Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Things About Books That I Love

One of the reasons I started to blog last year (and it will be a year Feb. 15) was because I thoroughly enjoyed a new contest called A Tournament of Books.

A group of book lovers, including the folks at Powells’ Books in Portland and assorted bloggers, created a round robin contest that pitted 16 books directly against one another. (It was patterned after the NCAA basketball tournament) Two reviewers would read two books and argue in print which one was better. The winning book would go to the next round to compete again. The 2005 winner? Well, I can’t quite remember and my research on Google didn’t tell me. It was either David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America.

What made the contest particularly fun were the reviewers, who were not necessarily erudite or well-read. So it was like a slice of America. You had bibliophiles, music lovers, readers in their 40s and in their 20s, in short, a diverse group of judges.

I first found out about the contest through an article in the New York Times. I couldn't wait to get back to my computer and every day found me eagerly looking for new critiques. I was so enchanted by the discussions and the fact that they were taking place outside of normal media channels. The Tournament convinced me of the power of blogging and although history wasn't made, I did go on to start Ghost Word.

Well, I just found out after reading The Elegant Variation that there will be a Year 2 of this tournament, starting in March. The organizers have just announced the books that will be read in competition. I can't wait for it to begin.

ANOTHER THING I LOVE Alan Rinzler is the executive editor of Jossey-Bass, a San Francisco-based publishing house. Rinzler has worked on many interesting books during his long career and even offers his editorial services for hire. He’s edited Toni Morrison, Hunter Thompson, Tom Robbins, Jerzy Kosinski, Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, Dee Brown, Vine Deloria Jr, Claude Brown, Shirley MacLaine, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and others. For the last six years, Rinzler has offered a free three-session course at Cody’s Books on how to publish a book From Cody’s website.

“ALAN RINZLER asks ARE YOU GOOD ENOUGH TO BE PUBLISHED? The sixth (6th!) annual three-session symposium -- February 5, March 5, and April 2nd -- on what it takes to get your book published, providing participants with frank feedback and honest evaluation of your proposal or sample manuscript from a publishing veteran, is back. We'll discuss how to research and prepare an idea -- fiction or nonfiction -- and guidelines for revision if there's a realistic chance of success.

If you'd like your proposal or manuscript to be considered before the group during the first session on February 5, send ahead no more than 15 pages to or hard copy to Alan Rinzler, Executive Editor, Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 989 Market Street, SF, CA 94103. Otherwise, just come! No reservations are necessary.”

This is not a course you have to sign up for. You can show up. It’s worth just hearing Rinzler talk. It starts this Sunday, Feb. 5 at 3 pm at Cody’s on Telegraph.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Wendy Wasserstein

Playwright Wendy Wasserstein died Monday of cancer at age 55. She was a single mother and leaves behind her 6 or 7 year old daughter. (via Blog of a Bookslut)

The Lure of the Memoir

Oprah Winfrey chewed out mega-publisher Nan Talese on Thursday, but the reception in New York has been different.

When Talese walked into her office at Doubleday after flying back from Chicago, she was greeted with a standing ovation, according to the Wall Street Journal. The chairman of her company, Random House, called her up. She also received more than 500, mostly supportive, e-mails about her appearance on Oprah and the James Frey dust-up.

Is this not the case of an ostrich with its head in the sand? Why are congratulations being passed around? The publishing industry made a big mistake with James Frey’s book – and it looks like they are putting their own positive and distorted spin on the whole mess.

SPEAKING OF MEMOIRS, Edward Guthmann has an article on Kate Braverman in Monday’s San Francisco Chronicle. Braverman, one of the most iconoclastic writers of the past 20 years, has an “accidental memoir,” a linked collection of essays and recollections called Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles. It deals with Braverman’s time in Los Angeles – she grew up there and spent some of her adult years there – seen from a distance.

I’ve met Braverman a few times at a writers’ group and at every encounter I have been fascinated and entertained by the words coming out of her mouth. She is highly dramatic, but her sentences are like poetry: sharp, memorable, and compelling. Braverman will give a reading from her new book at 7 pm Thursday at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Examiner asked local writers to provide the names of their favorite authors. (via Moorish Girl)

Friday, January 27, 2006

James Frey Did It, or Does a Memoir Have to be True?

Since when has memoir been true?

Memoir, as Nan Talese put it on Thursday’s Oprah, is an author’s recollection of what happened. In other words, when a person reconstructs a life, he or she has some latitude to describe it through their particular lens. When I pick up a memoir, I know I am reading a life seen through rose-colored glasses. That’s a given and I read with a certain detached skepticism.

But while there is room to revisit your past in your own way, it is entirely different to make up entire portions of it. It is one thing to write about being visited in bed at age 8 by a family friend and try and describe the sensation of being molested. That is clearly a memory, one colored by pain and grief.

It’s different to write that you spent three months in jail when you actually only spent 3 hours. That is a lie. That is not interpreting your life through your own special lens.

I doubt that James Frey is the only author who has sinned. He just was stupid enough to lie about things that can be easily checked, like the length of a jail sentence. Other popular memoirists have been accused of making things up. Augusten Burroughs is currently the defendant in a defamation suit. The family of the pseudonymous psychiatrist in the book has taken issue with Burrough’s depiction of the man.

“Six members of the Turcotte family, whose patriarch was Dr. Rodolph H. Turcotte, who died in 2000, are suing Burroughs, his agent, and publisher St. Martin's Press in Middlesex Superior Court,” the Boston Globe reported. “The suit demands a public retraction of the book and a public statement that it is fiction and not a memoir. The suit also asks that the publisher be enjoined from continued publication and distribution of the book.”

The publisher is also trying to make sure that no one looks too closely at Burrough’s work, according to the gossip columnist for the New York Post.

“According to New York Post gossip column Page Six, St. Martin’s also added disclaimers to Burroughs’s other books, including Running with Scissors and Dry. The gossip column also went to The Smoking Gun founder Bill Bastone to ask if Burroughs would be the next author to be investigated by the website.”

“Since our Frey investigation, we’ve had dozens and dozens of people writing in to suggest other authors for us to look at, and Burroughs has, far and away, been at the top of everyone's list,” Bastone told Page Six. But he said that he, and co-author Andrew Goldberg, do not want to become the “literary police.”

This may explain why St. Martin’s plans to include a disclaimer in Burrough’s new memoir, which will be released in a few months.

I think this is a positive development. As the journalists on Oprah pointed out, truth matters. It’s easy to twist and embellish facts to make a better story. It’s much harder to tell a good story just using what actually happened. You have to be a good writer. It’s a challenge, but a satisfying one.

Miss Snark said the publishing industry won’t change as a result of the James Frey/Oprah Winfrey dustup. The book is minting money, she points out. Doubleday would only change if the scandal cost the company money. Miss Snark said Frey’s editor, Nan Talese, only went on the show to ensure that Oprah doesn’t ban the entire imprint of Random House from becoming possible future Oprah book picks.

I did think the most interesting part of Thursday’s show was watching one of the most powerful women in publishing try and make nice with Oprah. It was clear who had the real power.

But I am more of an optimist. I hope this debacle prods the publishing industry to value truth more highly. It’s harder to work with the facts so they should pay a premium to those who manage to weave compelling narratives out of truth, as impoverished and dull as it can be.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

James Frey on Oprah Winfrey .. Redux

There were so many interesting dynamics at play at the Oprah Winfrey/James Frey showdown.

First of all, it was hardly a showdown. Oprah was noticeable upset with Frey, saying she was disappointed and angry. "I feel duped," she said. But Frey could barely talk on the show. He stuttered out half sentences that he tried to pass off as explanations. Until the very end, he skirted around the question of whether he lied or just fudged facts.

Frey also explained that he saw the people in his book as “characters” who were distinct from their real-life counterparts. He changed substantial aspects of everyone he wrote about so as to disguise their identities, he said. That included making himself a much meaner and tougher character.

"In order to get through the experience of the addiction, I thought of myself as being tougher than I was and badder than I was, and it helped me cope," said Frey. "And when I was writing the book, instead of being as introspective as I should have been, I clung to that image."

Frey did acknowledge that he only spent a few days in jail instead of the three months he claimed in the book. He said he did have a girlfriend Lillie who committed suicide, but that she slit her wrists rather than hung herself in her jail cell only hours before Frey was due to arrive for a visit. Frey said he didn’t see Lillie in a timely fashion because he had to go to North Carolina to pack up his apartment.

Oprah tried to be a tough questioner but she kept backing off.

The other interesting dynamic was seeing Nan Talese kowtow to Oprah. Talese is one of the most powerful people in publishing. She really pushed this book. A few years ago she told 1000 reporters at the Neiman Conference on Narrative Journalism in Boston about Frey’s book. This was before it was published. She called it astonishing and said she read it in one sitting and bought it on the spot. During Oprah, Talese talked about Frey’s authentic voice and how she trusted that voice. Talese seemed to reject the notion that a publisher should fact check anything since “the voice” tells so much.

The subtext of this, of course, is that publishers love Oprah’s book club and Talese, on behalf of Doubleday, definitely seemed interested in repairing her relationship with Oprah. It can mean huge profits. (Please note the book is still selling well). Talese needed to tread a line between defending the publisher’s decision to publish A Million Little Pieces and acknowledging that Oprah had a right to be pissed.

The journalists of the program seemed incredulous at Frey’s actions, since they know that if they or any other reporter made such up such dreck, they would be caught immediately.

I have not read this book. Seeing James Frey squirm on the couch next to Oprah made me pity him. I worry about him. Oprah even said he had made a joke about whether or not there was a gun backstage. Can you imagine selling 2.5 million books and then having the whole world turn on you?

Of course, it wouldn’t be Oprah without redemption. At the end of the show she talked to Frey about how telling the truth was an important step towards his recovery. (Poynter institute guru Roy Peter Clark had suggested this earlier) Only then did Frey acknowledge he lied. It was in the context of Oprah’s forgiveness. He now has her blessing for admitting his mistakes and moving on.

It will be interesting to see what is next. Random House has announced it will include an author's note explaining there are exaggerations in the next printing. Frey has a two-book fiction deal with Riverhead.

His name is mud, but you've got to admit one thing, the guy can write.

A Love Fest or Interrogation? mmm I wonder...

Well, no one can say Oprah isn't loyal to her authors. James Frey, who is battling accusations that his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, isn't a memoir, but made-up, will be live on the Big Lady's Show on Thursday. Now, this could be interesting ... or not. I just know I will set my TIVO.

From Oprah's website:

"The Oprah's Book Club selection A Million Little Pieces. The headlines. The controversy. Now, like many of you, Oprah has a million little questions. James Frey, his publisher, and leading journalists—who've had strong opinions—join us for the hour"

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Is Book Passage in Trouble?

Book Passage of Corte Madera, one of the Bay Area’s best bookstores, is fighting an attempt to install a mega-Barnes and Noble in a nearby shopping center.

Book Passage has been trying for years to move into the Corte Madera Town Center, a high-end open air mall right off Highway 101 in Marin County. The bookstore is now located about ½ mile away in a smaller, less visible mall.

But the owners of the fancy mall are apparently inclined to let Barnes and Noble move into the space where a Marshall’s used to be, rather than rent to Book Passage. There already is a B&N in the mall, but the new one will be three times the size.

“If this happens, we have no doubt that Barnes & Noble will be using its considerable resources to target Book Passage and try to drive us out of business,” Book Passage owner Elaine Petrocelli wrote on the store’s website. “This is the pattern that they have followed time and time again with other independent bookstores over the last 20 years.”

Never one to take things lying down, Elaine and the staff at Book Passage are asking customers to write to the manager of the Corte Madera Town Center. Information is here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Tuesday Tidbits

Liz Perle, the editor of Common Sense Media in San Francisco, has written Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash. It opens with a heart wrenching scene of Liz flying out of Singapore, where she and her husband of many years have just split up. Liz realizes she now has to support her son and herself, and the thought terrifies her.

Liz will be speaking at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on February 2. Here’s an interview. (via Bookslut)

There’s a mystery-loving cataloguer from the Bancroft who has put together Golden Gate Mysteries, a bibliography of crime fiction set in the San Francisco Bay Area. So far he’s catalogued 1,268 titles. The first was written in 1853 during the Gold Rush. (via Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind)

The Magnes Museum in Berkeley is launching a writers’ series, For Review. The first to appear on Thursday night will be UC Berkeley professor Yuri Slezkine, who will be talking about "Mercurianism, Portability, and the Jewish Century" in conjunction with his book The Jewish Century.

Nextbook has started running some wonderful first person stories that touch on aspects of being Jewish. I really enjoyed this piece by Lynn Harris about her experience dipping herself into a ritual bath called a mikvah.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Carole Radziwill and Oprah Winfrey

Carole Radziwill, the author of What Remains -- is guest blogging at this week and even she – she who was married to a son of a prince or a duke and was related to John Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette and writes about the death of all three – whimpers about the treatment she got on Oprah. Her blog entry is actually very funny. No pretentiousness here:

“Two things happened last September — one anticipated by millions of submissive book buyers, and one anticipated by me.

The first? Oprah Winfrey promised to endorse live writers again, after a three-year commitment to the dead ones. The second? Oprah invited me to be on her show! One morning, producers at Harpo called. "We loved your book," they said. "Oprah couldn't put it down," they said. "She thought it was beautiful, well-written, gracefully done," they said. Oh my God, my little inner voice squeaked. Oh my God, oh my God!

She's asking me, me, me and my book to be on her show! Suddenly my agent was returning my calls! My publisher was picking up the lunch tab!

I obsessed for 10 days on my outfit. I obsessed for 10 days on what I'd say. I borrowed sparkly earrings. I thought up smart things. I had imaginary conversations with Oprah in my apartment. "Well, in the end, it's just old-fashioned hard work," I said. "What writers inspire you?" Imaginary Oprah asked, and "Tell us about the themes and the metaphors you weave into the delicate tapestry that is your work." We laughed and hugged. Oh, the world was fine.
And then on September 22th, I was hustled through Harpo security into a cozy room with mangoes and green tea. They brushed my hair, they puffed my lips, they lifted my cheekbones, somehow, half an inch, and then threw me out. Onto the brand new set, the brand new couch, the Wizard of Oprah perched at one end. Then click, we're on.

"Blah, blah, blah John?" she asked me. "Blah, blah, John, blah," she said. "John, John, marriage, Kennedy, John," she exclaimed very seriously. "My memoir is about me, I thought to myself, and my Grandma Millie and my mother and my husband and Gigi my dog! It's about my career and traipsing in Cambodian jungles" "Blah, blah, blah, John, John, Kennedy, John," she replied.

During the commercial break, Oprah said, "Your legs are very shiny." "Thank you," I replied. Shiny? Shiny? What the hell does that mean? Does Oprah like shiny legs? Do shiny legs sell books? I couldn't think of another damn thing the whole interview. All that time I wasted self-obsessing when I should have been fabricating! "Well, your people put lotion on them," I mumbled limply.

Three days later the show aired, my story met up with (fleeting) infamy. Because Oprah picked my show to be the one she'd plug another writer. My show was the one she picked to breathlessly plug another book.

You see, I had the unique opportunity of being the author invited by Oprah to talk about my book, on the exact same show that she announced James Frey.

Me and my new book and my shiny legs were all whisked off the set.

Dammit! I thought, a million little ringing sounds in my ears. I could barely remember what I'd even written over the roar. I stumbled into the harsh glare of early light...what the hell just happened in there? I ran to check my Amazon rank.

It's just too easy. "

And Tom Zeller of the New York Times trolls the web and finds people who years ago doubted James Frey’s book.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Back From the Dead

Well I’m back. I wasn’t sure I could keep away from this blog for two weeks, particularly after the James Frey and JT LeRoy scandals broke. How my fingers itched to throw in my two cents! But I had promised myself no blogging and minimal internet and email while I worked on my book.

I got the first draft done. It is remarkable how much work one can do when the distractions of daily life are gone. I went up to my parents’ house in Sonoma County and stayed 10 days. I was alone most of the time, although three members of my writing group came for brief stays. No children to drive to school, no real meals to cook, no real cleaning to do -- I only had to write.

I would get up by 7:30 and be writing by 8 a.m. Before I realized, it was time for lunch. When I wasn’t writing I was reading – about 19th century Los Angeles, about World War I and its destruction; about the push for the creation of a Jewish homeland after the war. The solitude let me delve deeply into those worlds and think about how they affected the man I am writing about. Sometimes all the information was bewildering; I would read and read and read and only feel confused. But then I would go to sleep (after Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and the Colbert Report) and wake up in the morning, refreshed and with a clear mind. I would then start again.

I will admit I was scared before the retreat. I was worried that I couldn’t get into my book, that I would just waste time. But that didn’t happen. This experience makes me want to try a writers’ colony soon.

On the book front, I read and somewhat enjoyed On Beauty by Zadie Smith. She’s a wonderful writer; she creates scenes full of people, of chaos, of place, of detail. Her depiction of the strands of life in an elite American college were wonderful. But I didn’t quite believe her characters. They didn’t act in a way I thought rang true. I was not engaged the first part of the book, but then I was drawn into the story of Wellington, a college town (Cambridge) and the Belseys, a mixed race family struggling to determine how to fit in this privileged world.

I also read and enjoyed The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper. It’s the story of a dysfunctional writer who returns to the hometown he skewered in a thinly-disguised novel. Naturally, Joe discovers his recollections were not true, and the people he rejected have something important to offer him.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Taking A Break

I am leaving on Friday for what I hope will be a two-week writing retreat. I am going up to my parents’ house in Sonoma County. I won’t be posting here for a while. This is what I will be looking at as I gaze out the window.

Here are some great new blogs I have discovered to peruse:

So Many Books

Not A Soccer Mom

The Mommy Brain Blog

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

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Flooding in northern California

Martha O’Connor, the author of The Bitch Posse, had to evacuate her house in Mill Valley during this weekend’s floods in northern California. Everyone is all right, but her children lost some of their Christmas toys and she lost many favorite books.

Update: Martha lost two cars and the basement of her house is wrecked. She and her family are holed up in a hotel because there is mold in her furnace. She's fighting with the insurance company already.

Monday, January 02, 2006

New Year's Resolutions for 2006

I am vowing to stick to the books already on my bookshelves – at least for awhile.

This Brit plans to switch from reading trash to reading quality.

Mr. Ed Champion has challenged himself to read 75 books this year, and he’s looking for readers to take up the gauntlet.

Stefanie vows to buy fewer books this year – but then hesitates when she considers she is going to Hay-on-Wye this spring, home to the world’s largest concentration of books. She also plans to cut down on her “to be read” pile. Somehow I think she is going to lose on this one.

MJ Rose wants to get authors to adopt readers.

Michelle Richmond, who doesn’t have a non-literary bone in her body, vows to read a potboiler.

Susan plans to be more of a smartass.

Ms. Snark, after running 99 synopses through her crapometer, is excused from any New Year’s resolutions.

Thanks to Bookslut and Galleycat