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.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Lasting Impact of Ramparts Magazine   It’s hard to imagine today, when newspapers, magazines and blogs are full of articles about the malfeasance of government, that there was a time when nobody spoke about the dark side of the CIA or the secret spy networks of the FBI.

All that changed in the 1960s with Ramparts Magazine.

For those who don’t remember, Ramparts was a slickly produced magazine of the left and a publication that took no prisoners. Started in Menlo Park as a Catholic literary quarterly in 1962, Ramparts evolved into one of the most important periodicals of the New Left. The magazine exposed the close relationship of universities with the American war machine, revealed the ugly truth behind the Vietnam War, and trumpeted the power of a new protest group called the Black Panthers.

    And it all happened in the Bay Area.

Now Peter Richardson, an editor at PoliPoint Press in Marin and a lecturer on California Studies at San Francisco State has written the definitive history of the brightly-shining but short-lived magazine. A Bomb in Every Issue is a long overdue look at this important periodical, and it’s mighty entertaining as well.

    It turns out that the Bay Area was critical to Ramparts’ success because the region served as a cross roads for sophisticated marketing, radical culture, smart, aspiring writers, and a willingness to break traditional social conventions. Take the Free Speech and anti-Vietnam movements in Berkeley, the Black Panthers in Oakland and the Summer of Love in San Francisco and you have an explosive mix of rage and energy.

    Into this heady brew came a group of outsized characters, many of whom have become important historical figures in their own right. Ramparts was started by Edward Keating, a Stanford-educated lawyer and Catholic convert who recruited Thomas Merton and John Howard Griffin, the author of the seminal Black Like Me, to write for him.

    Keating eventually hired Warren Hinckle to do publicity for the magazine, and Hinckle soon stepped up as editor and moved the periodical to San Francisco. With his eye patch, large girth, hard-drinking ways, as well as flair for attracting attention to his projects, Hinckle transformed the magazine. Ramparts became a well-produced, eye-catching glossy that said “Read Me” all over it instead of “This-is-just-another-boring-radical-rant-on-newsprint.”
    Hinckle’s smartest move was to hire Robert Scheer as a writer. Scheer was then a struggling graduate student at Berkeley and Richardson writes some amusing anecdotes of the scrapes he got into. (Including the time he rode in his motorcycle across the Bay Bridge but forgot to secure his master’s thesis. It was his only copy and soon it was scattered all over the freeway. Scheer never did get that degree.) Scheer wrote many of the explosive stories detailing the cloak and dagger work of the CIA.
    I was really surprised to discover that Eldridge Cleaver rose to prominence because of his work at Ramparts. Keating printed some of his prison writings and even helped Cleaver get out of jail. After working for Ramparts for a time, Cleaver joined the Black Panthers and became internationally known.

    Richardson’s book is full of other tidbits. Hunter Thompson wrote for the magazine, as did Howard Zinn, Norm Chomsky, Susan Sontag, and Tom Hayden. Ralph Steadman provided illustrations. Jann Wenner worked at the magazine and then left to form Rolling Stone. Adam Hochschild worked there, too, and later founded Mother Jones. David Horowitz, today considered a major neo-con, started out as a radical writer at Ramparts.

“What really distinguished Ramparts from other publications was its ability to compel bigger news organizations, especially the New York Times, to pick up its stories,” Richardson told Andy Ross on his Ask the Agent blog. “All told, the Times covered about a half dozen Ramparts stories on its front page: for example, when Ramparts revealed that the CIA was secretly funding the National Student Association. And during the late sixties and early seventies, Time magazine ran about ten stories about Ramparts, mostly to disparage it.  But all those stories did was raise Ramparts’ profile.”

All those strong personalities had strong egos, which invariably clashed. First Keating, then Hinckle, and then Scheer got ousted. The money started to trickle away. Ramparts reverted to newsprint, but even then attracted strong writers such as Angela Davis, Seymour Hersh, Alexander Cockburn, Jonathan Kozol and Kurt Vonnegut. Finally, after other muckracking institutions, including CBS’ 60 Minutes came on the scene, Ramparts started a steep decline and folded in 1975.

This is not a love letter to the left. Richardson raises some very serious questions in the book about the activities of the Black Panthers and local politicians. In 1974, Elaine Brown, the leader of the Panthers hired Betty Van Patter, an accountant, to help with the organization’s books. Van Patter apparently started to ask some hard questions about the Panthers’ money. She disappeared in December 1974 and her body was found on a beach a few weeks later.

    Richardson discusses how misinformation about Van Patter was spread and how many officials preferred to look the other way. In particular, he singles out the reaction of Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who wrote in her own book that Van Patter had a prison record (not true) and disappeared with a large sum of money six weeks before police found her body. Lee suggests that the accusations of her death by the Black Panthers are just anti-left propaganda. It’s a sobering reminder of the toll that period did take.

Richardson has planned a series of readings and talks that should be a wonderful and thoughtful romp through the radical 1960s. He will be speaking with Robert Scheer on Thursday September 24 at 7:30 pm and Berkeley Arts & Letters; at Book Passage with Norman Solomon and Reese Ehrlich at 7 pm on Friday Sept. 25, and at the Huntington-USC Institute for the study of California and the West on Oct.6. His complete schedule is here.

Twitter + Jewish Mother + Twitteleh

BayNewser posted this You Tube video about the only person who really cares about your tweets: your Jewish mother. It's hilarious.

Monday, September 21, 2009

New Book Review Comes to the Bay Area

A year after two Sacramento book lovers, one with a dubious past, launched the Sacramento Book Review, the duo has released something called The San Francisco Book Review.

It’s a free, 32-page tabloid newspaper stuffed with 150 short reviews of everything from literary novels to teen fiction to crafts and hobbies. I picked up a copy Sunday at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland. The paper will be available in local bookstores, libraries and coffee shops.

The review is put together by Heidi Komlofske and Ross Rojeck, who served four years in prison for mail fraud and money laundering in connection with a scheme to sell phony terrorist-tracking technology. He once also owned the largest chain of comic book stores in the country, Comics and Comix. He was released from prison in 2008.

Rojeck pissed a lot of people off, and the web is full of blog posts about his once-large role in the comic book world and people’s anger over his bad side. It looks like time in jail enhanced his appreciation for books, according to this interview with Rojeck by Rich Johnson, of the website Bleeding Cool.

According to Rojeck: “I had been the librarian at two different prison camps, and in trying to find enough new books to keep me busy I ended up reading a number of different book reviews and review sections. From there I started drafting my “dream” book review that would be helpful to me in my situation.

When my friend was unable to follow through with the book review, Heidi stepped up and offered to create and produce the paper. We got my parole officer to approve it, and as Heidi’s employee, a portion of every paycheck goes to my restitution.:

The reviews range from well written to amateur, but the paper does provide another outlet to find out about books. One strange aspect to the review, however: Publishers can pay a fee to expedite a review of a book. For $99 dollars a publisher can expect a review up on the website in 9 to 12 weeks. For $299, that review will go up in 2 to 4 weeks. The pay-for-a-review aspect shows that this is really a more amateur than professional operation.

But the first issue reviews some really fine books, such as The Puzzle King by Betsy Carter, The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliot, The Devil's Tickets by Gary Pomerantz, and more.

Another Bay Area tidbit:

Tonight, Monday Sept. 21, is the premiere of the new CBS television series,  Accidentally on Purpose, based on the memoir written by Bay Area writer Mary Pols. It stars Jenna Elfman and has garnered mixed reviews. You should have no hesitation, however, to read Pols' delightful book, now out in paperback.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Reasons for My Absence

I know, I know, it’s been more than a month since I posted, which is an eon in blog time. Even my brother Steven, who only reads Ghost Word when he’s finished reading everything else in sight, including the cereal boxes on the breakfast table, asked why I was missing in action.
Lots of reasons.