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.