Friday, July 30, 2010

A Visti from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I am not sure what to make of the book. It’s a series of sketches of various people in and around the music industry at various times of their lives. The book is not like a traditional novel with a neat narrative arc, character development or even an identifiable plot. And yet it is not exactly a set of linked stories, either. It’s written in the first, second, and third person points of view and sometimes it’s even tough to know who is narrating. Yet I liked it.

The book opens with a 30ish kleptomaniac named Sasha. She is in a public bathroom and a woman on the toilet has left her purse open by the sinks. Sasha peeks in and spots her wallet. Like a kid drawn to free candy, Sasha cannot resist stealing the wallet.

All of the vignettes spin from there. Readers meet Sasha’s boss, the music executive Bennie Salazar, and then the book travels back in time to San Francisco, when Salazar and his friends had a punk music band. We meet different characters from the band at different points in their lives, at times when they are successful and times they are not.

One-78 page section is devoted to a PowerPoint presentation put together by Sasha’s 12-year old daughter. Egan has gotten a lot of press for including this in the book and one friend of mine said she thought A Visit from the Good Squad will be taught in MFA programs from years to come.

The book, with  its nonlinear and decidedly unchronological sequences, paints a picture of how people evolve over time.

Meredith Maran put it well in Salon:

“Like strands of raffia wrapped around a bursting-at-the-seams scrapbook, the novel is loosely bound by time, the dread "goon squad" of the title. Teenagers lacerate their parents’ hypocrisies (Sasha’s daughter is allotted 78 pages for her PowerPoint presentation detailing her mother’s annoying habits), then reappear as parents of their own snarling kids. Parents are exposed as graying, thickening, incurably immature iterations of their teenage selves. Young rock stars grow old and irrelevant, then hip again: "Two generations of war and surveillance had left people craving the avatar of their own unease in the form of a lone, unsteady man on a slide guitar." Time gets us all, Egan reminds us, tossing us into the quicksand pit of the past, hurling us over the cliff of the future, playing hard to get — and making pleasure hard to get — in the now.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Night of Nonfiction

On Wednesday evening, high in the hills about UCSF, author Terry Gamble will host an evening with some of the region's best-known non-fiction writers.

Cocktails will be served and drinks will flow. I suspect there will be lots of interesting conversation, given that the writers' specialties range from 19th century tycoons to 21st century killers to natural disasters to ADHD. Other sub specialties include S&M, the contents of Imelda Marcos' closet, the rift between German Jews and Eastern European Jews, the Pony Express, and the birth of photography.
The evening is a benefit for Litquake, the Bay Area's premier literary festival.

While I am one of the featured authors, I am sure I am there by mistake since the others have such a long list of accolades behind them. They include:
  1. T.J. Stiles, who biography on Cornelius Vanderbilt won the Pulitzer Prize. His previous book was on the Pony Express.
  2. Katherine Ellison, who won Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for the San Jose Mercury News for the overthrow of the Marcos regimes in the Philippines. Her new book, Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, is about her and her son's ADHD. It will be released in October.
  3. Rebecca Solnit, whose book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, won the California Book Awards Gold Medal. 
  4. Po Bronson, whose latest book, Nurture Shock, spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
  5.  Stephen Elliot, the founder of the Rumpus on-line literary magazine, whose latest book, The Adderall Diaries, touches on the murder of Nina Reiser of Oakland.
Sounds pretty good, huh? The evening runs from 6:30 to 8 pm. Tickets are $125, with all the proceeds going to Litquake. Buy tickets here. 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector

Allegra Goodman exploded onto the literary scene in 1996 with the publication of her first novel, The Family Markowitz, and followed up that success with Kaaterskill Falls in 1998. Both novels dealt centered around Jewish families, and the latter was set in an Orthodox community in upstate New York.

Goodman was born in Hawaii in 1967, got her bachelor’s degree from Harvard, and her PhD in English from Stanford University. Her succeeding novels, Total Immersion, Paradise Park, and Intuition are set in those various locales.

Her latest book, The Cookbook Collector, reflects the time Goodman spent in California. Set in both Berkeley and Palo Alto, the cookbook collector traces the lives of two sisters, Emily and Jess, who are as different as they can be. Emily, who lives in Palo Alto, is the CEO of a Veritech, a fledgling technology company on the verge of going public. Tess, who lives in Berkeley, is getting her doctorate in philosophy from UC Berkeley and is making ends meet working in an antiquarian bookstore and Yorick’s. Since Emily is practical and Jess is dreamy, the book has been marketed as Sense and Sensibility for the technology age.

The story opens in 1999 when the NASDQ was on a seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory and ends in 2002, after the country is humbled by the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  The Cookbook Collector deals with America’s last period of economic instability: the stock market crash of the late 1009s.

The Cookbook Collector has many scenes of Berkeley, particularly its great bookstores. Ghost Word caught up with Goodman to find out why she set so much of her book in Berkeley.

Many of your previous books have been set in New York state and center on Hasidic communities. Why did you decide to set a book in the Bay Area, specifically Berkeley?

Actually, only one of my books is set in New York.  "Kaaterskill Falls" is about a community of orthodox  (and anti-Hasidic) German Jews who summer in the Catskills.  My new book is set in Cambridge Mass and in the Bay Area--where I went to graduate school.  I think Berkeley interested me so much because I lived for four years on the Farm at Stanford!  The mystique of what seemed like a real college town across the Bay!

When did you spend time in Berkeley? (I know you spent some time at Stanford.) Your book is filled with specific details about the city, including references to Pegasus Books, Amoeba Music, Moe's, etc.
As a grad student I loved to explore the bookstores of Berkeley--particularly the used bookstores.  I'd try to find old hardback copies of classics I was reading for my oral exams.  My husband and I also had friends who lived in Berkeley and we attended a wedding in the Rose Garden.

This city has a reputation for being politically progressive and food oriented. Do you share that impression? What do you like best about Berkeley? Least?

I think Berkeley is politically progressive and also historically progressive, by which I mean that dissent and political debate inform the city's traditions.  Cambridge also has a progressive tradition, but sometimes I suspect its heyday was in the 19th century during the time of the firebrand Abolitionists, and earlier during the Revolutionary War.  The food in Berkeley is better than the food in Cambridge because of the abundance of lovely California produce.  I love the fact that in Berkeley you can get organic whole wheat pizza AND greasy falafel AND vegan muffins AND Korean take out AND an elegant expensive dinner if you so choose.  Cambridge restaurants--both the fast and slow kind--are generally less imaginative.  We have fewer hole-in-the wall places serving unusual dishes.  At the other end of the price spectrum, places like the Harvest or Henrietta's table are good, but boring.  The Mediterranean restaurant Oleanna is much more fun.  We do have good bakeries in Cambridge, like the Hi-Rise, a superb chocolatier, Burdick's, and our ice cream parlors, Toscanini's, J.P. Licks, and my favorite, Christina's can stand toe to toe with any in Berkeley.

Many of the book's early scenes are set in a bookstore run by a man who has made "old" money at Microsoft, and almost seems like he would prefer to keep his books rather than sell them. Is this based on a particular bookstore or individual? What is it about rare books that makes people want to hold on to them?

Rare books hold a certain romance, especially for people who make their fortunes writing software!  Why?  Because they are singular, tangible, delicate objects in a virtual world.  My bookseller George says rare book dealers are the last romantics.

The book is being marketed as "Sense and Sensibility,"  for the technology age with pragmatic sister Emily and romantic sister Jess. Did this extend to the settings as well? You depict Berkeley as a city of dreamers whereas those living in Palo Alto are wrapped up in the high tech explosion of the late 1990s.
I think extending that theme to places would be a bit reductive, so I try to avoid it.  After all, those in Silicon Valley are arguably the biggest dreamers!  Emily is one of them.

A main part of the book has to do with a collection of antiquarian cookbooks that Jess catalogs. Why did you choose cookbooks rather than, for instance, botanical books?
I am fascinated by cookbooks as guidebooks.  We read about what to eat and by extension how to live.  One of the central questions for the sisters in my novel:  Can you find a recipe for conduct?  Or do you have to make up your own rules?

Friday, July 09, 2010

Henry Lee's gripping book on murder of Nina Reiser

Henry Lee’s byline is one of the most familiar in the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s covered crime in the East Bay for 16 years and is known to have the best police sources around. He writes so fast that his words are often online shortly after the report of a crime comes across the scanner.

Lee got his start as the crime reporter for The Daily Californian, the newspaper for UC Berkeley. In 2006 he covered the mysterious disappearance of Nina Reiser of Oakland, a beautiful young mother of two who had last been seen heading to Berkeley Bowl. Hans Reiser, Nina’s brilliant but strange computer programmer husband, was eventually convicted of her murder. The case gripped the Bay Area.

Lee’s book about the crime, Presumed Dead: A True Life Murder Mystery, will be published July 6. He will be appearing Monday July 12 at The Booksmith on Haight Street at 7:30 pm, at Books, Inc. on Fourth Street in Berkeley on August 11. For a complete events list, look here.

Ghost Word caught up with Lee in between crime stories.

Where do you live? What years did you go to Cal?

I live with my wife in Oakland. I went to Cal from 1991 to 1994. I was originally pressured to study law or medicine or business, but I decided to go with psychology, telling my parents (Dad is an electrical engineer; Mom is a retired medical technologist) that psychology is "half 'ology." At Cal, I chased cops as the crime reporter for the Daily Cal. But my interest in sirens goes back to when I was a boy, chasing cops and ambulances with my best friend on our BMX bikes! I like to think of what I do now as a simple, befitting extension of my childhood fascination with sirens.

You got your start reporting at the Daily Cal. What was your most memorable story?

I just remember a lot of fun stories. I covered the Naked Guy (look for a picture of me witnessing one of his arrests circa '93 at ) I also gained a reputation for arriving at crime scenes faster than the cops. In two distinct cases, I recall chatting with the cops while they were on perimeter posts searching for suspects. In one of those cases, I ended up chasing the bad guy, who was on foot, while I was on my bike. The cops were on foot, huffing and puffing behind me. I actually yelled out, "Westbound over the fence" as the guy ended up going through my own apartment complex on Dana Street at the time. Seconds later, cops broadcast on their radios, "Westbound over the fence!" They caught the guy.

How long have you been a reporter for the Chronicle? How do you manage to file so many stories every day? Do you work in the East Bay or San Francisco or just rove around, posting from cafes?

I've been a reporter ever since I started out as a summer intern in 1994. I don't know if we should curse the Internet, but that is how I can file from anywhere, my Oakland office, my Oakland home, in a car, from the courthouse, or while on vacation (which I have been known to do). I bring my laptop wherever I go; I consider it something akin to the "nuclear football" that the military brings with the President. Criminals never work bankers' hours, and alas, neither do I.

What did you find so fascinating about this case that made you want to write a book about it?

There was so much to delve into, with Hans' computer background, how Hans met Nina, how they fell in and out of love, their rancorous divorce proceedings, Hans' strange behavior before his arrest and while taking the stand on his own defense, that there was no way that all of it could fit into the confines of daily newspaper reporting. With my book I was able to flesh everything out, go deeper into this case and be a fly on the wall for the readers during key moments in the couple's past as well as the police investigation. Of course, I ended up being part of the case myself (see Henry Chasing pic), and that ended up being part of the trial as well.

You covered Nina Reiser’s disappearance and the court trial. What new information/different information did you find for the book?

I was able to obtain the entire police case file, which provided important behind-the-scenes details in what would become a surreal cat-and-mouse game between Hans and the cops. I was able to sit down with Nina's ex-boyfriend, Sean Sturgeon, to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamic involving Sean, Hans and Nina. I also conducted key interviews of other players in this case, including attorneys, officers, friends and relatives of the couple and reviewed voluminous court documents with details that have not yet been revealed.

People love crime stories in the newspaper and books that take a deeper look at crimes like the one at the heart of Presumed Dead. Why do you think we like to know and learn about violent acts?

Crime stories allow people to explore the psyche of those who commit terrible acts. I have always wondered why human beings do such hurtful, violent things to each other. But in reading and writing about such terrible deeds, we can learn about the human mind, how it operates and explore different ways of managing anger and avoiding conflict.

Hans Reiser seems like an odd person, one brilliant, socially awkward, and a bit creepy. What did you discover about the way he treated Nina and those around him? Were there any clues that he had a streak of violence?

Hans came across to people as arrogant, self-centered and uncaring about others. He didn't have a history of hurting others to the extent that he killed Nina, but there was an incident when he used a bow and arrow to hurt a neighbor's cat. Some have said that childhood cruelty to animals is a big predictor of future violence toward people.

Since Reiser was a bit strange, why do you think Nina married him? Did they ever have a good marriage?

I do think that they had a genuine love for each other in the beginning. Nina thought that Hans was a gifted computer programmer and that the two could start a happy family together in Oakland. But what tore them apart was their wildly divergent views on parenting.

Would Reiser talk to you?

I asked him for an interview about two years ago, but in response he requested that I read Anna Karenina in its entirety and to bring a polygraph machine with me so that he could prove to me that he wasn't lying when he said that Nina was a threat to their children. I received a letter from Hans from Mule Creek State Prison just this week, in which he asked me to bring a draft of my book if it hadn't already been published. He said he didn't feel as if I understood him. It's too late for me to talk to him face-to-face, but I'm confident that I've painted an accurate picture of him and his worldview in the book

What are the lasting impacts of Nina’s murder? Did you talk to her friends about how it has changed their lives?

Nina's family and friends mourn her loss every day. It struck a chord in the Montclair, where parents had to talk in code to avoid having their school-age children learn the details of Nina's disappearance and murder. Her loss is a void in their lives, because she was just trying to be the best mother that she could under some very difficult circumstances.

How are the Reiser children doing?

The children have since been adopted by Nina's mother and now live with her in Russia. For the longest time, the little boy would ask, "Where is Nina?" They will never see either parent again, and I hope that knowing that their mother is close by, if not in spirit but also by the fact that she has since been reburied in Russia, will bring them some measure of solace.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Absolutely hilarious Gary Shteyngart book trailer

I laughed all the way through this one. Writer Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) gets famous writers and the actor James Franco to give a plug for his latest book, Super Sad True Love Story.