Monday, October 27, 2008

San Francisco Magazine gives Towers of Gold a Great Review The editor of San Francisco Magazine, Bruce Kelley, has written a smart review of Towers of Gold:How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. I think the article captures the spirit of the book. It appears in the November 2008 edition under its "Snap Judgment" section.

Visionary financier Isaias Hellman was the Warren Buffett and Alan Greenspan of early California rolled into one. He arrived in LA as a practically penniless, 16-year old German Jew when there were only 300 other Europeans in town. Three decades later, he controlled much of the booming city’s capital, land, and public works – and then he bought Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco through a merger, earning headlines as the West’s richest man. Hellman starred in so many aspects of the West’s phoenix-like rise between the Civil War and the Depression, that he became our Zelig, only with a really thick portfolio. The banker’s bonds with the financial elite – fellow Jews like Meyer Lehman (his brother-in-law), gentiles like Collis Huntington -- made skittish depositors in both cities less prone to panic. Still, this giant figure had been lost to history until local journalist Frances Dinkelspiel, Hellman’s great-great granddaughter (and the sister of this magazine’s president), stumbled upon his papers at the California Historical Society. Eureka! Many underappreciated developments in California’s astonishing adolescence—the emergence of SoCal, the UC system, post-1906 San Francisco, Hiram Johnson, Lake Tahoe, Southern Pacific Railroad, Hetch Hetchy, U.S. Zionism, you name it -- are recovered here in elegantly restrained prose.

Bruce Kelley
San Francisco Magazine
November 2008

Diana Spechler on the Pleasures and Perils, but mostly Pleasures, of Book Touring I met Diana Spechler this past weekend at Book Group Expo in San Jose. She knew me and Ghost Word and we settled into an easy conversation at the Friday night authors party. Diana has just published her first book, Who By Fire, a novel that the organizers of the event liked so much that they put Spechler in the first panel, teamed with bestselling novelist Andre Dubus III.

Who By Fire tells the story of a family rocked by tragedy and the lingering repercussions of sorrow. Here's a description. You can find more information on Diana's website.

Bits and Ash were children when the kidnapping of their younger sister Alena, an incident for which Ash blames himself, caused an irreparable family rift. Thirteen years later, Ash is living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel, cutting himself off from his mother, Ellie, and his wild child sister, Bits. But soon he may have to face them again: Alena’s remains have finally been uncovered. Now Bits is traveling across the world in a bold and desperate attempt to bring her brother home and salvage what’s left of their family. Told from the alternating points of view of the three family members, Who By Fire is a searing commentary on guilt, grief, and the inescapable bonds of family from a fresh and extremely talented new voice in American fiction.

Diana is in the middle of her book tour -- she speaks in New York tonight -- and shares some of her observations:

The best thing about book tour is the hotel rooms. Hotel rooms are a not just a step up, but a giant leap up, from the living quarters I inhabit in Manhattan. Contrary to what Sex and the City may have taught the world about life as a New York City writer, the truth is this: If you are a writer in New York City, you either a) live in Brooklyn, b) live with roommates, c) do both, or d) live in a 200-square-foot apartment with no kitchen.

I chose d.

I was never such a fan of roommates, particularly since I write at home—I’m not crazy about the idea of company if I’m pacing, talking to myself, and banging my forehead against my desk, dressed in an ink-stained tank top and underwear that says Hanes on the elastic.

But back to book tour. Take San Jose, California, where I just spent the weekend at BookGroup Expo, where I was fortunate enough to meet the lovely Frances Dinkelspiel. My hotel room was nearly twice the size of my apartment. It wasn’t cluttered with garbage bags full of the clothes I’ve been meaning to take to Good Will for six months. It had a window that let in plenty of light, and heavy curtains that could make the room completely dark. The bed had four pillows. It wasn’t lofted. The bathroom was equipped with a glass jar of cotton balls. In the closet hung a beautiful, giant robe. I put it on and threw myself on the bed. I was in Heaven.

Even though every author wants to go on a book tour, touring authors can’t help but complain to one another a little. We’re tired. We’ve been in four cities in one week. We gave a reading to an audience of three. We had the middle seat on the plane. We’re living out of our suitcases.

But at that point in the conversation, I tend to drop out. You don’t like living out of a suitcase? Then unpack your clothes! There’s a whole stack of drawers, empty except for a Bible. There’s a roomy closet full of those special hotel hangers that are impossible to steal. And if you’re tired, there’s a chocolate on your pillow. The corner of the bedspread is turned down in an inviting triangle. Tell me what’s not to love.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Feast of Authors I spent much of the weekend at Book Group Expo in San Jose. It was a fabulous gathering of authors and readers and a great way to get insight on the creative process.

This is the third meeting of Book Group Expo, which is the mastermind of Anne Kent, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, and Suzanne Pari. They work for months to put together provocative panels that combine established and emerging authors.

The Expo kicked off Friday night with a cocktail party for authors and moderators. There was lots of wine and little food, which meant that shortly into the evening the conversations were a little more honest and revealing than average. A complaint about a bad review was met with similar confessions of despair about other bad reviews. Authors traded tips on how to be gracious to readers without having to endlessly repeat themselves. The star power was high: the authors included Julia Glass, Andre Debus III, Gail Tsukiyama, Garth Stein, Janelle Brown, Joshua Henkin, Diana Spechler, John Nathan, Selden Edwards, Marisa De Los Santos, Julia Flynn Siler, and David Corbett. I am sure there were many others I did not recognize in my two-glasses-of-wine-on-an-empty-stomach-haze.

At the end of the evening, Sam Barry was playing tunes on a white grand piano in the corner. Kathi Kamen Goldmark was leading a group of the less-musically gifted in song, and revelry filled the room.

The next morning I moderated a panel called Self-Discovery Through Friendship. It was very well-attended, probably because Kate Jacobs, the author of the very popular The Friday Night Knitting Club was there. (The book has sold more than one million copies and the sequel, Knit Two, comes out Nov. 25th) Annie Barrows, the co-author of the best-selling Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, was also a huge draw. The book, co-written with her aunt Mary Ann Shaffer, who died before she saw its great success, is on the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Amazon best seller lists.

The other authors were Ron Carlson, who heads up the fiction writing program at the University of California at Irving. He is the author of many short stories, as well as Five Skies, a beautifully written novel about three men on a construction project in Idaho. Carlson so accurately captures the way men communicate – or don’t communicate – in this book. The three men, all wounded at the start of the book, work side by side constructing a road and ramp in a pristine part of paradise. Carlson describes in detail the construction and it, in essence, becomes a character in a book.

The last author was Deborah Copaken Kogan, whose first novel, Between Here and April, has just been released. Kogan also wrote the memoir Shutterbabe, and a memorable essay in The New Yorker about her son, an actor.

I had not realized before the panel that Kogan’s book is based on her life. It tells the story Elizabeth, whose best friend in first grade suddenly disappears. No one explains the girl's disappearance and it is not until years later that Elizabeth, by then a successful journalist, discovers that April was murdered by her mother. The book follows Elizabeth’s quest to better understand what happened.

Cogan spent three years trying to write this book as non-fiction but finally realized that the facts could not sufficiently explain what drove a young mother to kill her children. So she fictionalized the book to get close to the truth. The audience really responded to her story.

The rest of the day was spent in a whirl of talking, talking, talking, gawking, and thumbing through the huge number of books for sale.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Towers of Gold touring I will be talking tonight at the California Studies Association, a group of professors, independent academics, journalists, and writers who are interested in the state's history, economy, ecology, culture and more. When I attended a recent meeting to hear Charles Wollenberg talk about his new book on Berkeley, I was stuck by how similar my interests are to those in this group. So I am really excited to to discuss Isaias Hellman's role in the development of California. The dinner starts at 7 p.m. at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

Then I leave Friday night for San Jose, where I am delighted to participate in the third Book Group Expo, an amazing festival that brings together authors and readers. I will be moderating a panel that explores friendship Saturday at 11:15 a.m. The writers include the best selling authors of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Friday Knitting Club, Five Skies, and Shutterbabe. (That's Annie Barrows, Kate Jacobs, Ron Carlson, and Deborah Copagen Kogan.

The J, the local Jewish magazine, ran a profile of me in this week's edition. I will be speaking Oct. 30 at 11:30 a.m. at the Walnut Creek Jewish Community Center and on Nov. 2 at 5:15 p.m. at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center's Book Fest as part of Jewish Book Month.

San Francisco Magazine just reviewed Towers of Gold. (Not on-line yet) In addition to complimenting its "elegantly restrained prose," the reviewer (Bruce Kelley, the editor) characterizes Isaias Hellman as the "Warren Buffet and Alan Greenspan of early California rolled into one."

The book officially comes out November 11.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Claremont Book Group -- 90 years old and still going strong

The Claremont Book Club must certainly be one of the oldest book groups in the nation: it has been in continuous existence for 90 years.

Every month, women who live within the gates of the Claremont residential section of Berkeley -- once the most exclusive area in the East Bay -- gather to hear authors talk or to exchange books. Over the years the Claremont Book Group has heard from some of the nation’s most distinguished authors and artists.

The group today holds on to some vestiges of its once-elite roots, but with a Berkeley twist. To be a member, you must live within a 10-block area that is enclosed by brick pillars. The area, adjacent to the Claremont Hotel, was developed in 1905 by the real estate group Mason McDuffie and is home to houses designed by Julia Morgan, John Hudson Thomas and other established architects. These are grand and stately mansions with beveled glass, stucco fronts and price tags topping $2 million.

The 44 members and 20 associates of the Claremont Book Group drink tea and coffee poured from sterling silver tea sets and eat heart healthy salads and lunch dishes, much like their forebears. But the house where I attended Thursday’s luncheon had an Obama sign prominently displayed on its front lawn, just like many of its neighboring homes. So while members of the book club may live in elegant houses reminiscent of another era, many of them are resolutely liberal.

I have heard about the Claremont Book Group for years, but since I don’t live within the gates of the Claremont I am not eligible to be a member. I was invited as a guest on Oct. 16 to hear two authors, Peggy Orenstein, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of the memoir Waiting for Daisy, and Sylvia Brownrigg, a novelist with two books coming out in 2008 – The Delivery Room and Morality Tale, set in the nearby Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley. It was fun to listen to these engaging authors talk about their lives and work while sitting in an elegant living room sipping tea out of a china cup. (And no one seemed to mind when I knocked over a glass of ice water on the Oriental carpet.)

Orenstein and Brownrigg met years ago at a writing group and are now close friends. In a bizarre twist, they and other members of the group found they were writing about similar themes – maternal loss and grief. Orenstein joined the group after suffering numerous miscarriages and round after round of in vitro fertilization treatments. Brownrigg’s second child had been born prematurely and only lived an hour. Another member of the writing group was dealing with the loss of a child to SIDS. “We were all contending with age and grieving and changes of life,” Orenstein explained. “We wanted to break silences and address things people don’t talk about.”

Orenstein had been a successful journalist for years and had published two books before she began working on Waiting for Daisy. But she never felt like a true writer, she said, until she began writing in the first person about her own personal tragedies. She was in Japan on a fellowship when she discovered she was pregnant. Her husband, the filmmaker Steven Okazaki, was back in Berkeley. Joy quickly turned to grief when Orenstein miscarried. Since she was so far from home and couldn’t communicate well in Japanese, Orenstein dealt with her sorrow by writing. She found the writing cathartic, as it helped her cope and make sense of the chaos she felt inside. Years later, Orenstein turned her jottings into a book.

Brownrigg, who is married to Sedge Thomson, the host of the radio show West Coast Live, grew up in Los Altos but lived in London for many years. The Delivery Room is about a therapist and her patients, one of whom is dealing with maternal loss. Morality Tale is set near the area of the Claremont Book Group – but outside its gates – and is a lighter, more humorous book about marriage. Brownrigg will be reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore on College Avenue in Berkeley at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday Nov. 13th.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Submersion Journalism

Is it ethical to disguise yourself as a businessman and interview Washington D.C. lobbyists about how they can help promote a totalitarian government? Is it okay to tape those conversations?

Can a reporter sign up for a poetry conference, attend without identifying he is a reporter, and write about it for Harper’s Magazine?

Is it okay to spend a year as a prison guard and not tell your colleagues that you want to write about life inside Sing Sing?

These were some of the questions that came up Monday night at a panel discussion put on by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The event was tied to the release of a new book called Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person, a collection of pieces from Harper’s Magazine.

I went because I wanted to hear Ted Conover, the author or numerous first person books, including Newjack, about the year he spent as a corrections officer at Sing Sing prison in New York. Other panelists included Michael Pollan, Roger D. Hodge, the editor of Harpers, and Jake Silverstein, who has a piece in the collection and is currently editor of Texas Monthly. Cynthia Gorney, who is a professor at the grad school with Pollan, moderated the discussion.

I didn’t get to hear enough about Conover’s techniques or what he is working on now. I did learn, however, that when he was an undergraduate at Amherst he went to visit Neil Henry, then a reporter at the Washington Post. (Henry is a professor at the j-school and emceed the event) Henry had done two pieces of immersion reporting for the Post, one where he disguised himself as a homeless man for two months and one where he worked as a migrant worker. Conover wanted to ask Henry about his techniques. Who would have guessed in 1980 that Conover would one day become master of the form?

There were really two different discussions going on. One involved more general reporting where the journalist is a subject of sorts. Michael Pollan’s attempt to grow opium and his subsequent troubles with the law fall into that category. Pollan also bought a steer cow and followed its life cycle for a story.

The other category involves outright deception or acts of omission. Roger Hodge talked about a story Ken Silverstein did for Harpers where he pretended to want to hire a lobbyist to work for the corrupt government of Turkmenisten. Silverstein wanted to find out how lobbyists manipulate reporters and the government, so he pretended to be part of a fictitious group called the Maldon Group. He set up a website for the group, got a cell phone with a London phone number (where the Maldon Group supposedly was located) and then made appointments all over town. The result was a 2007 expose that showed how lobbyists have no compunction about working with governments that terrorize their own citizens.

Some of the best reporting comes from deception but most reporters and papers claim they only use it as a last resort. Cynthia Gorney tried to generate a discussion about the ethical issues around submersion reporting, but the panelists did not disagree. All said they were generally opposed to deception but thought it could be used in certain circumstances.

The panel discussion was only marginally interesting. However, I bought the book and read Silverstein’s article. While I am uncomfortable with the fact that he taped all his conversations with lobbyists (in Washington D.C. it is legal to tape a conversation if just one person knows it is happening) the piece is enlightening. Those lobbyists really are scumbags. (Big surprise) But to hear their words and strategies is downright frightening. It is clear that with the right amount of money, any reprehensible organization can put a positive spin on news and events.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Culture is Exhausting There’s so much going on in the Bay Area that I sometimes finish a weekend more exhausted than when I started.

On Saturday, I attended the 20th anniversary benefit luncheon for the Kidney Foundation of Northern California. This is one of the premier author events in the country as it showcases top authors. They get to stand in the front of a huge ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco and say whatever they want to. Last year, Michael Chabon used his 15 minutes to talk about the promise of Barack Obama, then a long shot for the presidency. A lot of people were annoyed that Chabon injected politics into the afternoon, but the writer clearly felt so passionately about Obama that he could not help himself.

There weren’t any fiery politics this time. The authors were Dr. Nancy Snyderman, the NBC doctor and former Marin County resident, Tobias Wolf, Curtis Sittenfeld, Andre Dubus III, Diane Johnson, and Jacques Pepin, The emcees were Michael Krasny and Amy Tan, who reported there were 1100 attendees. Twenty years ago, only 400 people came to the benefit. The lunch raised about $500,000.

Then I skipped over to Geary Street to see artist Judith Belzer's show at the new gallery Room for Painting, Room for Paper. Judith has been painting extreme close-ups of trees, and her work appears both detailed and abstract. They are the kind of paintings one could stare at for hours. The Chronicle profiled Belzer this morning. She is married to Michael Pollan and admits it can be tough to be in his shadow. "I'm really proud of hime and I think he does wonderful work," saids Belzer. "I don't really like being 'Mrs. Michael' that much .... But I pretty much just do my work and try to keep my head down and not get bothered by that."

On Sunday, I went to the Mill Valley Film Festival to see The Betrayal, a new documentary film by Ellen Kuras. The film focuses on the impact of the secret US air war in Laos. About 23 years ago Kuras started filming a Laotian family in Rochester, New York. She moved to New York City and decided she wanted to learn Lao so she could communicate with her subjects. She started taking lessons from a young Lao man named Thavisouk Phrasavath, and Kuras soon found herself drawn into the drama of Thavi’s family’s life. Kuras started to film them and along the way Thavi became assistant director. Together they have made a powerful film that explores how violence shatters families and cultures and ripples down through generations. Betrayal will have its theatrical release in New York on Nov. 21. Kuras has also worked as a cinematographer on numerous films, including the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and her images of Laos are stunning. It is definitely worth seeing.

Then on Sunday night, my family and I caught the closing performance of Yellow Jackets, the Berkeley Rep play about Berkeley High in the 1990s. The play focuses on the school newspaper and the question of whether one of its articles was racist in tone. It was written by Itmar Moses, a former Berkeley High student. All I can say is the more things change, the more they stay the same.

These were the things I wanted to do, but did not have the energy to do:

Attend the Lit Crawl in the Mission on Saturday night and the after party. (I was a featured author, for God’s sake, and you would think I could stay up late enough for the party. But no, I was snug in my bed by 11)

Go hear Diane Johnson at Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore on College. I have met Diane before and she is a friend’s relative, so I wanted to see her in this intimate setting. Besides, I love her books and I have heard Lulu in Marrakesh is very good. One of my favorite of Johnson’s books in Persian Nights, about Iran. Many people dismiss her French trilogy as lightweight, but Johnson has the ability to combine politics, intrigue and literary fiction as well.

What I hope to do tonight: Go hear author Ted Conover talk about immersion reporting. I have read almost every one of Conover’s books, starting before he was a superstar. He took an unusual career path by remaining outside the mainstream of journalism and jumping right into books. My favorite was Coyotes, which documented the world of illegal aliens. I liked Newjack, a chronicle of his year as a prison guard at Sing Sing, as well.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Book Whirlwind

I got my first taste of book touring this past weekend, and it was a thrill.

I didn’t start out tentatively, one toe in the water. I leapt, making my first appearance on in a 15-minute interview Saturday on West Coast Live, a radio program from KALW 91.7. I think I got through it with a minimum of ums and uhhs.

Luckily, the host Sedge Thomson made it easy. He was prepared and had an excellent set of probing and provocative questions. It was clear that Sedge had read the entire book, which is not always the case with radio hosts. The questions weren’t obvious, and I ended up enjoying myself. It’s hard to condense a 360-page book and eight years of research into an interview, but I managed to convey a sense of Isaias Hellman, his life, and times.

No rest for the weary. I left West Coast Live, with its sweeping views of the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, and the bay, and headed to the Oakland Convention Center, with no windows and no view. I was going to sign books at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association’s annual convention. It’s a lot like Book Expo America, only much smaller. Publishers display their latest offerings and other vendors show off book-related tchotchkes.

My time slot to sign was 2 p.m. When I sat down, pen in had, to sign my first books (ever!) there was a respectably long line waiting. I don’t know if they were there because the book was free or because they wanted to read Towers of Gold, but I got so much joy out of signing, it didn’t really matter.

Then on Monday, I was in a panel at the Commonwealth Club for Litquake, the San Francisco literary festival, called Scandal, Intrigue and Drama in California History. I was talking about California history with authors Rick Wartzman and Ethan Rarick. Julia Flynn Siler moderated the discussion, which ranged from how to write history to particulars about each book. The panel will be broadcast on the radio sometime in the next few weeks.

The room was packed. A writing acquaintance, Joan Gelfand, even blogged about the event. It’s a hoot to be on the other side.

The funny thing is that my book won’t be released until Nov. 11. So this was just a warm up. I will have the fun of doing more events in the coming weeks.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Kerry Kennedy's " Being Catholic Now"

Kerry Kennedy was in San Francisco Wednesday to talk about her bestselling book, "Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning."

Before Kennedy spoke at the Commonwealth Club, she came to a small gathering hosted by Jennifer Caldwell, who heads up the foundation Hope to Action, a women-led nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about global warming.

Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy, grew up in an extremely religious household. Every day she and her 10 siblings would pray upon rising and before going to bed and again at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Kennedy still attends mass every Sunday, as do most of her siblings.

As much as she loves Catholicism, Kennedy has wrestled with aspects of the church and she explores the connection between faith, spirituality and questioning in the book. Being Catholic Now features 37 interviews with prominent Catholics, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Anna Qunidlen, Susan Sarandon, and the writer Andrew Sullivan.

The book grapples with some hard questions, including the Church's reaction to the widespread pedophilia scandal.

The book has just been out for three weeks and it is already a New York Times bestseller.

Kennedy has also been stumping for Barack Obama. Just last week she went to Lackawanna County in Pennsylvania, where she went from some Catholic house party to small Catholic house party talking about the Democratic nominee. Kennedy was set to talk at the Commonwealth Club at 6 pm, smack at the beginning of the vice-presidential debate, and it was clear that she had mixed feelings about not watching the debate live.
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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Bay Area Literary Musings

I have an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle today about the demise of the 118-year old law firm, Heller Ehrman. The firm was started by Isaias Hellman’s son-in-law and was inexorably linked to Hellman and Wells Fargo Bank.

If you want to hear more on why history is better than fiction, come to the Litquake panel Scandal, Intrigue and Drama in California History, on Monday Oct. 6 at the Commonwealth Club. I will be on a panel talking about writing history with authors Julia Flynn Siler, Ethan Rarick, and Rick Wartzman.

Michael Chabon reports on the Democratic Convention in Denver for the New York Review of Books.

Caitlin Flanagan has an interesting piece (and video) on the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. It’s partially a review of a new book, Patty’s Got A Gun, by William Graebner.

I have always been fascinated by Patty Hearst. When I was 16, I scored a press pass to her trial, even though my school didn’t have a newspaper. On the day I was set to go to the trial, I was walking to school when my father drove by. My parents were divorced and I didn’t live with my father. He picked my up and took me to school and I told him how I snared a press pass to the Patty Hearst trial. He was so impressed by my ingenuity because seats were in high demand at the trial. We had a nice interaction. Two days later he died of a heart attack while skiing. He was 45. So you see, Patty Hearst resonates in many ways for me.

Bay Area author, Meg Waite Clayton, the bestselling author of The Wednesday Sisters, has sold her next book to Ballantine. It’s called The Ms. Bradwells and it is about “four law school friends whose reunion at a Chesapeake Bay island family home leads them to face the truth about an unexplained death years earlier, their very different career paths, and the redemptive power of friendship,” according to Publishers Marketplace.

Meg’s new blog on how authors came to be writers is really interesting.