Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Another Book Review Bites the Dust

The Washington Post announced today that it was folding its stand-alone book review section. Reviews will be folded into other sections of the paper.

This leaves two stand-alone book reviews in the U.S. -- the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Even though the new Chronicle editor John McMurtrie said recently that the paper's publisher was committed to a stand-alone review, one has to wonder if it can really continue. On the bright side, I have noticed more book advertising in the Chronicle.

The next few weeks will be revealing. The Chronicle will soon start using its new presses, which has already led to some changes. The Food and Home sections, for example, made their last Wednesday appearance today and from now on will appear in the Sunday paper. (I am personally disappointed by this development as I always looked forward to the Wednesday paper for its fabulous food section.)

That change may be a precursor to other changes.

While I am encouraged that the Washington Post will continue to actively review books, there is a difference between running a review on the front cover of a stand-alone book section and running on in the Style section. The first example makes a statement about a book's importance. The second just blends in with other cultural coverage.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bay Area Literary Tidbits

San Francisco magazine has a great oral history showing how the intersection of Bay Area technology and grass roots politicos united to help Obama win.

The “storytellers” include David Talbot, a founder of Salon, Markos Moulitsas Kuniga, founder of Daily Kos, Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, Joan Blades, co-founder of, and many more.

Michelle Richmond, author of No One You Know and The Year of Fog is interviewed at The Rumpus, the new on-line literary magazine conceived by writer Stephen Elliot.

Brenda Webster held a book release party Sunday for The Vienna Triangle, a novel that explores the inner circle of Sigmund Freud. (lots of intrigue and passion, too.) The Chronicle gave it a strong review.

Alan Rinzler reminds authors to be nice to their editors.

Galley Cat interviewed Paul Malmont, whose novel Jack London in Paradise has appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list the last two weeks. He talks about how using Facebook and Twitter helped him draw crowds to his readings.

Speaking of crowds, I hope I draw some when I speak about Towers of Gold tonight (Jan. 27) at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park at 7:30 pm and on Thursday Jan. 29 when I speak at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco at 7 pm. For those of you in the East Bay, I will be speaking at the Stanford Women's Club annual Books on Review around 10 on Thursday. Find more info here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Trip Back in San Francisco History

This video shows Market Street in San Francisco in 1905, before the 1906 earthquake and fire wiped most of this out. I loved how people are running in front of the camera, the total traffic chaos, and the newsboys carrying their stacks of paper.

I took some other visits to the past recently. I went to visit the Levi Strauss archives at Levi Plaza in San Francisco. Lynn Downey, the company archivist who is writing a biography of Levi Strauss, opened her climate-controlled locked vault to show me some old Levi jeans. One pair was from 1879, and while it resembles some of today's jeans, there are some notable differences. Number One, the rivets are dated, a detail that was discontinued when the company's patent expired in 1890. Number two, the jeans have XX written on them, not 501.

I went to visit Downey and the archives because there is a long-standing relationship between the company and the Hellman family. As I noted in Towers of Gold, Levi Strauss sat on the board of the Nevada Bank, which Hellman purchased in 1890. Strauss was one of the prominent Jewish shareholders of the bank.

Strauss died without any heirs, and he left the company to the sons of his sister, Fanny Stern. Elise Stern eventually married Walter Haas, who took over Levis. Well the Haases and Hellmans have been friends for centuries, reaching back into their common birthplace, Reckendorf, in Bavaria Germany.

Walter Haas's father Abraham was partners with Herman Hellman, Isaias Hellman's brother, in a wholesale drygoods business in Los Angeles in the 19th century. Other Haases -- William, Jacob, Kalman, etc. -- did business with the Hellmans in one form or another for years. That relationship continues today. Until recently, Warren Hellman, the founder of Hellman and Friedman and the man behind the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, served as a director of Levi Strauss.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Jews in El Paso

Did you know there was a thriving Jewish community in El Paso, Texas? I didn’t, until this review of Towers of Gold came out in the El Paso Times. Apparently there are three shuls and a Holocaust Museum in that Texas city.

Daniel Olivas, a Los Angeles lawyer, author of four books, and editor of Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature writes:

Towers of Gold “is a biography that is startling and engrossing, as well as indispensible to a complete understanding of California's development into a financial powerhouse.”

I have been somewhat remiss at posting my reviews and interviews, so here are a few more:

Nextbook, the on-line Jewish magazine, writes about Isaias Hellman here.

Here is the podcast of my interview with Michael Krasny on KQED’s Forum.

I am going to be doing some more speaking engagements in the coming weeks:

I will be at the Metropolitan Club on Sutter Street in San Francisco at 10:30 am on Thursday Jan. 22, 2009

I will be at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on Tuesday Jan. 27 at 7:30 p.m.

I will be at the Stanford Women’s Club of the East Bay on Thursday Jan. 29, 2009 at 10 am

I will be at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco on Thursday Jan. 29, 2009 at 7:30 pm.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Interview with John McMurtrie, Book Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle

John McMurtrie
has been editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review since October 2008, and in his three-month tenure has seen the world of publishing deteriorate.

With the closure of the book review sections of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Chronicle is one of the few remaining papers with a stand-alone review. While McMurtrie tells Ghost Word that the top editors of the Chronicle are dedicated to keeping the review section intact, the economic pressures facing the publishing industry are intense.

2008 will be remembered as a year of upheaval and consolidation. In the Bay Area, two prominent independent bookstores -- Cody's and Stacey's Books -- closed or announced their imminent closure. A number of publishers, including Random House. Macmillan, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt laid off staff. The latter company also announced that it would put a moratorium on acquiring new books for now. Book sales were lower this holiday season.

Still, McMurtire has high hopes for the Chronicle Review. He has already made some provocative changes, such as asking independent bookstores to recommend interesting books each week. He is making the review more timely as well, by including news about Bay Area book deals, release parties, and author events.

McMurtrie lives in Oakland with his wife and two-year old twins.

GW: Can you tell me a little about your background? How did you come to book reviewing? What is it you like about being a book critic?

JM: I've been a journalist for 20 years. My love of writing and newspapers
and France (my mother was French) led to my first job, at the
International Herald Tribune in Paris. (I was an editorial assistant,
though a more accurate title might have been sports-agate monkey). This
is my 10th year as an editor at the Chronicle. Before becoming the book
editor, I regularly edited book reviews as an editor in the features
section. I also wrote reviews as well as profiles of authors. And I've
done freelance editing for book publishers.

What I love about journalism is the ability it gives you to learn a
little bit about a lot of things - to be a generalist - and to try to
share that knowledge. Being a book editor is an especially satisfying
way to feed that curiosity. I can read up on any number of subjects -
history, politics, film, food, fiction from around the world - and
consider what's of value for readers. I also like the challenge of
finding the right people to review books. Part of the fun is trying new
approaches - as an example, I recently assigned a book about golf in
Ireland to a singer/songwriter who happens to be a golf fanatic.

In the end, if readers of the section come away feeling that they know a
bit more about the world, if it gets them talking about ideas, perhaps
feeling inspired, then I'm happy.

GW: You have made some recent changes to the book review, such as adding recommendations from local bookstores and putting in some book news. What were you trying to do with these changes? Can readers expect other changes in the future?

I want the section to be about more than just reviews. I'll be running
more essays, interviews with authors, and the like. I've included weekly
recommendations from independent bookstores because the people who work
at these stores have such a wealth of knowledge that can benefit us all.
Also, I'm a fan of indie bookstores - they're a vital part of any
community, and I believe in helping them. As for reporting book news, I
thought it was important to help raise awareness of the vibrant literary
scene in the Bay Area. Meantime, there's a lot that's happening in the
publishing world these days (not all of it good, unfortunately) that I
think readers would like to know about.

GW:How do you balance reviewing local writers, particularly emerging writers, with running reviews of nationally-known authors?

No easy answer to that one - I decide on a case-by-case basis. For
example, I recently made "Going to See the Elephant" the lead review in
the section not just because it's by a first-time local author, Rodes
Fishburne, but also because it's set in the city and full of local
color. And it's a fun read.

GW: How do you decide which books will be reviewed?

I strive for a good balance of fiction and nonfiction, a wide range of
subjects, and a variety of voices. Some books are easy assignments (of
course I'm going to assign the latest John Updike), others might not be
as obvious but, on a closer read, are surprisingly good ("Wildwood," to
name just one, by the late nature writer Roger Deakin).

Also, it's a big world out there, and, speaking for myself, I'd like to
read more by authors from beyond our shores.

GW:Many other newspapers have eliminated their stand-alone book review sections. What do you see as the future of the SF Chronicle book review?

JW: It is sad what's happening to book review sections across the country.
My bosses tell me that our section is an important part of the
newspaper, they understand its relevance to readers, so I remain
optimistic about the future. And I intend to do all I can to make the
section valuable, intelligent and engaging.

GW: The Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, the New York Times all have blogs about books. Will the Chronicle book review develop a web format?

JM: We've been discussing that. Watch this space, as they say.

GW: What are some of your favorite books?

JM: In no particular order:

Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

How A Book is Produced (NOT!)

The digital folks at Macmillan (which owns St. Martins, my publisher) have produced a brief explanation of the book business. Funny, they didn't do any of these things for my book ... (via Galleycat)

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Bestselling Books of 2008

Here is the list from Bookscan of the 50 top-selling books in the US in 2008. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, in its numerous permutations, dominates the list. But it is also interesting to see the scope of other sales. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers was released in November and he sold 420,000 copies in just about two months. (And don’t forget his other two books continue to perch on the New York Times paperback non-fiction list.

I interviewed Kate Jacobs, the author of The Friday Night Knitting Club, for a panel at Book Group Expo in San Jose in August. I knew her first novel was a smash success, but I am astounded that it sold 683,000 copies. This is the quest on which publishers embark – finding that breakaway fiction bestseller.

There is only one book on this list that is new literary fiction: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. It was an Oprah pick and has sold 580,000. The rest of the best-sellers are mass market fiction.

In that vein of looking for the next bestseller, I was astounded to see in the Sunday Jan. 11 San Francisco Chronicle book review not one, but two, full-page ads for Tiffany Baker’s debut novel, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County. Baker lives in Belvedere in Marin County, which many account for the double advertising, but it is clear her publisher Grand Central expects this one to do well. There was another full page ad in the New York Times book review.

The list from Bookscan:

1 Breaking Dawn Meyer, Stephenie 3,310,000
2 Twilight Meyer, Stephenie 3,175,000
3 A New Earth Tolle, Eckhart 3,146,000
4 The Last Lecture Pausch, Randy 2,705,000
5 New Moon Meyer, Stephenie 2,667,000
6 Eclipse Meyer, Stephenie 2,563,000
7 The Shack Young, William 2,551,000
8 The Tales of Beedle the Bard Rowling, JK 1,822,000
9 Brisingr Paolini, Christopher 1,312,000
10 Eat, Pray, Love Gilbert, Elizabeth 1,274,000
11 Three Cups of Tea Mortenson, Greg 1,099,000
12 The Appeal Grisham, John 954,000
13 New Moon Meyer, Stephenie 890,000
14 The Secret Byrne, Rhonda 828,000
15 The Host Meyer, Stephenie 794,000
16 The Audacity of Hope Obama, Barack 764,000
17 Diary of a Wimpy Kid Kinney, Jeff 721,000
18 Eat This Not That! Zinczenko, David 706,000
19 Rodrick Rules Kinney, Jeff 696,000
20 The Friday Night Knitting Club Jacobs, Kate 683,000
21 Dreams from My Father Obama, Barack 680,000
22 Water for Elephants Gruen, Sara 638,000
23 The Kite Runner Hosseini, Khaled 602,000
24 Twilight Meyer, Stephenie 584,000
25 The Story of Edgar Sawtelle Wroblewski, David 580,000
26 The Lucky One Sparks, Nicholas 575,000
27 Skinny Bitch Barnouin, Kim 565,000
28 Playing for Pizza Grisham, John 493,000
29 The Power of Now Tolle, Eckhart 489,000
30 Twilight Meyer, Stephenie 479,000
31 When You Are Engulfed in Flame Sedaris, David 477,000
32 Cross Country Patterson, James 474,000
33 Fearless Fourteen Evanovich, Janet 472,000
34 The Christmas Sweater Beck, Glenn 469,000
35 Nineteen Minutes Picoult, Jodi 461,000
36 The Pillars of the Earth Follett, Ken 456,000
37 Dewey: The Small-Town Library Myron, Vicki 449,000
38 Marley & Me Grogan, John 444,000
39 7th Heaven Patterson, James 441,000
40 Audition: A Memoir Walters, Barbara 437,000
41 The Hollow Roberts, Nora 9780515144598 427,000
42 Twilight (with poster) Meyer, Stephenie 425,000
43 Outliers Gladwell, Malcolm 420,000
44 90 Minutes in Heaven Piper, Don 418,000
45 Strengths Finder 2.0 Rath, Tom 399,000
46 A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity O'Reilly, Bill 387,000
47 Sail Patterson, James 383,000
48 The Battle of the Labyrinth Riordan, Rick 382,000
49 Gallop! Seder, Rufus Butler 379,000
50 The Alchemist Coelho, Paulo 377,000

Friday, January 09, 2009

Random Thoughts and Notes

I am the kind of person who carries a book with her wherever she goes – to pick up my kids from school, to a doctor’s appointment, and especially to the post office. That way if I have a few spare minutes I can read instead of sitting around bored.

My friends are always telling me they are amazed at how many books I read. In 2008, I read about 35 books, and that did not include books for research. But I have never thought of myself as a particularly prolific reader, and this interview with blogger Sarah Weinman reminds me why. She read 462 books in 2008. That is no typo. 462 books! Find out how.

Meredith Maran is one of the Bay Area’s most accomplished and interesting authors. She published her first poem at 15, her first book at 18, and has published numerous articles and books since then. She describes her work as an exploration of the difference between how things are in America and how they should be.

I remember being amazed at Maran’s 1995 memoir What It’s Like to Live Now, in which describes her life in Oakland with her female lover, two sons, ex-husband, and the art of navigating a racially and economically diverse neighborhood. Maran also wrote Class Dismissed, a book about a year at Berkeley High which has become a most read for people who send their children there. Dirty explored the teenage drug epidemic.

Maran has just sold another book, one that explores the years in which many daughters tapped into their repressed memories and accused their fathers of incest. It’s an outgrowth of an article she wrote for Playboy Magazine. Here is the blurb from Publisher’s Marketplace. Note the book was acquired by Alan Rinzler of Berkeley:

"Meredith Maran's TRUE OR FALSE: A Story of Mass Hysteria and Mass Redemption, an investigation of memory and the ongoing incest wars, to Alan Rinzler at Jossey-Bass, by Linda Loewenthal at the David Black Literary Agency (world)."

There are some days when I wish I lived in New York. Here’s one of them. I would love to take this class:

Pulitzer Prize-winner Debby Applegate will teach the art of turning historical research and the raw experience of lived life into written, publishable narrative in a master class at Marymount Manhattan College.

Applegate received the Pulitzer for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. She teaches at Yale University, where she received a Ph.D. in American Studies.

"This is very much an old-fashioned craft course, where we focus on concrete techniques and skills that help the biographer or memoirist tame and then structure their material," Applegate told TBC. "Unlike many writing classes, I don't approach writing as a form of authorial self-expression."

"Instead," Applegate continued, "the class will focus on how to create a suspenseful, compelling experience for a reader, one that makes him or her want to keep reading, to keep turning the page."

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Oh No! Stacey's Books to Close!

I was surprised and saddened to open my Chronicle this morning and see that Stacey’s, the venerable bookstore on Market Street in San Francisco, is closing.

I had two wonderful encounters with the store just in the last two months, and countless others over the years,

I gave a lunchtime reading at Stacey’s for Towers of Gold on Nov. 18. It was one of the most pleasant readings I gave, for the space is next to a huge bank of windows looking out on Market Street. The area is bathed in natural light and there are comfy chairs to sit in and relax. Stacey’s sponsored hundreds of author talks at lunchtime each year, providing a nice intellectual lift-me-up for all of the city’s downtown office workers.

Stacey’s also supplied books for all the readings and events at the nearby Commonwealth Club. I did a panel there on California history for part of Litquake, and that was my other pleasant encounter.

Of course whenever I was shopping downtown and needed a break from the bright department store lights, I could duck into Stacey’s and browse through its wonderful collection.

Many people are lamenting the closing of this store, including Ed Champion, who now lives in New York, and Colleen Lindsey, a literary agent. Lindsey worked there for years, even doing a stint as the marketing and events manager, and said she is devastated. Here’s another tribute from Brad Craft, who worked there for 12 years.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Michael Chabon and Jon Carroll with a little Ayelet Waldman too

There is no doubt Michael Chabon draws a crowd.

In Monday night’s conversation with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, Chabon attracted more than 400 people to the Thrust Theater at Berkeley Rep. (Of course, Carroll has his own large following.) Carroll has interviewed a number of notable authors as part of a benefit series for Park Day School in Oakland –Anne Lamott, Leah Garchik, Michael Pollan – and Chabon probably was the most popular.

It was a broad and amusing discussion about truth and lying, the state of childhood today, and other topics. Here are some tidbits I gleaned from the evening:

Chabon, who has three children at Park Day School, is working on a “naturalistic” novel about two Berkeley families. He has written in the past about the homogenization of the suburbs, what makes Berkeley unique and at times insufferable, and how he regrets his kids cannot just go out and play in the neighborhood after school, so readers may see some of these themes in the novel.

The film version of the Mysteries of Pittsburgh has finally found a distributor and it should be on movie screens in the near future.

In contrast, the film version of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is not going anywhere.

Chabon didn’t talk about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, but the directors Joel and Ethan Cohen have bought the film rights.

He was greatly influence by the 70s progressive rock bank “Yes.”

Ayelet Waldman, Chabon’s wife, was also at the benefit with her own news:

She and Michael raised $1.4 million for Barack Obama. When she was first approached to raise funds she thought she would be lucky to raise $25,000.

The couple will be attending Obama’s swearing in ceremony.

While in Washington, Waldman will be doing a benefit with Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Danny Meyer, and other chefs to raise money for soup kitchens in the DC area.

Shooting has just wrapped up on the film version of Waldman’s novel, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. It starts Natalie Portman, Lisa Kudrow, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played Denny in Grey’s Anatomy. The director is Don Roos, who also directed The Opposite of Sex. Waldman said the film should be released in about six months.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Literary Tidbits

The New York Times Motoko Rich predicts this will be a tough year for the publishing business and advances to authors will decline. But Jossey-Bass editor Alan Rinzler argues otherwise in this post about how his company recently bid six-figures on tow different projects but lost out both times to publishers willing to pay more.

Rodes Fishburne’s new novel Going to See the Elephant got a strong review in the Chronicle book section on Sunday. He will be talking at the Booksmith on January 13 and at other venues as well.

Some other interesting books set to come out this month from San Francisco writers include Catherine Brady’s short story collection The Mechanics of Falling and other Stories and Brenda Webster’s Vienna Triangle. This is Webster’s 10th book!

The Bancroft Library is re-opening today in its brand new, spiffy digs. The library moved out of its home on the UC Berkeley campus three years ago for a major remodel and seismic retrofit. It was temporarily located in downtown Berkeley in a building owned by the Judah L. Magnes Museum, but has been closed entirely since late fall. Scholars around the world are rejoicing today. During the interim period they would have to wait two days to get some manuscripts. Now the materials will be much more readily available.

In another note, the reading room is called the Edward Hellman Heller Reading room, named in honor of Isaias Hellman's grandson. The Bancroft also has some of his illuminated manuscripts.

Towers of Gold (my book) is going into its third printing – just eight weeks after its release.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Foyle's War

This period between Christmas and New Year’s has been a delicious interlude, one I am reluctant to give up. There have been no appointments, no meetings, no real obligations. Instead of going skiing or on some other trip, my family has stayed home and hung out. This has left lots of time for cooking (my 13-year old made a chocolate pie today, all by herself!) reading (a book about the history of Berkeley by Chuck Wollenberg for me; Outliers by Malcom Gladwell for my husband) and lots of movies.(The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, Gran Torino)

But mostly this has been a vacation about Foyle’s War, the BBC series about a detective on the south coast of England during World War II. It had a six -season run on the television and I have been steadily making my way through each episode. I have seen ten one and a half hour shows in the past few weeks. I have grown quite fond of curling up on the couch, covered by a blanket and entering the world of Hastings.

Foyle’s War stars Michael Kitchen as Christopher Foyle, a widowed DCI in a small town police force. Foyle is itching to work directly for the war effort as he sees his job investigating murders and thefts as less important than fighting the Germans. But his superiors won’t let him quit. The job – and the series – explore the impact of the war on Great Britain. Each episode features a crime, but touches on much larger war themes like the use of radar, black market smuggling, the question of whether America will ever enter the war, the fate of Jews in central Europe, and more.

Kitchen is fantastic, -- detached, intellectual, never giving anything away as he interrogates various suspects. He has that British reserve that is both admirable and frustrating. The viewer wonders where he put all that pent-up emotion. The supporting case is also excellent. I especially like Honeysuckle Weeks, who plays Foyle’s young, somewhat na├»ve driver. In real life, her personality is quite outrageous – how else could it be with a name like Honeysuckle? Anthony Howell plays a police sergeant and Foyle’s right-hand man. He has lost much of one leg in the war, which pushes his wife away. We see him navigate recovery and readjusting to the world.

Anyway, Foyle’s War has been a wonderful escape into another time and another place.