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.