Sunday, December 27, 2009

When bankers were philanthropic: the Hellman Brothers

Sam Watters, a chronicler of the architecture of Los Angeles, wrote his post-Christmas column on the buildings constructed in the early years of the 20th century by Isaias and Herman Hellman.

Watters tries to draw a parallel between the actions of the Hellmans with  today's bankers:

"Brinks must be stuffing its armored delivery trucks with Goldman Sachs' annual bonuses. The company's compensation and benefit pool for 2009 is expected to top $20 billion, an average of more than $600,000 for each of the 31,700 company employees whose jobs were saved a year ago by a taxpayer bailout. Among the questions raised by this bonanza: What will bankers do with the money? "

As you see, today's bankers come up short. Watters then goes on to talk about how each Hellman brother constructed a building on their old homesteads that still stand today.

Herman Hellman lived in a small house on Fourth and Spring in Los Angeles, and in 1903 he started construction on one of the city's first steel-reinforced concrete buildings. He brought in Albert Rosenheim, an architect from  St. Louis, to design the future home of the Merchants Bank. It is now known as Banco Popular (see photo above) I only learned recently that Rosenheim was related to Herman's wife. The building cost $1 million, a huge amount of money at that time.

A few years later, Isaias Hellman hired the architectural firm Morgan and Wells to design a new headquarters for the Farmers and Merchants Bank, Los Angeles' first successful bank. The building on Fourth and Main streets still stands and is used for commercials and parties. I gave a talk last year there for the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

Watters' piece is nice. He even mentions my name. My only complaint is that much of the information comes from Towers of Gold and he never mentions the title of my book.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cindy Snow's Best Books of 2009

Cindy Snow is in the enviable position of knowing about “hot” books before most people.

For the past few years, Snow has worked at A Great Good Place for Books in the Montclair section of Oakland, not really for the money, but for the access to all the galleys and ARCs sent by publishers. The backroom of the bookstore is jammed with stacks of books, and Snow and the other employees can pick whatever they choose to read.

For her list of the best books she read in 2009, Snow, an Oakland resident, mostly stuck to fiction, although she threw in one non-fiction book on South Africa.

The Unit by Ninni Holmquist (I had never heard of this dystopian novel by this Swedish novelist, but the trailer looks intriguing.)

Let the Great World Spin  by Colum McCann (This winner of the National Book Award seems to be stacked on the counter of every bookstore I have gone into these last few days. I think the publisher made the right decision to rush this out in paperback. I have bought tw0 copies myself for gifts.)

Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie  by Alan Bradley

Girl Who Played with Fire by Steig Larsson

Gate at the Stairs  by Lorrie Moore

Brooklyn  by Colm Toiben

Under the Dome  by Stephen King

Alive in Necropois   by Doug Dorst

Little Bee  by Clive Cleve

If you like these “best of”  lists, the blog Largehearted Boy has very conveniently aggregated dozens of Best of 2009 lists, ranging from Amazon and Barnes and Noble to a large collection of litblogs.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Nancy Chirinos' Best of 2009 list

For the past few years, I have asked Nancy Chirinos, a voracious reader, to provide Ghost Word with a list of the favorite books she read in 2009. Nancy has reviewed books for the Chronicle and lives in Noe Valley in San Francisco. Here are her thoughts:

“This is one of my favorite lists to make. I keep a book journal where I grade 'em all, so it's easy for me to pick the year's A's. Not as many good books this year, but the year's not over. I'm reading Zeitoun by Dave Eggers which I expect will be a fav, and slowly reading some Pema Chodron and Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity by David Whyte.”

The List:

When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson, 3rd in a detective trilogy. I loved them all.

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti, kind of a Dickensian tale.

Infidel by Ayan Hirsi Ali, fascinating memoir

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

The Road Home by Rose Tremain--loved it

Stairs to a Gate by Lorrie Moore--loved it too

The Hemmings of Monticello by Annette Gordon Reed--fascinating, only non-fiction, non-memoir on my list!

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

That’s what I like about these lists; they vary from person to person. I have only read one of Nancy’s picks – the trilogy of Kate Atkinson. I also love the books, which detail the life of Jackon Brodie, an ex-army, ex-police, ex-private detective who solves crimes.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Best Books of 2009

This has been a good reading year for me. Freed from the constraints of working on my own book – although I spent a great deal of time marketing Towers of Gold – I got a chance to read a lot. I think I read 41 books in 2009 (and there are still two weeks to go) which is the most I have read since 2005.

Which is why it is always surprising that so few books seem to make my “best of” list. I enjoy many books while I am immersed in them, but very few keep me thinking after a few weeks. And most embarrassing, I often forget which books I have read. That’s why I started to keep a book diary in 1995, a practice I now extend to my blog.

Here are the most memorable books I read in 2009, Not all of them were pitch-perfect, but I was absorbed by these book and learned something.


West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State by Mark Arax.  Arax, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, explores the unknown and obscure corners of California in this loosely connected series of essays. This is a wonderful and absorbing book that offers a fresh take on this large, eclectic state.

A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America, by Peter Richardson. Richardson traces the Ramparts story from its beginnings as a Catholic magazine in Palo Alto through its heyday in San Francisco when the whole world was watching, to its untimely end. A great history of an important magazine with wonderful insights into the counterculture.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, by Allison Hoover Bartlett. Now Allison is a member of North 24th, my writing group, so I am a bit biased. But she tells the almost too-crazy-to-be-true story of John Gilkey, who makes himself feel like a member of the intellectual elite by stealing rare books.

We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante, by Eve Pell. How many women could claim to be part of the ruling class,  then work to free prisoners in California jails, and end up as an investigative reporter? Pell can, and her memoir is a rare glimpse into a blue blood world that is so proscribed and controlling you will shed tears for the people born into it.

George Being George, the life of George Plimpton, edited by Nelson Aldrich, Jr. – I loved this oral history of George Plimpton, who started the Paris Review. While the book explores Plimpton’s life, loves, and work, it is also a history of the literary world of much of the 20th century.


Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz – I picked up this thick tome at the Brown University bookstore, during the middle of a college tour with my daughter. From its opening pages I was riveted by the story of  a Princeton college admissions administrator who suffers a midlife crisis and crisis of conscience. Korelitz had been a reader for the Princeton admissions office, too, and I liked seeing the fictional essays she created for the book.

All That Work and Still No Boys by Kathryn Ma. Ma, (another friend) has such an unusual – and somewhat subversive voice – that each of these short stories is a revelation. I still can’t stop thinking about the old woman who moves into a retirement home and finds herself worrying about her dining companions in the cafeteria.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. I lost myself in this novel about a Harvard graduate student who moves back to her family’s home and finds herself plunged into the world of the Salem witch trials.

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostava – This will be released in January 2010. Her previous book, The Historian, was a huge bestseller and the publisher, Little Brown, plans to spen $500,000 alone to promote the new one. I enjoyed The Swan Thieves even more than Kostava’s first book but since there are no vampires in it,  it may not do as well. The book deals with a painter who has slashed a famous French impressionist painting and the psychiatrist who treats him – and gets drawn into a world of secrets.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Video on Isaias Hellman and Towers of Gold

Towers of Gold from Steven Pressman on Vimeo.

Steven Pressman made this wonderful video for the paperback release of Towers of Gold. Pressman, a journalist (he wrote a book on  EST founder Werner Erhard), is now producing videos and book trailers.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Kudos to the Bay Area authors whos books have garnered critical acclaim

Writing a book is not an easy task, as everyone knows. But getting it noticed may even be more difficult. Hundreds of thousands of books are published each year, most to deafening silence. That is why garnering attention for your work is an accomplishement. Ending up on a "Best of" list is truly noteworthy.

Publications around the world are creating their Best of 2009 lists now. (Ghost Word's will come out next week) A number of Bay Area authors have snagged spots on some of those lists and I want to congratulate them.

Allison Hoover Bartlett, whose The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, was selected as a best book of 2009 by the Library Journal.

Linda Himelstein, whose The King of Vodka, was selected by Business Week as one of its best books.

Neil MacFarquhar, whose The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday was selected by Barnes and Noble as a best book. (Neil moved frm San Francisco to New York just a few months ago)

Other books did extremely well, if not (yet) making that particular kind of list.

Kathryn Ma’s debut story collection, All That Work and Still No Boys, won the Iowa Short fiction award and was named a “discovery” book by the Los Angeles Times.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Where to find McSweeney's Panorama newspaper

Panorama, the 320-page "newspaper" conceived and executed by Dave Eggers and McSweeney's, hits the streets tomorrow, Tuesday Dec 8.

Interestingly, since Eggers billed this as an attempt to reinvent and reinvigorate the newspaper, Panorama will be sold for $5 in independent bookstores around the Bay Area. By doing this, Eggers acknowledges the importance of independents.

Panorama has also engaged numerous volunteers who will walk the streets of San Francisco hawking the paper, a practice that harks back to the golden age of papers when newspapers would often run extra editions to get out breaking news.

McSweeney's publisher Oscar Villalon tweeted a request for newsies on Twitter last week.

Here's a list of bookstores and street corners where you can find Panorama. You can also order it on SFGate, but for $13.

The New York Times Bay Area blog has a Q and A with Eggers.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Secrets of the State revealed in Marin County


Mt. Tamalpais circa 1922
Courtesy of Marin County Free Library. Anne T. Kent California Room

I went to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Civic Center in Marin on Wednesday and  was treated to a nice surprise.

I had gone there to look at some court documents, and was dismayed to find that the records office had closed at 12:30 pm, due to budget cuts. I had a few hours to kill before a talk, so I wandered to the Marin County library on the fourth floor. There I stumbled upon something I had never heard of: the Anne T. Kent California History Room.

This is an amazing space (really just a portioned section of the library) containing a fabulous collection of books, newspaper clippings, ephemera, and photographs. I looked at some books I had not been able to track down during my research for Towers of Gold and saw others I really wanted to browse through. The collection is wonderful. There was a complete run of the San Francisco Blue Book, a sort of society-oriented phone book, numerous oral histories of Marin County residents, early voter registration records, and books on all the other sections of California.

Marin County Librarian Virginia Keating started collecting material in the 1930s and the room is named after Anne T. Kent, who led the way in the 1920s to establish the county’s free library system.

Its photographs are on-line.

I have to return to Marin to look at those court files. It will be difficult not to spend my time poking around instead in the history room.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Want to know more about the rivalry between German Jews and Eastern European Jews?

If you want to hear some stories about Jews who have had an impact in the Bay Area or a discussion about the rivalry between central European and eastern European Jews, please come by the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael Wed. Dec 2 at 7 pm. I will be having a discussion on a broad range of topics with Fred Rosenbaum, author of the recently-released Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay. Stephen Dobbs will moderate the discussion.

The New York Times, being the New York Times, is a lightning rod for criticism.  The new Bay Area section of the Times is no exception. Read a lively exchange about the strengths and weaknesses of the section in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Writer Michael Lukas isn’t all that impressed with the section, but he changes his mind slightly after hearing what Felicity Barringer, the editor of the section, has to say.

Kevin Smokler interviews Oscar Villalon, the new publishers of McSweeney’s, in The Rumpus. Surprise of the interview: Villalon doesn’t go into bookstores very often.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Is the Book Dead? The San Francisco Version

It's become routine at book conventions, book fairs, and author gatherings to ponder the dismal fate of the publishing industry and contemplate how e-books will affect book sales.

The Mechanic's Institute in San Francisco is hosting its own version of this discussion on Thursday, and this one promises to be truly interesting.

Panelists include Daniel Handler, (author of the Lemony Snicket books) John McMurtrie, the Chronicle's book section editor, Oscar Villalon, the former editor of the book review, now publisher of McSweeney's, Scott Rosenberg, a co-founder of Salon and author of new book on blogging, Brenda Knight, an associate publisher of Cleis Press, and Annalee Newitz, a syndicated columnist for Techsploitation.  Alan Kaufman, author of Jew Boy, will moderate the discussion.

The talk starts at 6:30 pm. Details are here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bay Area Literary Tidbits Francisco writer T.J. Stiles won the National Book Award  in Nonfiction Wednesday night for his biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Siles, who lives in the Presidio with his wife and son, wrote The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt after completing a book about Jesse James. He talks about the project here.Film is courtesy of Galleycat.

The adaption of Michael LewisThe Blind Side, about Michael Oher, a homeless African American youth who is adopted by the Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white, Christian Southern family and who achieves great success on the football field, will be released Friday, Nov. 20. The advance buzz on the movie is good (Famed Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr apparently cried at a screening) but sources tell me that current relations among Oher and the Tuohys are extremely strained. Oher, who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens, will not be doing any press for the film. The movie has a feel-good ending, but the truth is not as pretty

Disney has shelved a film adaptation of Julies Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Michael Chabon of Berkeley has done the most recent rewrite of the script.

Chabon and his wife, Ayelet Waldman, will be speaking at Berkeley Rep on Dec. 7 in a benefit for Park Day School. This will be the first time the pair has appeared on stage together since they both published memoirs.

The interviewer will be San Francisco columnist Jon Carroll. Do you think he will have the nerve or the gall to ask Chabon what would be harder for him, to have his wife or children die? (Ala Waldman’s essay in the New York Times.) Probably not, but Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs (a fabulous book) mentions that he is somewhat laconic and Waldman pushes him to interact more forcefully in the world.  He certainly has been extremely supportive of her writing and other endeavors. So the conversation should be interesting.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail
I have just started reading Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin and I must say it is a page turner. Sorkin has done a masterful job of narrative non-fiction, making the reader feel like he or she is in the center of the action, in real time.

Since Sorkin only had 10 months to write the book -- and he continued to write his column for the New York Times in this time -- he needed a lot of help. In its current issue, New York Magazine details just how extensive that help was.

With his $700,000 advance, Sorkin hired two researchers. Check. That I understand. But then he also hired three independent editors, count that -- three editors -- to go through various sections of the book. Of course he had his own editor at the publishing house as well.

"With only ten months to conduct interviews and produce a 160,000-word draft, Sorkin hired two researchers to compile exhaustive timelines of virtually every newspaper and magazine article on the crisis, as well as prepare detailed dossiers on each of his central characters," according to the New York magazine article.

"In addition to his editor at Viking, Rick Kot, who edited Barbarians at the Gate, Sorkin asked three freelance editors to work on different portions of the book, including former New York Times Sunday business editor Jim Impoco, now at Reuters, and Hugo Lindgren, New York’s editorial director (who had no involvement in this story). Impoco, in particular, heavily edited the book’s opening three chapters."

This astonishes me. It almost feels like cheating. Throw up some prose and rely on others to make it sing.

In Sorkin's case, however, it was a smart move. His book was an instant New York Times bestseller and has already broken through the clutter of all of the other books written on the financial crisis.

His colleagues at the Times have criticized Sorkin for using their work and not attributing it to them  But since this book was put together so quickly, it's not surprising to hear this.

UPDATE: Lesley Stahl did a great interview with Sorkin for  WowOwow. I liked this part about his writing process:

LESLEY: Did you enjoy writing the book?

ANDREW: You know, I did it under such a time pressure; the whole process was about ten-and-a-half months. So it was painful at some level.

LESLEY: That’s all? That’s quite extraordinary to put out a book like that.

ANDREW: It was a pretty miserable experience on a day-to-day. But trying to get at the emotions and the interconnectedness of these people was a terrific reporting experience. And I had some researchers who were helping me. I used to do my writing typically from midnight to about 6:30 in the morning, like I was back in college. I used to go to the corner store near my apartment, I’d buy a two-liter bottle of diet Coke and a bag of Stacy’s chips from the same guy. He’d laugh at me every time.

LESLEY: And you kept working at your day job, for The New York Times, at the same time?

ANDREW: Yes. Yes, I did.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Catch Towers of Gold on TV

 After a quiet interlude, I am about to do a bevy of events for Towers of Gold. I will be on CBS’ Mosaic show this Sunday Nov. 15 at 5 am. Yes, you read that right: 5 am.

Mosaic is a weekly show on spirituality. This week the host, Rabbi Eric Weiss, brought in guests to discuss Jewish Book Month. I talk about Towers of Gold and how social networking is changing publishing. Howard Freeman, talks about the programs and resources offered by the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, and Joel Harris, owner of the wonderful independent bookstore, Clayton Books, in Clayton, CA talks about the bookselling environment.

I will be at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga on Tues. Nov 17 at 7:30 pm

I will be at the Marin Chapter of the California Writers Club on Sunday Nov. 22 from 2 to 4 pm. It is held at Book Passage in Corte Madera. I will be talking about how to make your memoir interesting to people other than just your family.

Then I will rush to the new Books, Inc on Fourth Street in Berkeley. The store is hosting a wine tasting and author meet-and-greet for local book groups. Free wine! Free talk! Lots of my favorite authors will be there, including Meg Waite Clayton, Michelle Richmond, Annie Barrows, and more.

I will be talking about Bay Area Jewish History with Fred Rosenbaum and Stephen Dobbs at the Osher Marin JCC on Wednesday, Dec. 2 at 7 pm.

On Thursday, Dec. 3 at 1 pm, I will do a slide/lecture for the Outdoor Art Club in Mill Valley.

For a complete events listing, look here.

Monday, November 09, 2009

A Tribute to Nien Chang, author of Life and Death in Shanghai

I was saddened to read today that Nien Chang, the author of Life and Death in Shanghai, had died.

I only met Nien Chang once, and briefly at that, but it is a meeting I have remembered all my life. I was a reporter in Ithaca, New York, working for the Syracuse Newspapers, and I had free reign to write about almost anything I wanted.

I spent a lot of time writing about events at Cornell University because the school brought in so many interesting speakers, had such distinguished scientists, and a plethora of fabulous authors.

Chan’s memoir, Life and Death in Shanghai, was a critical and commercial success when it was released in1987. I read it and was deeply moved by the deprivations she suffered during China’s Cultural Revolution. Chang was imprisoned and her daughter was murdered by the state.

So when I heard Chang was coming to speak at Cornell, I made sure to arrange an interview with her. We met in a spartan classroom on campus. I came in and she was already seated at a table. She was petite, with gray hair, and wore a dress with a Chinese collar.

What struck me immediately – and what I still remember almost 22 years later – was her calm. Chang had been beaten, brutalized, and bullied by the Chinese authorities, yet she seemed to hold no rancor. She had no bitterness. She had forgiven her captors and tormentors. She was at peace with them.

I was astounded by this. I had never met someone so accepting. Her calm spread over me like a balm and I found myself with a new kind of peace.  Chang was the most profound person I had ever met in my life, and I have never forgotten her.

It seems others feel like I do. James Fallows of The Atlantic has penned an ode to her.

Here is her MySpace page.

The beautiful portrait (above) of Nien Chang was taken by Mary Noble Ours.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

McSweeney's "newspaper" issue on San Francisco will be 380 pages

McSweeney’s has announced some details of its newspaper-sized edition focusing on San Francisco and northern California.

The 380-page broadsheet will go on sale the first week of December and feature an investigation into the reconstruction of the Bay Bridge, the growth of pot farms in Mendocino County, a 116-page book section, a 112 page magazine and three pull out posters.

Lots of well-known writers are contributing to the paper, including Stephen King, Michael Chabon, Andrew Sean Greer, Nicholson Baker, Allison Bechdel, Junot Diaz, and Michelle Tea, among others.

“We think that the best chance for newspapers’ survival is do what the internet can’t; namely, use and explore the large-paper format as thoroughly as possible,” the McSweeney’s website reads.

Other tidbits:

The Newspaper Guild unit in San Francisco has formed a freelancer’s unit.

UC Press has a series of podcasts with its various authors.

San Francisco columnist Jon Carroll will interview Brad Bird of Pixar on Nov. 9.

Edgar-nominated mystery writer Cornelia Read will lead a two-day mystery writing intensive at the Claremont Hotel and Spa in November. 

David Weir, who has worked at Wired, Rolling Stone, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, calls on UC Berkeley School of Journalism Dean Neil Henry to have his students investigate the death of Betty Van Patter, an accountant who was murdered while looking into the books of the Black Panthers. This would be like the Chauncey Bailey project. Weir got the idea after reading about the killing and the indifference of local politicians in Peter Richardson’s new book on Ramparts Magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue.

Those students at the J-School are awfully busy, though. They are blogging for the New York Times’ new Bay Area blog, plus hyperlocal blogs in Oakland, Richmond and the Mission District of San Francisco.

Lance Knobel,, who started Berkleyside, the hyperlocal blog I write for, will be talking about the blog tonight on KBLX at 90.7 at 9 pm. Learn all about the hyperlocal movement.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Why Small is the New Big: Hyperlocal Sites

My life is continuing to spin faster than I can handle, and posting to Ghost Word keeps getting left to the end. In recent weeks, my freelance journalism has picked up. I have written some stories for the Bay Area section of the New York Times, as well as a book review for the Los Angeles Times. After blogging so much for so long, it’s nice to be writing for newspapers again.

That said, I am very excited about a new project. In recent weeks I have been writing for a new hyper-local website called Berkeleyside. It’s a website devoted to all things Berkeley, from the lofty (Berkeley’s growing role as a leader in green energy technology) to the simple (the yummy cupcakes at CupKates, a roving cupcake truck.) I am working on Berkeleyside with Lance Knobel and Tracey Taylor, two veteran journalists who have worked both in the U.K. and the U.S, and others.

 As newspapers lay off staff and have difficulty covering local news, hyper-local sites are springing up to fill the void. The Bay Area has dozens of sites covering everything from riding the Muni to Alameda to the Mission District of San Francisco. It’s interesting, then, that Berkeleyside is the only hyperlocal site in town. Others may have avoided Berkeley because there are two newspapers covering news here, The Daily Planet and The Daily Californian.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Andrew Sean Greer and the Art of Writing

Andrew Sean Greer (right) talking to 5 month nephew Arlo, who is sitting on the lap of Greer's identical twin brother, Mike. New York Times photo by Heidi Schumann

Earlier this week, the New York Times' new Bay Area section published a story I wrote on the Sunday routine of novelist Andrew Sean Greer.

The article touched on what Greer did on a typical Sunday. One thing he does not do is write. When he got together with his husband, David Ross, 13 years ago, he promised that he would avoid working on weekends.

Of course, I couldn’t interview Greer and just ask about when he drinks his first cup of coffee in the morning. I am a writer, too, albeit a nonfiction, writer, and I wanted to hear about Greer’s writing habits. So here are some tidbits from the conversation we had.

Greer spent much of the past year in New York, working as a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. Greer applied for the fellowship in order to work on his novel, which is a book about characters who time travel between 1918 and 1941. When he got to New York, the pieces of the novel he had written were set in San Francisco, much like two of his previous books, The Confessions of Max Tivoli and The Story of a Marriage.

But Greer couldn’t resist the vast resources available to him at the library. He found himself captivated by the library’s books, newspapers, and other sources about New York. He walked the streets everyday, sat in cafes, and dined out with friends. Soon the atmosphere of New York had permeated his psyche and Greer tossed the 100 pages he had written and started afresh. He set the next draft in New York and added new characters.  He wrote about 150 pages in the following months.

“Ideally, your head is in your novel most of your waking life,” said Greer. “All of your spare moments, conversations you overhear, thoughts you have, all should be going to the novel. If I sort of let myself forget about the book, it’s hard to get back into it again.”

When Greer is writing intensely, he tends to read classic rather than contemporary literature. “I’m reading Colette right now. I will pick up Proust. I find old fiction helpful. It’s classic for a reason. It is really well done.”

Greer and Ross moved back to their home in San Francisco’s lower Haight at the end of the fellowship in May. Greer spent much of the next few months away from home. He traveled to Italy to read from his work at Letturatura, the Rome Literary Festival. It was an outdoor evening performance (video here)at the Basilica di Massenzio near the Forum. (“It was a warm Roman night. The Forum was all lit up. It was so beautiful it was amazing.”) He also spent six  weeks at a writer’s colony and visited Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman at their summer home in Maine.

So Greer didn’t start to look for a new writing office until September, a search that he Twittered about.

You might think that a writer as successful as Greer might go for a high end, modern office with a view of the city. But it seems that he prefers grunge. Or at least redone grunge. He described his previous office as a “crappy room in someone’s basement.”

He looked all around and almost took an office on a houseboat because he couldn’t find anything else. Then he found a spot in the Mission, with a few small rooms and a loft that lets in lots of light.

“”It’s really nice but it’s really crappy," said Greer. "It looked like a meth lab when I first rented it, so that’s why I had to paint the whole thing. The room was bright pink which is why I had to paint it white.”

Greer calls himself an Internet addict. When he gets up he goes straight to the computer, reads the New York Times online, reads various progressive blogs, but skips literary blogs because he dislikes it when bloggers write snarky comments about his friends. He is so addicted to surfing the web (and who isn’t?) that he uses the program Freedom to limit his Internet access. Before he leaves his home, he programs his Mac Air not to let him go on the web for at least 4 hours. Then he walks to the office,

“It’s a 15-minute walk. I love it because there is a transition. The mind kind of gets into the novel and the one thing I am thinking of on the way over is the first sentence of the next paragraph. Half the battle is getting the next sentence. At least it’s a way to start.”

Then Greer laughed and added: “And it’s usually followed by a nap, and then lunch, all the procrastination I can get in.”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

James Baldwin visits San Francisco in 1963 to explore the lives of urban youth

In 1963, the author James Baldwin came to San Francisco to explore the increasing sense of bitterness and isolation felt by urban youths in America. He chose San Francisco in order to peer beneath its veneer of liberal acceptance. He found a city that he declared was no better than Birmingham, Alabama. Racism and discrimination were everywhere, if a little more genteelly hidden.

A KQED television crew followed Baldwin and produced a show called "Take This Hammer." You can see the video here on the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive website.

The video is interesting for its view of San Francisco and for the views expressed by African-Americans living here. The camera follows Baldwin on a road winding into the city and it looks like the road from the airport before it became the lovely highway we know today as 101. There are shots of the Bayview district and a housing project.

Baldwin goes to a community meeting in Bayview where he tries to assess the mood of the black community. In one amazing exchange, a mother declares "There will never be a Negro president in this country. If you can't get a job, how can there be a Negro president?"

Baldwin disagrees and predicts there will be a black president one day, but it will be in a country that looks very different than the United States in 1963.

It only took 45 years for Baldwin's prediction to come true.

(via Laila Lalimi and Maud Newton)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Surviving the Literay Death Match

This is a shot of me on the stage at Literary Death Match. I don't know why it's red, but all the photos posted on the website from that night are red. It's probably a way to convey the mood of the evening.

Because this certainly was an event like no other. More than 100 people crowded into the Verdi Club on Potrero Hill in San Francisco to hear four authors read a piece and to hear biting and hilarious pronouncements from three judges.

While I wasn't the oldest reader (I think Lynka Adams is older than me) I certainly was the most staid. I read a piece on my growing obsession with James the skunk man who deftly relieved my home from a colony of skunks.

My piece differed from the three others in part because there was no fucking, sucking, orgasmic recreations, or discussions of getting high. Marijuana did not waft through the room as I spoke. I was not dressed in a dominatrix outfit, nor did I bring three people clad in white onto the stage with me.

In short, I did not win.

Amber Tamblyn judged my performance, which she characterized as "nice." Talk about damning with faint praise.

But who could blame her? I elicited the fewest laughs of any of the contestants.

I did have my fans, though.

Here's what one tweeter said:

@frannydink got robbed tonight - just saying! #literarydeathmatch

Still, winning or losing was not really the point of the evening. It was having fun, with literature at the center. Oh, and throw in lots of booze, too.

Hats off to James Nestor who took home the prize. Tod Goldberg and Lynka Adams were also great. The other judges were David Wiegand from the Chronicle and Paul Madonna, who draws the comic strip All Over Coffee.

And thanks to Todd Zuniga and Sky Hornig of Opium Magazine for putting the entire thing together,

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Literary Death Match -- May the most outrageous story win

Tonight is the day I get to humiliate myself.

For some unknown reason, I said yes when asked to participate in Literary Death Match.
For all those people out there over 40 (and I must include myself in this category) this is a series put on by Todd Zuniga’s Opium Magazine. It pits four writers against one another is a sort of literary battle.  I expect that the zaniest, funniest, most outlandish pieces will get the most applause.

I will do my best. I vacillated between pieces to read. My choices were an essay about the time I got mugged while in labor and how I fell hard for the man who rid my house of skunks.

You will have to show up at Literary Death Match to find out which story I chose.

My opponents are the novelist Tod Goldberg, writer Lynka Adams and James Nestor, author of Get High Now.

The judges include actress and poet Amber Tamblyn, SF Chronicle scribe David Wiegand, and artist Paul Madonna.

It’s at 9 pm at the Verdi Club, 2424 Mariposa Street, San Francisco. (map)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Death of One Historian Leads Another to Dorothea Lange 1932, the photographer Dorothea Lange and her husband, the famed Western illustrator Maynard Dixon, spent the summer on a two thousand acre ranch along the shores of Fallen Leaf Lake near Lake Tahoe. It was an idyllic period, not only because the couple got to spend time with their children, who had been living in boarding schools, but because photographer Imogene Cunningham, her husband Roi Partridge, and their children were also there.

For months, the two families lived in a timbered hunting lodge that had been loaned to them by the daughter of E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who had made his fortune in the Nevada silver mines. They clambered on granite boulders, swam in the cold clear water, cooked and ate fish they had caught, and cleansed themselves in a sweat lodge that Dixon built. It was a magical interlude during the Great Depression, and a reflection of a particularly Western bohemian lifestyle.

On Monday, dozens of descendants of Lange, Dixon, Cunningham, Partridge, and Lange’s second husband, the UC Berkeley economics professor Paul Taylor, will gather in Berkeley to celebrate the publication of a major new biography of Lange. The book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, is the culmination of eight years of work by Linda Gordon, the Florence Kelley Professor of History at NYU and one of the country’s preeminent historians.
    But the celebration will be bittersweet. The party will be held at the home of the late Henry Mayer, who was working on a book about Lange when he died of a heart attack in July 2000. After Mayer’s untimely death at 59, his widow looked for someone to continue the project, and Gordon stepped in.

“Linda has fulfilled her own vision, but at the same time has written a definitive work on Dorothea Lange that would make Henry very happy,” said Robert Weil, an executive editor at WW Norton who worked with both writers on the biography.

Gordon will be reading from the book on Tuesday Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. at Book Passage in the Ferry Building and on Wednesday Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.
Dorothea Lange was born in New Jersey but settled in the Bay Area in 1918, living first in San Francisco and then in Berkeley. A documentary photographer who excelled at capturing the plight of the poor and downtrodden, she is best known for “Migrant Mother,” her 1936 haunting portrait of a down and out farm worker. Lange had been traveling around for the Resettlement Administration documenting the life of sharecroppers during the Depression when she spotted Florence Owens Thompson resting under the shelter of a canvas tent in Nipomo, California. Lange took six portraits, and the one of Thompson cradling her infant with another child nestling against her shoulder became an iconic image of the period.

Gordon, 69, has written extensively about women and women’s rights, including books on family violence, birth control, and the history of women’s work lives. Her 1999 book, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, a narrative about a group of white vigilantes who in 1904 objected to Mexican American parents raising white foster children, won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in history.

Gordon was wary at first of writing a biography since she is more interested in how social movements, rather than individuals, impact history. But the more she learned about Lange and her commitment to documenting the underside of American life, the more intrigued she became.

 “I am not a biographer,” said Gordon. “But as I got to know Lange, I realized she was a good subject for me. She was a complex person. She was not a perfect and I am not good at writing about celebrated heroes. She intersected so many important periods in the 20th century. “

 Gordon also realized that as a female photographer, Lange’s insights into the Depression and World War II told a different story than is usually told in history books. For example, many people conjure up images of long lines of men waiting to get into soup kitchens or other images of urban life when they think of the Depression. Lange, explored how the Depression affected rural inhabitants, a group that the New Deal did little to help, she said.

Lange was hired by the Army in July 1942 to document the roundup and internment of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the west coast. Anti-Japanese hysteria was so strong after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that few spoke out against the massive jailing, but Lange was opposed from the start, said Gordon. The Army told her to take pictures, but prohibited her from shooting photos of barbed wire fences, guard watchtowers, armed soldiers, or anyone resisting the round-up. Still, Lange managed to convey the indignity of the internments and the brutality of the camps in the 800 photos she took. Army officials, suspecting her sympathies lay with the Japanese-Americans, eventually fired her and impounded all the photographs.
Gordon’s book documents how Lange used her photography as a social tool, but it also focuses on the artistic, bohemian communities Lange created first in San Francisco and then in Berkeley. When Lange met and married Maynard Dixon in 1920, she entered into a world of artists who were exploring new modern techniques and who gathered socially at Coppa’s, an Italian restaurant in the Monkey Block building on Montgomery Street. (The Transamerica Pyramid now sits there.) Lange also took portraits of influential San Franciscans and linked up struggling artists with wealthy patrons, said Gordon. After her marriage to Paul Taylor in 1935, Lange created another circle in Berkeley, one made up of artists like Imogene Cunningham and her painter husband Roi Partridge, but also of progressive academics.

Henry Mayer had recently completed All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, when he decided to write a biography of Lange. The Garrison book, which won the 1999 J. Anthony Lukas Book prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, cemented Mayer’s reputation as a formidable independent scholar. He had taught history at The Urban School of San Francisco before turning his attention to biography, and he was intrigued by Lange’s passion for social justice, according to his editor, Weil.

“I listened to whatever Henry Mayer told me,” said Weil, who spent “thousands of hours” working with Mayer on the Garrison book. “His sensitivities were so acute. He understood human drama and was fascinated by Lange, of her ability to address the inequities of the world. He was so strongly compelled to do this book.”

Mayer had spent about two years collecting information on Lange (I was one of his research assistants) and had written an introduction and first chapter when he and his wife, Betsy Mayer, went on a bicycling trip to Glacier National Monument. Mayer and Betsy had trained for the trip by taking 35-mile rides across the Golden Gate Bridge and around other parts of the Bay Area. But during the trip, Mayer had a heart attack. He left behind Betsy and two children, Eleanor and Tom.

Mayer had received a significant advance for the Lange book, and after the funeral Betsy Mayer called up Weil and offered to return the money. “I figured it was done,” she said. “I called up the editor and asked what were the courtesies? Should I return the advance?” Weil told her no, and encouraged her to find another writer to continue the project.

“That was one of the most painful things about losing him,” said Betsy. “It was a catastrophe to lose him right at the point where the momentum (for the book) was building.”

Betsy wanted to find a writer who could do justice to both the seriousness of the material and the strength of the story. She didn’t want the book to be too academic in tone, but one that appealed to a broad audience. Through a friend, Betsy learned of Linda Gordon. At first, Gordon said she wasn’t interested.

“She’s a serious historian, a well-known writer and she had never done a biography and had serious doubts because it is a different form,” said Betsy.

But when Gordon was visiting family in Portland, she decided to stop by the Mayer house in Berkeley and examine the files. Gordon and Betsy developed an immediate respect for one another. Betsy read Gordon’s book on the Arizona orphan abduction and saw she was a graceful writer. Gordon began to ponder the possibility of using Mayer’s material. After a time, they both agreed that Gordon was the right person to continue the Lange biography.

In an unusual move, Gordon took over Mayer’s contract from Norton and began to work with Weil. From the start, it was clear that the new book would be Gordon’s rather than Mayer’s, and everyone agreed that was the way the project should be approached.

“It would have been inappropriate of me to shoehorn Henry’s vision onto Linda,” said Weil.

    While Mayer had collected a large amount of research material and had written the beginning of the book, Gordon the project all over again. She traveled frequently to Berkeley to look at oral histories and other archival materials at the Bancroft Library and interviewed the descendants of Lange, Dixon, Taylor, and Cunningham. Many of them will be at the celebration at the Mayers’ home on Monday.

Betsy got a copy of the book two weeks ago and thinks Gordon has written a compelling story, one that shows Lange’s strong sense of social justice as well as her passionate, human side. “It is lovely, and it is lovely for me,” she said.

And in a nice footnote, Weil has continued his relationship with the Mayer family as well. Mayer’s son, Tom, came to work for Weil as an editorial assistant a few years ago and has since risen to an editor position.

“The Mayer name lives on in Tom Meyer,” said Weil. “Tom has all of Henry’s social passions and convictions.”

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The San Francisco Chronicle Changes its Bestseller List:

For the last two weeks, readers of the San Francisco Chronicle list have been getting something new: a bestseller list not compiled by the newspaper but one put together by the trade association of independent bookstores.

It is a significant change, but one most people probably didn’t notice.

For dozens of years, the San Francisco Chronicle had compiled its own weekly list of local bestsellers. Every Monday, a staff person would call around a dozen or so bookstores to find out which books had sold the most copies the previous week.

Since the Bay Area has such an avid literary community, the Chronicle bestseller list often served as an earlier indicator for books that went on to capture spots on national lists. In addition, getting on the list was prestigious in itself. “A San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller” is a good thing to print on a paperback.

So why did John McMurtrie, the editor of the books section, give all that up?

Time, time, time, and a respect for independent bookstores.

The recent cutbacks in Chronicle staffing levels have affected the book section, and now there is only one editorial assistant for the department, according to McMurtrie. Compiling the list took up a good chunk of time.

But more importantly, McMurtrie came to realize that the regional bestseller list put together by the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association was actually more comprehensive than the Chronicle’s list. The NCIBA polls around 55 independent bookstores in the nine-county Bay Area region for their bestsellers, providing a more accurate snapshot of sales.

“I’m all in favor of championing independent bookstores, of sending readers their way,” said McMurtrie. “They’re an important local resource in so many ways.”

Hut Landon, the executive director of NCIBA, is delighted by the switch because he thinks publishers will now have to pay more attention to independent bookstores rather than the big chains like Barnes and Noble or Borders Books.

“Literally, the only way to get your book on a bestseller list in the Bay Area and the Chronicle will be to get on the list in independent bookstores.”

So if an author comes to town and only does an event at Barnes and Noble, rather than at Book Passage or A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, he or she may not make the list.

“It’s going to be good for the independents,” said Kathleen Caldwell, owner of A Great Good Place for Books. “Publishers will take us much more seriously. They are going to want their books on the San Francisco Chronicle list and they’ll put their authors in an independent rather than Barnes and Noble because those sales won’t be reported on the list.”

If this switch had been done a year ago, it would have been bad news in some ways for local authors. That’s because it took a lot longer for a book to get on the NCIBA list than the Chronicle list. My book, Towers of Gold, is a case in point. It first made the San Francisco Chronicle list on Nov. 30, 2008 but didn’t show up on the NCIBA list until Jan. 25, 2009 – almost two months later.

The NCIBA has revamped the way it calculates bestsellers since then, according to Landon. The list is timelier, with information gathered on Monday for previous week’s sales and posted by Wednesday. The bestseller list is calculating using a point system and is not merely a reflection of the sheer number of books sold.

A book that sells 250 copies in one book store will get points, but not as many points as if that same book sells 25 copies in 10 different book stores, said Landon. Books also get points for being on an individual bookstore’s bestseller list. So the broader a book is selling, the more likely it will make the list. “You don’t have to have a huge book with a huge budget with big author events to make the list,” said Landon.

But the switch will probably make it harder to make the list. In the past, if a book came out locally and the author had multiple events at Bay Area bookstores as well as a book party, the chances of getting on the Chronicle list was high. It often only took sales of 100 books to get on that list. And getting on the list in the early days of a book’s release helped build that all-too-important momentum.

A comparison of the Sept 13 fiction bestseller list prepared by the Chronicle staff and the Sept. 13 NCIBA list shows they are different. There were 4 books on the Chronicle list that did not make the NCIBA list, including The Sower by Kemble Scott, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Vergese, ad 286 Bones by Kathy Reich.

The NCIBA list had some names the Chronicle did not, including Lisa See's Shanghai Girls, The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks, The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, and Homer &  Langley by E.L. Doctorow.

The two nonfiction lists had even more disparity: The Chronicle's list included Farm City by Novella Carpenter, The Healing of America by T.R. Reid, Born Round by Frank Bruni, and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. The NCIBA list had Shop Class As SoulCraft by Matthew Crawford, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal, and Official Book Club Selection by Kathy Griffin.

Interesting, huh? I don't know what it means, but it is interesting.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Towers of Gold Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 9

Towers of Gold Stage at HSB

Banner across top of stage

"Gold" coins with an image of Isaias Hellman

I already said my thanks to my cousin, Warren Hellman, for throwing Hardly Strictly Bluegrass #9 and for naming its 6th stage the Towers of Gold Stage after my book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California.

My highest moment of joy came Sunday afternoon when Marianne Faithfull, one of my all-time favorite artists, sang at the Towers of Gold Stage. As I twittered at the time: "Pure bliss."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Mysteries of Chinatown Revealed
As a native San Franciscan, I have always loved visiting Chinatown, with its storefronts crowded with cheap consumer goods and its grocery stores beckoning with the glistening brown bodies of roasted duck.

When I was growing up my father used to take my brothers and me to the Hang Ah tea room on Pagoda Place every Sunday for dim sum. It was in that crowded restaurant that I first developed a taste for fried taro root and ginger infused pot stickers.

I am familiar with Chinese restaurants, fortune cookies, and firecrackers. But I regret to say that I still feel ignorant about the character of the Chinese. I see the elderly Chinese men and women in their blue silk Mao jackets reading Chinese newspapers and can’t reconcile them with the hip, impeccably dressed Chinese artists and engineers who make up much of the younger generation.

That was until I read Kathryn Ma’s excellent collection of short stories, All That Work and Still No Boys.
In this short story collection, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, Ma peels back the curtain of the Chinese culture to reveal its humorous, exasperating, and moving forms. She is in a perfect position to serve as an ambassador between the two worlds; her parents were born in China and immigrated to the United States while Ma practiced corporate law in San Francisco for years before pursuing writing.

In the story that gives the collection its name, Ma tells the story of a woman who needs a kidney transplant. Of her four children, only her son is a match, but the woman cannot imagine asking such a favor from her only male heir. So she keeps on pestering her daughters for one of their kidneys. Her mother’s preference for her son – which is completely acceptable in Chinese culture – seems sexist in modern California and Ma weaves this dichotomy into an absorbing and moving story.

Not all of Ma’s characters are Chinese-American and she shouldn’t be pigeonholed as an ethnic writer. Her use of words and the tension she draws in her descriptions of family transcend any label. Race is just one theme that Ma explores in this winning collection.

All That Work and Still No Boys has been widely praised. Bestselling novelist Curtis Sittenfeld wrote on the Daily Best website that the collection was “completely wonderful.”
Ma will be speaking at Mrs. Dalloway’s Books in Berkeley on October 1 at 7 pm. She will also speak at 2:30 pm on Saturday Oct. 3 at the Chinatown branch of the San Francisco public library. Ma will also participate in Litquake, the city’s foremost literary festival, at a forum for first time authors. That event will be at 5:30 pm Oct. 12 at The Foundation Center at 312 Sutter Street.

Now that I have read the book, I feel I have a slightly better understanding of this group that has been so essential to the development of California. I will also never take my kidneys for granted again.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why Does Greg Mortenson Need a Bodyguard? Tidbits from the Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival


I spent the weekend at the Carmel Authors & Ideas Festival, but haven’t blogged about it yet since Yom Kippur came between my return and my computer keyboard. (I did twitter during the conference, though.)

This is really one of the most interesting literary conferences on the West Coast. Started three years ago by Jim and Cindy McGillen (he made his fortune as one of the producers of the TV show, Dallas) it is modeled on the authors’ festival held every year in Sun Valley, Idaho.

About 30 authors and public figures are invited to each year, and each one is supposed to be a dynamic public speaker. Most get up on stage and talk to the 500 or so members of the audience for 15 minutes. It’s not a book reading, but a performance, where authors talk about their inspiration, their process, and the content of their books. The higher profile speakers get to talk longer.

The big names this year were Greg Mortenson, Elizabeth Gilbert, P.J. O’Rourke, Carl Hiassen, David Kennedy, Abraham Veghese, Reza Aslan, Michael Krasny, Carlos Prieto, and Shelby Steele.

Some of the less well known (but equally impressive) writers included David Ulin, Rick Wartzman, Louise Steinman, Kemble Scott, Cara Black, Frank Portman, Shana MacCaffey, Neil Hotelling, David Roche, Don George, and Rodes Fishburne, among others. (I spoke as well.)

The McGillens really know how to treat authors well. (Since most of the time authors don’t get treated to much, a little hospitality goes a long way.) They paid for everyone to stay in charming inns around Carmel. They fed writers all day long. They hosted two fabulous dinners, including one on Carmel beach with grilled salmon, steak, fresh tomatoes, bean salad, couscous, brownies and strawberries. You could drink mojitos or wine or beer. Bonfires blazed on the beach as the sun set.

Here are some of the highlights:

Greg Mortenson is so popular that he travels with an Israeli bodyguard. It’s not to protect him from irate Taliban members who are mad at all the schools he’s helped set up in Afghanistan. It’s to protect him from his fans.

And boy does Mortenson have fans. KQED host Michael Krasny interviewed him on stage. I didn’t find Mortenson particularly articulate, but he has clearly influenced a lot of love. After his talk he signed books for four hours straight. I kept passing by the table where he was signing and noticed how intently he talked to each fan.

His constant touring seems to have taken a toll, though. Mortenson looked very tired, like he hadn’t slept much, had been eating all the wrong foods, and hadn’t gotten outside nearly enough. Mortenson’s 13-year old daughter came in on Friday to do a presentation with her father to Monterey County middle and high school students. She told one organizer she hadn’t seen her father in two months.

Elizabeth Gilbert swooped in and out of the festival as befits an author of her standing. I won’t forget the image of her sitting in the green room surrounded by a large group of adoring fans. They were all female high school students who were volunteering at the festival, and they eagerly discussed love and writing with Gilbert.

Here is what I tweeted about Gilbert:

·  elizabeth Gilbert at Carmel festival: surprised by men in audience. Usually speaks to mostly women10:55 AM Sep 26th from Echofon

·  Wrote first draft of new book Committed, about marriage, "pandering" to readers of Eat Pray Love. It was dreadful, Gilbert said10:57 AM Sep 26th from Echofon

·  "I had become weird, plasticized version of my own voice." trashed it , spent 6 months gardening in New Jersey10:59 AM Sep 26th from Echofon
·  When winter came, so did new voice and first sentence: in autumn of 2006, I found myself traveling through the mountains of North Vietnam ..11:01 AM Sep 26th from Echofon

·  "with a man who had yet to become my husband.". Gilbert found her voice and wrote entirely new book. Great crowd pleaser.11:02 AM Sep 26th from Echofon

That about sums ups Gilbert’s talk. In her case, it was more authors than ideas.

Carl Hiassen flew in to Carmel on Thursday so he could play the Cypress golf course on Friday before his talk. I asked him how an author like him (many best sellers) chooses which festivals to attend. He said he had met Jim McGillen at Sun Valley the previous year and liked him. An offer to play one of the world’s top golf course sweetened the deal.

A few wonderful surprises:

Mexican cellist Carlos Prieto giving a moving history of his cello, which was built by Stradivarius in the 17th century. His Spanish accent made the tale even more beguiling. And after he played a piece by Bach, everyone in the audience knew they had to buy his book.

Shana Mahaffey, whose new book, Sounds Like Crazy, hadn’t even officially been released yet. She gave a moving talk about the influence her grandfather had over her and how he helped her finish the book. (Unfortunately he died before he could see the finished product.)

Reza Aslan’s description of what Iran feels: it sees US troops in every country on its borders and a military superpower talking about “regime change” for Iran for 30 years. In short, Iran feels under attack and unless the U.S. recognizes its vantage point, talks and sanctions will be useless. An attack will make everything worse in the Middle East.

Shelby Steele, who rose to prominence in part because of the novelty of an African-American being a conservative, did not say a single thing I agreed with. He said liberals had given conservatives a bad name by making fun of them. (Isn’t this what people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have done to liberals?) He said that political correctness is so strict in the US that now when people criticize Obama they are accused of being racist. (I think he is confusing the idea that the birthers who question where Obama was born are considered racist, not all critics.) But as much of the audience at the festival were older and probably somewhat conservative, his remarks went over well.

PJ O’Rourke said he was very happy to have been invited to a book festival. He dreads the day he is invited to a Twitter festival. (Although he conceded it might be mercifully short.)

I had never heard of Richard Lederer, who is well known for his Anguished English series. He has just written two books, one about dogs and one about cats. (I guess he saw that Marley & Me had made a mint.) This man is funny and can spin words like a master. Now that he has written about a man’s best friend, I bet he is going to become extremely well-known.

Michael Krasny can tell some very funny Jewish jokes.

Cara Black makes you want to hop the next plane for Paris to wander the back streets of the city like her character Aimee Leduc.