Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Best Books of 2008

I’ve read a lot of books this year, but I can’t say I have been overwhelmed with bounty. I have enjoyed many books, but I actually found it hard to find 10 that I really liked. The following is a list of my favorite books of the year, categorized by fiction and non-fiction. Not all of these are new releases:


American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld – A great read that gave me an appreciation for Laura Bush.

An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett – This is almost a novella that recounts what happens when Queen Elizabeth of England unexpectedly visits a bookmobile, selects a book, and discovers a passion for reading. Hint: her world and that of the people she rules changes.

Any Human Heart by William Boyd – This is an “autobiography” of an Englishman in the 20th century, written in journal form.

Mary by Janis Cooke Newman – a novel about the life of Mary Todd Lincoln. I couldn’t put this book down, even though Lincoln had a very depressing life.

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton – This is a book about female friendship and writing. Who could ask for more?


Desperate Passage by Ethan Rarick – Drawing on new archeological evidence and letters, Rarick recounts the story of the Donner Party as its members make their way from the east coast to California. Rarick brings the times and people to life in a compelling narrative.

Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napolean by Andrea di Robilant – I am a big fan of this author, and not because we share the same literary agent. Di Robilant has written two non fiction books about Italy that draw on a series of letters written by his ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries. They provide a fascinating glimpse of Europe and the upper classes.

I asked Cindy Snow, who works at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, for a list of her favorite books. Here is her reply.

Hi, Frances--Well, here it is. I look back on the year in books, and although there were many that I liked I can't say that I was absolutely knocked down by any. I found pieces of what I liked in many, true, insightful characters, wonderful description, a great plot which leaves me feeling emotionally moved and the books' ability to intrude on my thoughts and captivate me for days, leaving me without wanting to start a new book.

That being said, I really enjoyed the following books (not in order of any kind). Plus, I am sure that I am forgetting a few, especially those from the beginning of the year!

Unaccustomed Earth by Jumpa Lahiri

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

An American WifeCurtis Sittenfeld

The Likeness by Tanya French

When Will there Be Good News? By Kate Atkinson

The Guernesey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The English Major by Jim Harrison

City of Thieves by David Benioff

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and Reg Keelan

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg

The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu

Nancy Chirinos, another friend and avid reader, has this list:

In the Wake--Pers Petterson. I like his spare style and the exotic world of Norway.
Out Stealing Horses-Per Petterson--loved it. Beautiful writing, beautiful story
Olive Kittredge--Elizabeth Strout--loved it. Stories linked by characters and town
The Year of Magical Thinking--Joan Didion--I avoided reading it for a long time as I thought it would be too sad, but it was so well written, I loved it.
Can You Forgive Her? Anthony Trollop--my favorite Trollop so far. Social rather than political. I like Trollop because he's so dense, I can escape. I like classics when I want more involved language.
Dreams From My Father--Barack Obama--a must read, I believe
Great Expectations--Charles Dickens, what is there to say?
Mister Pip--Lloyd James--a good companion book to Great Expectations, a teacher telling the story of Great Expectations to a class of children in violent Haiti
Exit Ghost--Phillip Roth, because I love Phillip Roth

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ten Things I am Thankful for Concerning Towers of Gold

1) That my cousin Warren Hellman and I will be on Michael Krasny’s Forum on KQED on Tuesday Dec. 23 at 10 a.m. Listen in to hear an original song on Isaias Hellman performed by Warren and his band, the Wronglers. I have listened to Krasny’s show for years and have always dreamed of being on it.

2) For all the people who came to my readings – it was great to see so many friends and to meet so many new people.

3) For all the relatives I have met through the publication of this book

4) For getting the chance, via radio, to talk to people in Montana, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere

5) That I am on the San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller list for a third week

6) That the San Francisco Chronicle named Towers of Gold a notable Bay Area book of 2008.

7) That Towers of Gold made the Marin Independent Journal bestseller list for two consecutive weeks. That really means that one of my favorite bookstores, Book Passage, is selling a lot of copies

8) That Towers of Gold has sold so well it is going into its second printing

9) That after 8 years of working on this book, it is out in the world.

10) That Isaias Hellman’s contribution to the creation of California will now be noted

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Going Right to the Heart of Hellman's Financial Empire

I am heading back down to Los Angeles, where I will give a talk this evening at Metropolis Books, a small independent bookstore in the heart of the city's downtown and banking districts.

I am really looking forward to this reading because the store sits next door to the building Isaias Hellman constructed in 1905 for his Farmers and Merchants Bank. It is also the site of his old homestead. He constructed a house here in 1877, one that was so far away from the center of Los Angeles that he gave an adjacent plot of land to a friend with the caveat he build a house, too. See, Hellman didn't want his wife, Esther, and son, Marco, to be lonely living so far away from everyone else.
The house Isaias Hellman built in 1877.

What the same intersection looked like in the early 20th century. The building on the corner is the Farmers and Merchants Bank. The L-shaped building wrapped around the bank is the Isaias W. Hellman Building, a large office building.

Hellman's brother Herman built this office building on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles around 1903. It is known today as Banco Popular.

The current owners of the bank and office building (now converted to lofts) are going to give me a tour before my talk. They also own the popular Pete's Cafe across the street, where there is a delicious Hellman burger on the menu.

In advance of my arrival, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles gave Towers of Gold a great review.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Parody of Towers of Gold

In my book on my great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman, I go on and on (and some say on) about his prescience in backing business partners who would go on to do great things for California. For example, Hellman formed partnerships with the founders of Lehman Brothers, with Harrison Gray Otis, who bought the LA Times, and with the men who jump-started California's oil industry.

A number of these businesses have failed or are about to fail in the wake of our country's economic collapse. This is causing a number of financial wizards to scour Towers of Gold to see the next business to collapse so they can do some short selling. (or so says my brother, Steven Dinkelspiel in this scathing critique)

Here's the news:

Associated Press....December 8, 2008...With the announcement today of bankruptcy filings for the Tribune Company, the media conglomerate purchased just twelve months ago by Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell for a then-record $8.2 billion dollars, investors on Wall Street have turned their attention to a recently published book about the early days of California’s financial history. “Towers of Gold”, author Frances Dinkelspiel’s first book, is an examination of the life of Isaias W. Hellman, the author’s ancestor who was one of California’s first bankers. Dinkelspiel describes Hellman as having a kind of “Midas touch”, with many of his financial involvements leading to success for some of California’s most storied businesses, including Wells Fargo Bank (WFC) and the oil fields of Southern California. But what strikes interested parties on Wall Street has not so much been the engaging story of Hellman’s triumphs, but rather how – since the book’s publication - the author’s choices of examples for these triumphs have proved to be a kind of dell knell for the cited businesses.

“When the book came out just after Lehman Brothers went under, we felt sorry for the author about the timing of it all.” said Robert Zemakism President of St. Martin’s Press, the publisher of “Towers of Gold.” “Dinkelspiel had trumpeted the association between Hellman and Meyer Lehman (who were brothers-in-law). However, by the time the book was available to readers, this relationship had a different historical context with the disappearance of Lehman Brothers from the roster of Wall Street investment banks. ”

It seemed nothing more than a quirk of circumstance when the law firm of Heller Ehrman – a century old San Francisco institution which had been founded by Hellman’s sons-in-law – abruptly announced its closure just days before “Towers of Gold” hit bookstores. And few attributed the plummeting price of crude oil to Dinkelspiel’s praise of Hellman’s involvement in that industry.

But with today’s announcement that the Tribune Company – the parent company of the Los Angeles Times - has filed for bankruptcy, investors are turning to “Towers of Gold” for more than an insight into the practices and personalities of California’s early experience in the banking industry. They are looking for hints about the next institution that may fail without notice. “It is uncanny how Dinkelspiel has managed to identify early those companies that are suffering the most in our current economy,” said Thomas Steyer, Managing Partner of Farrallon Capital, a hedge fund known for its risky and successful bets on companies headed for bankruptcy. “The book talked about how prescient Hellman was to lend money to Harrison Gray Otis, the founder of the Times, and less than thirty days after publication they file for bankruptcy. I plan to scour Dinkelspiel’s book for more ideas about investments that are sure to go south.”

In recent days, the impact of “Towers of Gold” has been felt throughout California. An unprecedented rash of foreclosures of Tahoe shoreline real estate has proved inexplicable and the announcement from the City of Seal Beach, California that it only has funds on hand to last through the end of the year has stunned local residents. In another ironic twist, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival founded by Hellman’s great-grandson (and Dinkelspiel cousin) F. Warren Hellman announced that due to financial difficulties it was changing its name to “Occasionally, Sort of Bluegrass” and moving to an all-synthesized musical format. “I am going to kill my cousin,” announced Warren Hellman. “You can take my money, but don’t mess with my music,” he implored.

Dinkelspiel was unavailable for comment.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Back from New York, recuperating

Today is the first day in about three weeks that I can take a breather, relax, and reflect on all that has happened since Towers of Gold was released a little more than three weeks ago.

All I can say is: wow!

I never expected this response. I never expected to have so much fun. I never expected to be so tired.

A few highlights:

I went to A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland last night (Dec. 6) As soon as I walked in, Kathleen, the owner told me she had sold more than 30 copies of Towers of Gold just that day.

By 7:15 the store was so full it was standing room only. We had to delay the talk so people could buy books. It was a great crowd who knew a lot about California history.

In contrast, I spoke earlier in the day at the San Francisco Public Library. I think that talk set the record for the number of people it put to sleep.

On Sunday, the Chronicle named Towers of Gold a Literary Pick and called it a “superb biography.” Wow again.

In New York, I was a guest on the Joe Franklin radio show.

Joe Franklin is a show biz personality. He hosted one of the first TV talk shows, which ran on television for 40 years. He apparently has interviewed more than 300,000 people. He now has a daily radio show on Bloomberg Radio's "Lifestyles" segment.

For some reason, Franklin invited me to be on his radio show. I entered the studio to find a man in his 90s who was as charming and personable a person as I have ever met. He told me had had interviewed Charlie Chaplin, five presidents and now me! What a sweetheart.

Other observations:

Worst attended talk: SF State. There were six people in the room, including me. One was the professor who invited me, one was the book seller, leaving three members of the audience. Oh well. At least two bought books.

Best attended: At Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach, CA. There were about 110 people in the audience. I don’t think anyone fell asleep. This was a rancho that Isaias Hellman bought with partners in 1881. The people there really knew their history. This one was pure pleasure.

The one that made me most proud: The Huntington Library, hands down.

The most informative talk: At the California Historical Society. The wonderful staff of the North Baker Library went through my book and brought out documents I had cited. Those attending could see Hellman’s report card from Germany, letters to his wife and son, and much more.

The most jarring moment: Going from the glow of discovering I was on the San Francisco Chronicle best seller list to my agent’s office on Park Avenue in New York City. As soon as I walked in I realized that as well as my book was doing in California, no one was noticing it in New York. Not that my agent wasn’t enthusiastic. But I could tell.

I was also an Amazon addict for a while. The review of Towers of Gold came out in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday Nov. 29 and the San Francisco Chronicle review came out on Sunday Nov. 30. After that, (and before, if I am honest) I was addicted to Amazon, something that authors are warned against. I will share, though.

Sunday Nov. 16, in the morning, five days after Towers of Gold is released, with minimal press attention: Sales Rank: #9,108 in Books

Sunday Nov. 24th in the evening, after appearing on the Larry Mantle Show, an NPR show in Los Angeles: Sales Rank: #2,944 in Books

Nov. 30, in the morning, a day aftter the review in the LA Times Sales Rank: #2,166 in Books

Later that same day, after the SF Chronicle review: Sales Rank: #1,179 in Books

Around 5:24 pm eastern time: Sales Rank: #1,106 in Books

Around 10:10 pm eastern time: Sales Rank: #669 in Books

That's the highest i got, but I think it's pretty good.

It’s not over. I talk at Clayton Books on Tuesday and then at Metropolis Books in Los Angeles on Thursday.