative and witty and provides a much needed perspective in the blogosphere – that of an acquiring editor. Alan states on his blog that he loves working with young writers to help them figure out what they are trying to say in a book. In this day and age of overworked editors, where most books get a cursory look, this attitude is refreshing. Here’s a description of his blog:

“The Book Deal is a blog for writers and book people, with a veteran insider’s views on the strange and inscrutable way books are published and the big changes going on in the business today. Look here for my take on the challenges and opportunities writers face in the world of digital and print book publishing, the mysterious process of acquisition, development, sales, and marketing, how agents and publishers conspire and compete behind the scenes to find the best new authors, and other special features.”

Another site I’ve come to rely on is Alltop, an aggregator of hundreds of blogs. Alltop divides them into categories, so with just one click you can get two dozen blogs on books, or adoption, or genealogy, or journalism, or banking, or many others.

Which blogs do you read regularly?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Lazy Days of Summer

This is a picture of my great grandmother, Esther Hellman, and her daughter Clara Hellman Heller, relaxing on the porch of their summer home, Pine Lodge. You can't see it, but they are looking out at a magnificent view of Lake Tahoe. They look so relaxed here, sitting on wicker furniture in their white cotton dresses, sipping tea, and hanging out with their dogs. This picture was probably taken in 1903, the year that the house at Sugar Pine Point was finished. (Note the trunks of the sugar pine trees acting as columns for the porch)

The Hellmans used to spend most of August at Lake Tahoe. They would invite lots of friends to visit and would fish, swim, take walks, go horseback riding, and travel up the nearby General Creek for picnics. There was no road around the west side of the lake, so the Hellmans had to take a ferry from Tahoe City to their home.

Sugar Pine Point is now a California state park.

I had a great time finding out about my ancestors' lives while researching Towers of Gold, my book on Isaias Hellman. But this is one of the few spontaneous photos I have of them. Most of the pictures are formal, posed shots, nothing like this picture, which features an unguarded moment.

Photos are critical when writing narrative non-fiction. Even though I poured through thousands of pages of Hellman's diaries and letters, I never saw a description of the days they spent at their summer home in Lake Tahoe. But after seeing this picture, I could add a description about the time they spent lazing about on their front porch.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Thursday Literary Musings

Lots of Bay Area literary news:

Zyzzyva editor Howard Junker is stepping down after 25 years. The Los Angeles Times takes a look at what he accomplished.

Novelist Harriet Chessman writes about her first novel on Meg Waite Clayton’s great new blog about writing.

Christina Meldrum, the author of Mad Apple, appears on Ron Hogan’s blog Beatrice. She talks about the research behind her book, specifically the question of whether a novelist who bases her writing on fact must present those facts accurately in a book.

The Times of London gives City Lights Books the star treatment.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Name That Book

A book title is a tricky thing. You want it to be short and sweet so it’s easy to remember, but it also must convey what the book is about.

I had originally called my book Towers of Gold: Isaias Hellman and the Creation of California. But my editor decided the subtitle wasn’t descriptive enough. In particular, he wanted to convey that the book is the story of a Jewish immigrant who rose from modest means to great wealth.

After lots of back and forth, teeth-gnashing and hair pulling, a new subtitle emerged, one that pleased my publisher, St. Martins. I thought it was a bit wordy, among other things, but I will admit it makes people stand up and take notice. It also tells a lot about the book. So the new title is Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. You can find it in bookstores on November 11.

Last night, a group of friends gathered at the home of Neil MacFarquhar, a New York Times reporter who has a new book on the Middle East coming out in 2009. Neil and his editors had still not settled on a title, so amidst lots of glasses of champagne, crab appetizers, and tiny bites of brushetta topped with heirloom tomatoes, about 15 people threw around possible titles.

I am not going to tell you what emerged, as that is something I will leave up to Neil. But lots of words floated around like fatwah, falafel, bazaar, oasis – in short – words that convey a positive or complex image of Arabic society. Words and titles were called out, followed by brief discussions about how they would fare in the marketplace. We steered clear of the words that just reflect the violence in the Middle East, as the book explores a different part of that society.

I have done these informal title-naming parties before, but never in such a formal manner. It was a lot of fun and I was impressed by people’s creativity and thoughtfulness over what a word can suggest.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Dirty Words, more Dirty Words, and Even more Dirty Words

There were a shocking number of women – and men – in red silk corsets at Sunday night’s Litquake fundraiser. The theme was “Dirty Words: An Evening of Smut” and many participants dressed in the spirit of the evening.

The Twilight Vixen Revue – a group of four queer women who dance burlesque – started out the evening by modeling fashions by Stormy Leather, the place to go for all your dominatrix needs. This was sexual titillation at its most refined –beautiful women wearing leather corsets, silk underwear, and high heels. One even wore a mask and carried a whip.

The emcee for the evening, Kirk Read, got into the spirit as well, with black leather pants that showcased a large brass zipper from front to back. His red silk bustier (named the Sergeant Corset, retail price $365.95) had a masculine, military touch – a few rings and buckles that can be put to some other erotic use.

But the real focus of the evening was words – Dirty Words. The organizers got the title for the fundraiser from the new anthology edited by Ellen Sussman, and many of the contributors read their pieces.

The scope of the dirty words were surprising. Did you know James Joyce was a dirty old man? Well, I guess the censors of the time did, since Ulysses was banned for obscenity in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1920s. Alan Black, the author of the memoir Kick the Balls, read, in his delightful Scottish burr, a 1909 letter Joyce wrote to his wife and muse, Nora Gallagher Joyce. It can’t be repeated here but I will say that Joyce was remembering certain intimate acts with Nora and encouraged her to be even dirtier. I swear he used that word over and over again.

Michelle Richmond, the author of the newly-released No One You Know, dressed demurely in a blue denim scoop-necked dress. She gave her proclivities away, though, by wearing red, open toe high heel shoes. “Whenever I read about sex I feel compelled to dress like I am on the way to Sunday school,” Michelle told the crowd. “Whatever I know about sex I learned on the Baptist Youth bus in Tennessee.”

Stephen Elliot read an excerpt from his new memoir, The Adderall Diary. While it is definitely a Stephen Elliot book – he read a scene where he went to a bondage spot and was videotaped as a submissive bottom – the book apparently also explores the murders that have tangentially touched Elliot's life. He shared some girlfriends with a man named Sean Sturgeon, the one-time best friend of self-professed wife killer Hans Reiser. Sturgeon at one point confessed to killing eight people – a lie, as it turned out. Unfortunately, Reiser did kill his wife, Nina, who had left her husband for Sturgeon. Elliot touches on all these complicated relationships in an article in Salon, but they didn’t really come into play during his reading, which was characteristically funny and uncomfortable for those into vanilla sexual practices.

The fun went on. Kim Addonizio read her piece from the Dirty Words anthology. I never knew necrophilia could be so funny. Helena Echlin's demure British accent made her lusty words somehow more respectably lusty. Daniel Handler ended the evening by reading from his 2000 novel, Watch Your Mouth. Dressed in a brown suit with white shirt in tie, his brown crew cut graying slightly, Handler’s appearance was incongruent with the descriptions of sex and mirrors and incest coming from his mouth.

There are lots of wonderful writer organizations in the Bay Area – The Grotto, 826 Valencia, Writing Wild Women, North 24th Writers (my writing group.) But no organization brings the community together like Litquake. Every year the group puts on a fabulous literary festival, once that is inclusive and daring. It creates an environment that showcases established and up and coming authors. And this year Litquake plans to have an open mike during its LitCrawl, which makes it that much more democratic. See you there in early October.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer

It’s around 11:30 a.m. on Sunday and the sun is just breaking out through the fog here in Berkeley. One daughter is off at a soccer tournament and the other is curled up on the couch, devouring the latest installment in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight trilogy.

This is the daughter whom I never thought of as a bookworm, who always turned to television, instant messaging, or her computer, rather than taking up a book. I could bring home stacks of books from the library, purchase the books with the largest print or glossiest covers from the store, but it was all for naught. The girl just didn’t enjoy reading.

Until she encountered Stephanie Meyer’s books.

I picked up the first book in the series, Twilight for her a few months ago while browsing at Cody’s Books. (yes, that late, much-missed Berkeley institution) I had been aware of its existence but didn’t seriously consider buying it until I saw that the New York Times had given it a good review.

I brought it home. Juliet started to read it, liked it, but then got bored and set it down.

When faced with a 10-hour flight to London, however, she picked up the book again. And couldn’t stop reading.

Forget the Tower of London. Forget Harrods. For the first two days in London all she did was read. When she finished the book, we went to the world-famous Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road to buy New Moon, the second book

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She finished that one in record time, although by that point I made her start to sightsee. Thank god for the Tube, though. Juliet could read on the subway between sights.

I couldn’t find Eclipse, the third book, in England, so when a friend and her daughter came to visit, they brought a copy. Even though Juliet hadn’t seen her best friend for two weeks, she buried her head in the pages. She couldn’t tear herself away from the book.

Naturally, we were all excited by the release of Breaking Dawn. Juliet was determined to get the book as soon as it went on sale, which was 12:01 a.m. on August 2. Since I had stayed up late many times in the past to go get Harry Potter at that hour, I had no trouble with this plan.

On Friday evening, we found ourselves in A Great Good Place for Books in Montclair. Kathleen Caldwell and the younger members of her staff (dressed in black) had gone all out for the occasion. There was a huge “casket” in the back room where fans could have their picture taken. There were bowls of candy and drinks, and buttons and stickers. Around 25 young girls, ranging in age from 10 to 17, were on hand. The staff ran a trivia game. Juliet came in third. (When she went to collect her prize, she actually chose a galley of the new book by Cornelia Funke. I consider that a good sign.)

There was a small contingent from Juliet’s school and a handful of people we knew from the neighborhood. Everyone was squealing and screaming and hugging one another as the books went on sale. Juliet immediately urged me to take her home so she could start to read.

Now I know these books are schlock. A friend of mine, Mya, whose daughter Eliza also loves the books, provided me this description:

“I've read all of them to keep a beat. (No literature - total teen candy. Addictive and empty calories that are probably not healthy.) Meyers puts the reader inside the head of the main character and in the throws of compulsive, obsessive longing for the love object. The heroine, Bella is so entranced by the looks of vampire, Edward (love object #1) that she spends the first book obsessing about him and fantasizing about the scent of his breath. The reader is trapped into her one-track compulsion, slogging through chapters of her longing to see him again or sit near him in science class. It's exhausting and a little embarrassing and after awhile the reader is broken, and like a good addict - gives in and accepts her as she ignores her friends, lies to her family and does lots of stupid slf-destructive things. (you just give up on knowing why the two are obsessed with each other - they don't really talk, just pine and swoon).

Book two, the vampire leaves Bella and after being comatose for several chapters and then on the verge of suicide (without him there is no reason to live), she finally distracts herself by getting into foolish and life threatening positions -- she hears Edward's voice whenever she experiences near-death. Bella pulls herself into the land of the living by befriending a native american boy, Jake who agrees to help her fix a motorcycle so she can ride fast without a helmet. He falls in love with her (enter healthy relationship #2) and vows to protect her. Then Jake turns into a ware-wolf along with a bunch of other tribe members. The arc - Bella jumps off a cliff and Vampire decides to kill himself - Bella tries to sacrifice herself to save Edward.

Book three - Everyone is back home safe and healthy. Edward is handsome, icy cold, chivalrous, refined and hairless. He cannot risk too much physical contact so there's lots of near-sex. On the other hand, the ware-wolf's resting temperature is 105. He's grown huge, strong and hairy and is fully developed into a man. Both love Bella. Edward wants to marry her. Bella agrees only under the condition that they have sex first. She begs him to make her a vampire. Lots of lying to Mom and Dad and prolonged flirtations with foreplay. Bella's life is threatened by a new enemy so the vampire and ware-wolf find a distant respect in their love for the same girl. One cold night the ware-wolf keeps her alive by laying with her semi-naked in a sleeping bag. End of book she gets confused; carnality might be worth more than immortality.

Welcome to book 4.”

Clearly, the literary value of the series is dubious. But I am not complaining. I just get a smile on my face when I think of my 13-year old curled up on the couch, her nose in a book.