Friday, September 30, 2005

Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

Champagne will flow tonight at a writer-heavy screening of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. The movie, starring Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson, is based on the best-selling memoir by San Francisco writer Terry Ryan.

Ryan’s book tells the story of her mother Evelyn, who raised 10 children in the 1950s and kept her family out of poverty by writing prize-winning jingles for American companies.

“Gently, affectionately and with wit, this lovely movie gives the 1950's its due, but not for a moment does it go overboard and make you want to go back there,” writes New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden.

It is a bittersweet time for Ryan. While she is gratified that her memoir is now a movie, she is battling cancer. "Exciting times. The best and worst of times are happening at once. But what are you gonna do?" Ryan told the Chronicle in a recent feature story.

After Friday’s sold-out screening, Ryan’s friends and family will cross Van Ness Avenue to continue the celebration. Isabelle Allende will say a few words. Pat Holt, Terry’s partner and a book industry commentator will host, as will her literary agent Amy Rennert.

Rennert, one of the Bay Area’s most successful agents, was celebrating another of her author’s successes on Thursday night. She went to a gathering in Sea Cliff for a party for Robert O’Harrow and the Center for Investigative Reporting. O’Harrow, a Washington Post reporter, wrote No Place To Hide with the support of CIR.

The book sheds light on the murky, disturbing world where private data and technology companies and the government have formed partnership to collect information. Since 9/11, concerns over privacy have been trumped by concerns about security and O’Harrow and the Center warn how information about every individual, from the price of their house, to the type of car they drive, to their favorite supermarket specials, is now for sale.

Phil Bronstein, the executive editor of the Chronicle, attended, as did Robert Rosenberg, the paper’s managing editor. Other’s honoring the Center’s work included Judy Alexander, CIR’s First Amendment attorney, and Tod Oppenheimer, a former Newsweek columnist and member of the Grotto, San Francisco’s writing collective.

One last note: Judy Miller is out of jail but she’s going to testify before the grand jury. I don’t get the point. I thought she was resisting the government’s attempts to name her source. Since she now has the source’s permission, she will tell all.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake ... and the Books It Spawned 100 Years Later

Carl Nolte, a longtime San Francisco Chronicle reporter and a fourth generation San Franciscan, is launching his new book Thursday at a reception at the California Historical Society on Mission Street. The San Francisco Century: A City Rises From the Ruins of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire is a coffee table book filled with pictures of the city’s glories, past and present. There are numerous pictures of the aftermath of the earthquake, but most of the book celebrates San Francisco’s personalities and neighborhoods.

Former Mayor Frank Jordan will never live down the time he took a shower with some radio DJS in his race for mayor; that picture is in Nolte’s book, along with one of Willie Brown dressed like an emperor. There are photos of Abe Ruef, the city’s behind-the-scenes boss before and after the earthquake, and James Rolph, the mayor that latched on to the Progressive movement. Gavin Newsom is in there, too, but there are more pictures of the gays and lesbians who “married” during the city’s brief attempt to legalize gay marriage.

The book is one of a spate of earthquake-related memorials. The Chronicle has already run a series reminding us how unprepared we are for the Big One. Dennis Smith’s book on the earthquake, San Francisco Is Burning, was officially released two days ago. Simon Winchester’s book, A Crack in he Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, will come out in the beginning of October.

I have been doing research in the California Historical Society recently and have seen numerous reporters come in to research earthquake-related stories. Michael Castleman, who already knows about the earthquake from his novel, The Lost Gold of San Francisco, is doing a piece for Smithsonian. There was a producer for NPR there as well.

The reception for Nolte takes place from 6-9 pm Thursday Sept. 29 at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission Street. It’s right around the corner from the Museum of Modern Art. The Historical Society is a wonderful place; it has a great exhibit up on photographers Eadweard Muybridge and Alice Burr.

In other news …. Dan Wickett and his amazing Emerging Writers Network has yet another e-panel with first time authors. This one is also about publicity.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

And the Author Wants to Thank ...

Actress Diane Keaton has no idea why she is included in the acknowledgments of Jonathan Santlofer's book, The Killing Art. The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the ever growing page of thank yous that now even grace novels.

“Across the publishing world, acknowledgments sections are exploding, as authors cite the names -- particularly famous names -- of anyone who had a passing interest in the work or, in some cases, didn't even know about it. One new 248-page novel lists 96 people in the acknowledgments, roughly the equivalent of one name for every 2½ pages of text.”

Frankly, acknowledgements are the first things I turn to.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Joan Didion Faces Death

I attended a memorial service on Sunday for a 22-year old man who died suddenly of meningitis. I didn’t know him – I am friendly with his parents -- but I still cried at the service. His friends and family gave him such loving tributes, reminding me once again of life’s fragility.

Later that day. I read an excerpt from Joan Didion’s new book, The Year of Magical Thinking, in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a chronicle of the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, who died of a heart attack at the dinner table, right after the couple had returned from visiting their seriously ill daughter at the hospital. (She died last month). Didion’s first chapter beautifully captures the curious nature of grief, where one minute you are overcome with profound, unwavering sadness and the next you are obsessed with practical housekeeping details, such as what you are going to wear to the service, or who will now pick up the dry cleaning.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be "healing." A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place.

When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to "get through it," to rise to the occasion, exhibit the "strength" that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

We live in a culture that avoids death, except on the big screen. Didion’s book could be one of those cultural catalysts that provides a forum for thinking and talking about the end we will all face.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

More Newsroom Cuts

Now the Mercury News is looking to cut its reporting staff by 15%.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Choose: Miss Snark or Agent 007

There’s a cat fat brewing between the two most popular agent blogs in the blogosphere.

One of the first agent blogs came out a few months ago from someone who named herself or himself Agent 007. S/he quickly became required reading as she described the publishing business from the vantage point of her old job – as an editor – as well as from her new occupation as a new agent.

Almost at the same time a female agent in New York started a wildly amusing blog called Miss Snark and it quickly became just as popular. (Agent 007 is linked to 108 sites, according to Technorati and Miss Snark is linked to 102) Miss Snark earned the devotion of many aspiring authors when she invited them to submit the first page of their novels, which she then critiqued. During the last few months Agent 007 has been kind of sleepy, but on Wednesday s/he roared back with a vengeance – and took a jab at Miss Snark.

Agent 007:

“Unlike some bloggers, I cannot churn this out every day, and since my first duty is to my authors, that will never change. But it may get even more sporadic in the coming weeks. I write when the inspiration hits, and right now, nothing is hitting me. I am simply too preoccupied.

In the meantime, maybe you want to check out Miss Snark. I only agree with about 10 percent of what she says (and if I were looking for an agent, I might avoid women altogether just to guarantee I woud not end up with her), but she posts several times a day and seems to have plenty of time to answer questions.”

Well, Miss Snark never takes anything lying down, unless it comes from George Clooney. Here is her response:

“It sounds to me like 007 wanted her blog to be serious, read seriously, taken seriously, and a vehicle for the improvement of all mankind...or at least publishing. Her posts reflected that. They were long, detailed, well reasoned, carefully thought out. Then along comes Miss Snark: loud, profane, absolutely irreverent, acerbic, snarky, fast, short and worst of all...frequent. I can see where this blog would drive her crazy...if those kinds of things mattered.”

Readers have posted comments to Miss Snark proclaiming their devotion to both blogs.


Oprah’s contemporary book club is back! The Queen of Print is abandoning the classics this month to recommend James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Could her change of heart be a response to the letter she received months ago by a group of writers known as Word of Mouth? They asked her to reinstate her club.

Oprah’s imprimatur has already boosted the book to the #1 slot on Amazon.

The book was well received when it was released. When Nan Talese, the legendary editor, got Frey’s proposal, she read the first pages and knew instantly she was going to buy it.

Talking About the Past and Future

It’s amazing where writing a book can take you.

I just returned to Berkeley from Los Angeles, where I gave a lecture on my great great grandfather – and the subject of my biography – Isaias Hellman. It is the 125th anniversary of the founding of the University of Southern California, and the school asked me to talk about Hellman.

Hellman was one of three men who donated the land for school in 1879. He was a Jew, his partner, the former California governor, John Downey was a Catholic, and the other partner, Ozro Childs, was a Protestant. Methodists started USC, so from the beginning the school promoted a California-type multiculturalism.

I was touched and amazed by the response to the lecture, where I talked about Hellman’s life, USC, and the early history of Jews in Los Angeles. More than 300 people came to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple to hear me speak – and the waiting list was 200 people long.

People were eager to hear that Jews were among the early pioneers of modern Los Angeles, and how they created a distinct society and also mingled freely with people of other cultures and religions. They also wanted to know how Los Angeles – a city without a real port in the 1900s, no navigable rivers, and few natural resources – transformed itself into one of the world’s greatest metropolises.

I probably will never speak to so many people again. Most authors, including best-selling ones, don’t see huge crowds at their book signings or appearances. Just as writing can be a lonely life, so can selling books.

But for one night, I was gratified that an audience was interested in 19th century California and how waves of immigrants, particularly Jews, came to the west coast to forge new lives for themselves. Their arrival signaled the end of one culture – of the Californios, or native-born Mexicans, and the rise of another, the American businessman. The story of how California became such a dominant state is fascinating, and I love examining how Hellman contributed to the transformation.

One place that is promoting new scholarship on the west is the USC-Huntington Institute on California and the West. It is a partnership that brings graduate students and scholars from USC to the vast holdings of the Huntington Library and encourages them to reinterpret the western experience.

The institute, formed just a year ago, is headed by Bill Deverell, whose writings on Los Angeles and the railroads have earned him a national reputation. Bill and I went to college together, but he continued his history studies while I went into journalism. It was Bill who brought me together with USC, and the support and recognition has propelled me forward during many laborious hours of pouring through 19th century documents.

My only regret, of course, is that my book is not scheduled to be published before 2007, so I couldn’t sell any copies. But I sense that Los Angeles, home of Hollywood and everything new, is also interested in looking back at itself to see from where it came.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Goodbye Chronicle Reporters

There’s a long list of distinguished Chronicle reporters who have taken management’s buyout. Those who will be definitely departing include the names of many familiar columnists. So far I’ve heard these people are leaving:

David Bush
Dwight Chapin

Glenn Dickey
Maria Gaura
Ken Garcia
Alan Gathright
Erin Hallissey
Don Lattin
Ira Miller

Alex Barnum and Kelly St. John have also left, but not through the buy out.

Many reporters apparently thought they could apply for the buy-out and then change their minds. This hasn’t been the case and some reporters were told to leave by last Friday. Management has accepted 85 voluntary buyouts, but may be looking to thin ranks by 120 positions. This may mean layoffs. The rancor is growing, according to this article.

Here's what one Chronicle reporter has to say:

"It's a very sad time in the newsroom, as a lot of our colleagues are taking buyouts and leaving. What's making it worse is that a lot of them thought they'd have some extra time to make the decision, but management is telling them they have to leave right away. So some departures feel extra hasty, and some people are feeling a fair degree of bitterness as they're shown the door.

The Chronicle used to have a fairly paternalistic feel to it, and there were a lot of people who hung around there for years. Some - foremost among them those in current management/ownership - have long felt this was a weakness at the paper. Maybe it even has something to do with all the money we've lost. Maybe it needed to change. But now it feels like we're in the hands of just another corporation that cares only about its bottom line, and not a whit about the people who help it reach that number or produce its journalism. (Newsroom managers care, of course, but don't seem to have much clout at the moment.)

And as we see decades of newspaper experience and institutional memory walking out the door, I think all we can feel is sadness."

The Tyranny of Biography

Author Michelle Richmond has a new blog. It’s called San Serif and I liked her first entry so much I am taking it for my own.

Richmond links to an essay by Leslie Berlin about writing a biography of Robert Noyce, the man credited with starting the computer revolution. Berlin’s book The Man Behind The Microchip was released a few months ago and was well reviewed in the New York Times Book Review.

Writing a biography means spending years with someone – reading their letters, talking to their family members, retracing their steps. It’s a strange relationship, as the person is usually dead but occupies a writer's thoughts for years. Children and spouses eventually find themselves "relating" to the subject, as Berlin details for an essay for Powell’s on-line bookstore.

“Now that I look back on it, it is astonishing how much of a presence in my family's lives Bob Noyce became when I was writing his biography. Twice Noyce appeared in my dreams, uttering my name in a weird spooky voice that I took as a warning to do a very good job on the book. When the startup for which my husband worked was bought by an East Coast company, I could not stop talking about what had happened after Fairchild Semiconductor, Noyce's first startup, was bought by an East Coast company. And at the dinner table I would tell my children about how twelve-year-old Noyce tried to fly by jumping off the roof of his garage in a glider he had built with his brother, or how, as an adult, he had loaned his jet and his own services as a pilot to Audubon researchers trying to reinvigorate a colony of puffins off the coast of Maine.

By the time I finished the book, in fact, my children considered Noyce something akin to a very cool work colleague of mine. They had taken to calling him "Mommy's Bob." Every time we drove past the Intel headquarters building, my son would announce, "That's Bob's and Gordon's company," confident he deserved to be on a first-name basis with the founders. I once overheard my daughter proudly telling a friend, "People can only play video games because of Mommy's Bob." My children apparently took personal pride in Noyce's work because they felt as if they knew him. He was as much a real person as all the other people in their parents' lives whom they had heard about but never met. "

Friday, September 16, 2005

Hurricane Katrina and the Book Deals It Spawned

Hurricane Katrina happened just a little more than two weeks ago and already the book deals are accumulating. How do people react so quickly and think, hey maybe there’s a book in here somewhere?

These have been reported by Publisher’s Marketplace:

Tulane University professor and historian Douglas Brinkley's THE GREAT DELUGE, a book about New Orleans, juxtaposing the human drama wrought by Hurricane Katrina through personal and eyewitness accounts with a rich historical perspective of his city, to Claire Wachtel at Morrow, in a major deal, by Lisa Bankoff at ICM .

New Orleans Times-Picayune city editor Jed Horne's insider's narrative account of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, locating its roots in the culture and politics of the city of New Orleans and in the national politics of oil, homeland security, poverty, and race relations, and following the initial reconstruction efforts and investigation into the government's response to the crisis, to Tim Bartlett at Random House, by Claudia Menza of the Menza-Barron Agency.

Hurricane Katrina CNN Reports: State of Emergency, a chronological account of the network's coverage through transcripts and photos, to Andrews McMeel, for release in mid-October 2005, in an announced 150,000-copy trade paperback first printing, produced by packager Michael Reagan at Lionheart Books. CNN will donate all royalties to Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief and the publisher will match the donation.

Please note that the last book will be on the shelves in a month.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Murder by the Bay

New York has Serpico. Chicago has Al Capone. Los Angeles has the Onion Murders. Now San Francisco is finally getting its due.

On Wednesday, Publisher’s Marketplace announced that former San Francisco Police Chief Earl Saunders has sold a book on a high-profile serial murder case, this one dubbed The Zebra Murders. Between 1972 and 1974, a group of radical black Muslims stalked and killed 71 whites throughout San Francisco. The killers, who called themselves the Death Angels, hoped to spark a race war, and the murders did lead San Francisco police to crack down hard, often unjustly, on young black men.

“From the first African-American police chief of the SFPD, Prentice Earl Sanders and screenwriter Bennett Cohen's THE ZEBRA MURDERS: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights, an account of the racially-motivated serial killings (intended to start a race war) that terrorized San Francisco in the winter of 1973-­4 and how two African-American detectives solved the crime while simultaneously suing the SFPD for discrimination, to Cal Barksdale at Arcade, for Spring 2006, by Jessica Kaye at Kaye and Mills.”

Saunders later became San Francisco's first African-American police chief, a position he held until he became involved in another high-profile case called Fajita-gate. The District Attorney filed obstruction of justice charges against Sauders. They were quickly dropped, but the stress was too much and Saunders resigned.

Before the Zebra killings, the city was terrified by random killings by a murderer calling himself the Zodiac. He would shoot people in their cars and then send letters about the crimes to the San Francisco Chronicle. The case has never been solved, but now it is being made into a movie featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Gary Oldman, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards and Chloe Sevigny.

The movie centers on San Francisco Chronicle reporter Robert Graysmith, who wrote a book about the serial killer. Downey plays “veteran police reporter Paul Avery, the first to link the sniper to a murder outside the Bay Area,” according to a recent Chronicle article by Ruthe Stein. The Zodiac sent him a chilling note warning, "You are doomed."

In another murder-to-book-to movie, a crew is filming “Valley of the Heart’s Delight,” around San Francisco and Oakland. It’s a fictionalized account of the 1933 kidnapping and murder of department store heir Brooke Hart, who was abducted outside his father’s department store in San Jose. His killers were caught and then hung by a lynch mob a few hours later. Harry Farrell, a wonderful reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, wrote a book about the shameful episode called Swift Justice: Murder and Vengeance in a California Town.

The movie is based, however, on the reporting done at the time by Chronicle reporter Royce Brier, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.

Another book about San Francisco murders is Charles F. Adams' Murder by the Bay, which looks at historic homicides in the city.

I remember both the Zodiac and Zebra Killings. The Zodiac killed a taxi cab driver in front of the house of my mother’s best friend on Washington Street. It was a terrifying period.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

First-Time Authors and What They Have Learned

Dan Wickett, who works really hard at pulling together amazing interviews and articles for the Emerging Writers Network, has done it again. He has an interview with a group of first-time authors, and they discuss their publishing journeys. It’s full of insight, advice and caution.

Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press introduces the interview and stresses that writing is a career, not just the sale of the first book. Therefore, it’s important to sell it well:

"So I’ll confine my comments to two, the first of which is to echo a topic in this roundtable, the big advance. As a number of the writers recognize, the big advance can and probably will be a curse. The media and the publishing industry don’t discuss debut bombs—the $250,000 advamce for a story collection that sold about 3,500 copies—but there are ten of them for each Foer or Kostova you read about. Leaving you as a writer with the Scarlet U (for “unearned advance”).

So can one turn down a $500,000 advance? Actually, yes, you can, because even a half million bucks is not “fuck-you” money, the kind of money where do won’t need to work for the rest of your life. Your career is more than your first book. And the deals open to you aren’t necessarily going to be all or nothing, there will probably be a multiplicity of deals open to you, ways of structuring accepting higher royalties for lower advances, that will put you in a situation where you are likelier to earn out your advance, fulfill the expectations of your business partners (publisher, agent) and start getting royalties."

Monday, September 12, 2005

Characters and their Unlikeable Characteristics

Donald Trump wrote a memorable – no that’s not the word – insulting letter to the New York Times Book Review. Trump was annoyed by Mark Singer’s dismissal of Trump’s best-selling books. Well, ole Donald can dish with the best of them, and he tells Sam Tanenhaus in no uncertain terms that Singer is an idiot.

“Most writers want to be successful. Some writers even want to be good writers. I've read John Updike, I've read Orhan Pamuk, I've read Philip Roth. When Mark Singer enters their league, maybe I'll read one of his books. But it will be a long time — he was not born with great writing ability. Until then, maybe he should concentrate on finding his own "lonely component" and then try to develop himself into a worldclass writer, as futile as that may be, instead of having to write about remarkable people who are clearly outside of his realm.”

Singer is the New Yorker writer famous for his hilarious take on odd, compulsive individuals. His profile of Trump appears in his new book, Character Studies: Encounters with the Curiously Obsessed.

Ed Champion of the Return of the Reluctant has out-Trumped Trump with a series of snarky, trumped up letters to the editor.

“Sir! It has been mere hours since I last sent you my all-important message. And you have not recognized the Power of Trump. When I say that I will destroy you, I mean business. Why have you not yet acknowledged the true evils of this world? Does your lack of response indicate that you side with the Mark Singers and the Jeff McGregors of this world? I am a man capable of accurately pinpointing manic depression after being interviewed for two hours by a New Yorker staffer. Understand that you are treading on dangerous ground.”

After weeks of depressing news, I found comfort in the idea that people are fighting to keep Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park open. I know a favorite bookstore can feel like an offshoot of home, or even better, a place to lose oneself, and the idea of having the best bookstore on the Peninsula shuttered is clearly unbearable. More than 500 people rallied recently to support Kepler’s. Look at the blog Litter in Litterature for complete coverage.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Deep Thoughts

Scott Esposito over at Conversational Reading has started a new on-line literary quarterly called The Quarterly Conversation. It’s a collection of reviews, interviews and essays about books. Here’s an excerpt from Scott’s Editor’s Letter.

Why Am I Doing This?

"Most people reading this are probably aware that this is an adjunct to my litblog. I've been writing there daily for a little over a year now, so it's perfectly legitimate to ask, Why place this stuff here rather than in my blog?

There happens to be a couple answers to that question. I certainly love blogging and I have no intention to give it up anytime soon, but I've come to look at it as something done on the spur of the moment. I fire off blog entries without much revision or second thoughts--which can be a good thing--but I wouldn't like to read (or be known) for only blog-style thoughts on books. I'd also like for there to be room in my little corner of the web for the other kind of writing about books, the slow and more careful ones."

I just want to follow up on the notion that blogs are quick hits, almost of stream of consciousness thoughts about particular topics. Most of the time the thoughts that literally spew out of my head end up on my blog, and I occasionally berate myself for not putting together more thoughtful essays. I say .. after I finish my book, after I organize my house, after … well you get the idea. I just wonder if the brevity and -- dare I say occasional shallowness -- of blogging will wear off in time.

The New York Times Book Review on Sunday discussed how the end of letter writing and the increase of e-mailing will change the biographer’s job in the future. The essay resonated with me because I have spent much of the past month pouring through the letter books of my great great grandfather. The letters in the books start in 1879 and end in 1920 and I estimate there are approximately 30,000 pages to read. (You can see why I only have a short while to blog.) Future biographers won’t have this kind of documentation to pour through, and it will radically change our ability to examine past lives and events.

Rachel Donadio queried a number of publishing firms to see if editors keep the e-mail correspondence from authors. Some did, but most didn’t.

"A writer's papers would be “considerably” more valuable if they included e-mail, [literary agent Andrew] Wylie said. The question for an acquiring agency or library is how to prevent “extrapolated diminishment of value,” he added. “I could certainly see Dave Eggers's collected e-mail correspondence appearing in 10 volumes in the course of the next 40 years, and I think it would be absolutely riveting,” Wylie said of another client.”

A Minor Fall, A Major Lift has an amusing “set” of e-mails from Dave Eggers. They definitely are priceless. Check them out.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Local Authors Raise Funds for Katrina Survivors

Is it a battle of the benefits?

One group of authors will do a benefit reading for those affected by Hurricane Katrina on Friday, September 9 at Book Passage in Corte Madera. Another group will read on Monday September 19th at the Make Out Room in San Francisco.

Are competitive juices flowing? Which one will raise more money? Or is it merely a reflection of the sheer depth of talent and largesse in the Bay Area?

Pick your benefit:

Friday, September 9 at the Book Passage. Writers4Relief, 7 pm. Proceeds will go to the Red Cross. Authors include Amy Tan, Armistead Maupin, Lynn Freed, devorah major, Lalita Tademy, Elizabeth Dewberry, Robert Olen Butler, Paul Loeb, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Isabelle Allende, Ayelet Waldman, and Susanne Pari. Tickets are $20.

Monday, September 19 at the Make Out Room, 3225 22nd Street, San Francisco, at 7 pm.

Authors include Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Firoozeh Dumas, Julie Orringer, Peter Orner, Daphne Gottlieb, Kaui Hart Hemmings, Truong Tran, Michelle Richmond, Anne Marino, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Tom Barbash, and Michelle Tea.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Last of the Summer Reading

Summer isn’t officially over, but Labor Day definitely presages a shift in mood. Before I rush to read all the new fall releases, I wanted to do a run down of the novels I've read the past six weeks.

I find that I definitely gravitate toward women authors. While all books are stories about relationships and how they shift and evolve, I am drawn to tales of domestic life, to families who love and betray, to friendships that uplift or tear down.

Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller. I have been a fan of Miller’s since The Good Mother and have read most of her books. This book, like many of her previous novels, is the story of a family wrenched apart by sexuality. The story features Mark, who works in the wine industry in Sonoma, and Eva, his first wife. They separate after an affair, and Eva eventually marries John, who dies early in the book from a freak car accident. Mark and Eva’s 15-year old daughter Daisy is devastated by her stepfather’s death and embarks on an illicit affair with one of her parents’ friends. The story examines how extended families support and undermine one another, and how people learn to love through loss. I enjoyed the book a lot, but felt disappointed by the end. There was no bang, only a whimper. Perhaps life is like that, not resolving itself in any dramatic fashion, but I wanted more of a blow up.

Good Family by Terry Gamble This has one of the best opening sentences I have ever read:

“In the years before our grandmother died, when my sister and I wore matching dresses, and the grown-ups, unburdened by conscience, drank gin and smoked; those years before planes made a mockery of distance, and physics a mockery of time; in the years before I knew what it was like to be regarded with hard, needy want, when my family still had its goodness, and I my innocence; in those years before Negroes were blacks, and soldiers went AWOL, and women were given their constrained, abridged liberties, we traveled to Michigan by train.”

In this book, filmmaker Maddie Addison returns to an island in Lake Michigan, where her family has had a summer home for five generations. Addison once loved to come here and play with her brothers and sisters and first cousins – until a summer 15 years earlier when her infant daughter died of SIDS in her crib. Maddie has to return because her mother is on her deathbed. Gamble does a wonderful job of creating a woman so haunted by the past she cannot deal with the present, and she creates wonderful, eccentric characters that keep the plot moving – even though not much happens.

Deadly Slipper by Michelle Wan – I picked up this book because it’s a mystery set in the Dordogne region in France, an area I visited on vacation two years ago. The story centers around Mara, a Canadian interior decorator living in France, who is tracking down her her twin sister, Bedie, who disappeared on a hike in the area 19 years earlier. Mara finds her sister’s camera in an antique shop and develops the film, only to find a series of photos of the orchids in the region and a strange pigeon coup. Mara enlists Julian, a specialist in orchids, to help her trace her sister’s footsteps. I picked up this book because it got good reviews. It began strongly, faltered in the middle, but Wan managed to make the ending gripping.

Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. Why are southern protagonists and their families always slightly kooky? Is this what people in the south really are like? I somehow doubt it. Jackson’s book has a set of crazy characters that act unbelievably. Arlene Fleet flees her hometown of Possett, Alabama for Chicago to not only escape small town life but to put a big distance between herself and a terrible secret. While in the north she meets a terrific man, Burr, but she refuses to tell her family about him because he is black. Of course she goes back home and of course her dreaded secret is not exactly what she imagined. There are funny bits throughout but the novel was too cutesy for my taste.

Swing by Rupert Holmes – My mother-in-law and her sister, New Jersey residents, told me about this mystery because it’s set in the Bay Area in the 1940s and prominently features my neighborhood landmark, the Claremont Hotel. The lead character is Ray Sherwoood, a talented saxophone player who stays perpetually on tour so he can forget the premature death of his daughter. While playing at the Claremont, he receives a message from a fellow musician and he travels to the 1940 World’s Fair on Treasure Island to meet her. While there, he observes a woman fall to her death from a carillon tower. Is it suicide or murder? Swing, written by Holmes, who has won numerous Tonys and such for his Broadway musical The Secret of Edwin Drood, is lightweight, amusing, and fun – a perfect summer read. It also has a CD of music referred to in the book – all orchestrated by Holmes.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Last Gasp of Summer

Oakland is throwing a huge art, music, and literature fair in its downtown throughout Labor Day weekend. This is one of the most diverse cities in the nation, reflected in its the Art and Soul Festival’s line up of blues, jazz, alternative rock, and gospel hip hop musicians. There’s a literary component as well, with numerous panels of authors, poets, editors and agents.

On Saturday, at the Civic Center at 1:30 there will be an Oakland author panel with Ishmael Reed, William Wong, Captain Geoffrey Hunter of the Oakland Fire Department and Annalee Allen. Jack Foley will moderate.

At 2:45, there will be a panel on publishing with literary agents Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada, book editor Randy Peyser, William Justice and Heydey Publisher Malcolm Margolin.

Sunday at 1:10 at the Civic Center, California Poet Laureate Al Young and Barry Gifford, a screenwriter will talk.

On Monday, poet Joan Gelfand, whose work is featured on her blog, Ciel, will read at 3 p.m.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Katrina and the Damage it's Done

Hurricane Katrina struck Monday and I haven’t known what to write since then. This is a lit blog, focused on books and authors, a world I care passionately about, but one that seems tangential right now.

I have been walking around in a state of repressed grief for days, and I’m sure most people in this country feel the same way. It’s hard enough to lose a home – I lost mine in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire – but I can’t imagine the stress of feeling abandoned.

After the fire, the entire Bay Area rallied to help those who had lost their houses. Survivors got discounts at stores, smiles and favors from strangers, bags of clothing from friends and offers of help from everywhere.

The scale of the devastation in the south is so much larger, and I know that explains why help is so much slower in arriving. Still, I am infuriated to hear about the people holed up in the New Orleans Convention Center, waiting days for food and water that have never come. There is a line of buses parked a few blocks away, yet they sit idle. They have not yet rescued a soul.

I can’t imagine being forced to flee to your attic and to have to punch a hole in your roof to get air, and then to have to sit there for days to be rescued. I have to ask – does the race of the survivors and their position at the bottom of the economic spectrum have anything to do with the rapidity of the federal response?

In other sad news, albeit on another scale, Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park, one of the best bookstores in the Bay Area, abruptly shut its door Wednesday. The bookstore celebrated its 50th anniversary in May, but apparently could not compete in the era of mega-bookstores. This bookstore was a main stop for major and less-well known authors on tour. It had a great kids section and was a wonderful asset to the community.

Clark Kepler, the owner, left a message on the store's website:

I want to share my sorrow with this ending. Kepler’s has enjoyed the support of this community from our inception in the 1950s, through both turbulent and joyful times. I feel blessed to have personally served as this community’s bookseller for 26 of those years.

In today’s political and social climate I would like to be there with you and for you, providing books and writers with varied ideas and provocative opinions, but the constancy of change will not allow it. So, I want to express my heart felt gratitude and appreciation for your support over the years. It has been wonderful.


Clark Kepler