Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fire, Fire, Everywhere

View of the fire from satellite.

I can't stop obsessing over the southern California fire, which is probably no surprise since I lost my house in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. I know just how these people are feeling: torn between happiness they are alive and shock they have lost their way of life. In many ways it is worse for them. The Oakland Hills fire raged for a day. I knew by 4 pm that my house had burned down, one of 2,800 dwellings turned to ash. Some of the people in San Diego County left their homes three days ago and still don't know their fate. They must be in pure agony.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Jews and Books

If it is late fall, it must be Jewish Book Season.

Every year towards the end of October, Jewish organizations around the country bring together dozens of Jewish authors for day-long book fairs. In California, there will be at least three fairs happening almost simultaneously, one in Contra Costa County, one in San Francisco, and one in Los Angeles.

It’s no coincidence that the fairs happen at the same time because the events are partially orchestrated by a group called the Jewish Book Council. The group was founded in 1925 by a Boston librarian who arranged a display of Jewish-themed books and called the event Jewish Book Week. The idea was formalized and retooled, and today a subsidiary of the Council, known as the Jewish Book Network, helps coordinate 70 book fairs around the country featuring 160 authors. It’s a $3 million industry and the major way for those with Jewish-themed books to reach a targeted audience.

That makes the Book Council’s director, Carolyn Starman Hessel, one of the most powerful people in publishing, even though she has nothing to do with the actual printing of any book. If the axiom that Jews buy a lot of books is true (and I’ve heard that while Jews only make up 2% of the population, they buy 20% of the hardcover books) Hessel is a woman who influences the reading choices of thousands of Jews around the country. If she likes your book, she stands behind your book. A lot of people listen to her opinion.

It used to be that Hessel would go to Book Expo America and interview various authors to see if they would be appropriate for Jewish Book festivals. Then she would talk to coordinators around the country and recommend names and titles for the book fairs.

That informality is long gone. Now authors literally audition for a slot in a Jewish book festival in a process that Rachel Donadio of the New York Times Book Review described as “a combination of “The Gong Show” and speed-dating.” Each year, authors get about two minutes to pitch their book and convince Hessel and other book fair coordinators that they will entertain and inform audiences. While subject matter counts, so does an author’s ability to deliver a rousing talk.

Hessel’s “tours have also helped kick-start the careers of promising young novelists including Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer,” writes Donadio.

“Hessel has an “uncanny ability” to get people enthusiastic about Jewish books, said Krauss, who first went on a Jewish Book Network tour to promote her 2002 novel, “Man Walks Into a Room.” “If ‘Finnegans Wake’ were even a little Jewish, Carolyn could convince thousands of people in J.C.C.’s across the country to read it.”

I met Hessel a few years ago as she accompanied two of her favorite authors on a small book tour. Samuel Freedman, whose most recent book was Who She Was, a memoir about his mother, and Ari Goldman, who had just written Living a Year of Kaddish, toured synagogues and community centers on the West Coast. Hessel, a diminutive, well-coiffed woman, was there in the audience, cheering them on and promoting their books.

The San Francisco Jewish Community Center BookFest tour will be on November 4th at the Jewish Community Center on California Street in San Francisco. It is free, and will feature many stellar authors, including Michael Chabon, Shalom Auslander, whose new memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, is drawing rave reviews, (and was strongly promoted by Hesel) Dalia Sofer, who wrote The Septembers of Shiraz, Steve Almond, author of Candy Freak and the essay collection Not That You Asked, and Michael Wex, who is following up his hit book Not to Kvetch with Just Say Nu.

The Contra Costa County Jewish Book and Art Festival runs Oct. 30 through Nov. 15 and features KQED host Michael Krasney and Berkeley author Peggy Orenstein, among many others.

In Los Angeles, the University of Judaism is hosting the first Celebration of Jewish Books from Nov. 5th-11th. Authors include Michael Chabon, Tony Kushner, Daniel Handler, and Daniel Mendelsohn, among others.

Check out Jewish book events in your area.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Literary Tidbits Doris Lessing wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a choice I can relate to, as I read and reread The Golden Notebook numerous times in my early 20s. I haven’t read her recent books, I confess, which are science fiction.

Jeffrey Toobin blames the success of his new book on the Supreme Court, The Nine, to his ineptitude as a novelist. (via Galleycat)

Litquake is upon us! I intend to go to the pub/reading crawl on Saturday with my writing group, North 24th. One of the members of our group, Julia Flynn Siler, will be reading from her House of Mondavi. It’s about the winemaking family and they have put her with a group of other authors who write about food, including Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters. The panel's title is Tasting Course: Authors Write About Food & Wine.

Once again the Lit Crawl is an embarrassment of riches. (The schedule is here.) There are too many authors to hear and the ones I want to see all seem to appear at the same time. Some conflicts I am mulling: do I go to the panel on Heydey Press and California history or the one on bad girls acting out? The latter is sure to be a hoot with Joyce Maynard, Ellen Sussman, Mary Roach, Lolly Winston and Lisa Taggert. But I am writing a book on California history and consider the Heydey authors my compadres.

In another time slot, it’s writers from the Grotto versus writers from Bay Area Word of Mouth, a group of highly accomplished published women writers. (I am nominally a member although I mostly lurk and read their emails.)

Last year I adored the Grotto presentation. Marianna Cherry was a special surprise and she will be reading again this year. I’d love to hear Gerard Jones and Andy Raskin as well.

The WOMBA list is equally tempting. There’s Meredith Maran, whose work I have adored since What It’s Like to Live Now, Harriet Scott Chessman, who I just met the other night, Lalita Tademy, a class act if I ever saw one (I did a profile of her for People Magazine about Cane River. It was a wonderful assignment) and many more.

Of course I could skip those and hear mystery writers Cara Black and Cornelia Read, two more authors whom I enjoy.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Journalists Come Together To Investigate Chauncey Bailey's Murder

Good news on the investigation into Chauncey Bailey’s murder. An ad hoc group of reporters from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and various newspapers, radio and television stations are banding together to investigate the murder.

The group, led by former Chronicle Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal, plans to investigate past and current activities of the Bey family and other issues that impact Oakland residents. The investigation will be called the Bailey Project in homage to a project launched after the murder of another journalist, Don Bolles, in 1976. Bolles was investigating the workings of the mafia for the Arizona Republic when his car was bombed. After his death, scores of reporters came to the state to continue his work and the investigation was known as the Arizona Project.

"We cannot stand for a reporter to be murdered while working on behalf of the public," Dori J. Maynard, president and CEO of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education told Editor and Publisher. "Chauncey's death is a threat to democracy. Journalists will not be intimidated. This type of crime cast a chilling affect over our community. We will not be bullied. We have to prove that there is no gain, and hell to pay, when the very structure of our society is challenged."

Journalists from the following organizations are participating in the Chauncey Bailey Project:

Bay Area Black Journalists Association
Bay Area News Group
Center for Investigative Reporting
Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc.
KQED Public Radio
Maynard Institute for Journalism Education
National Association of Black Journalists
New America Media
New Voices in Independent Journalism
San Francisco State University Journalism Department
San Francisco Bay Guardian
San Jose State University Journalism Department
Sigma Delta Chi of the National Society of Professional Journalists
Society of Professional Journalists - Northern California Chapter
University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism

Monday, October 08, 2007

Finally, a "Why" to Chauncey Bailey's Murder

I gave the local newspapers a hard time after the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey. I was dismayed and a little surprised that no Bay Area paper tried to uncover the facts that led to Bailey’s assassination. I ascribed the indifference, in part, to the recent media consolidation that left the region with just two newspaper chains – The San Francisco Chronicle, owned by Hearst Corp. and Dean Singleton's MediaNews.

It’s been more than two months since Bailey’s murder and the Chronicle redeemed itself today with a story explaining the rise and fall of the Bey family and their Black Muslim Bakery. This is the story that Bailey was apparently reporting when he was killed. It’s a nicely done story by Erin McCormick and Jaxon Van Derbeken as it touches on many of the issues that make this killing so disturbing – the rise and fall of Yusef Bey’s empire, his children’s hoodlumism, the inability of the police to stop their crime spree. It’s kind of shocking that no one was able to stop the violence.

Part One was a profile of Chauncey Bailey.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Bay Area Book Deals

There have been some interesting book sales by Bay Area authors in recent days, one for a first-time author for more than $1 million. (From Publisher's Marketplace)

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Patrick Dillon and Carl Cannon's CIRCLE OF GREED: The Rise and Fall of the Most Feared Lawyer in America, about the rise and fall of Bill Lerach of Milberg, Weiss, Lerach, once the leading class-action lawyer in America and now a convicted felon, a morality tale of greed and corruption in the legal and corporate worlds, set against the biggest financial boom in our history, pitched as in the spirit of Conspiracy of Fools and The Brightest Boys in the Room, to Phyllis Grann at Doubleday in a significant deal, in a pre-empt, by Andrew Stuart at The Stuart Agency (NA).

Patrick Dillon is the editor of California Monthly and a former editor and columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Carl Cannon is a native of San Francisco, but he spent his reporting career elsewhere.

Former San Francisco Chronicle reporter and Global Warming Fellow at the Goldman School of Public Policy, Robert Collier's first-hand account of China's disastrous "carbon footprint," TOO HOT: China's New Economy and Global Warming, to Naomi Schneider at the University of California Press, for publication in 2008, by Amanda Mecke at AMecke Co. (world English).

Robert Collier spent 16 years at the Chronicle and left in August in the recent wave of buyouts and layoffs.

San Francisco MD Josh Bazell's debut novel BEAT THE REAPER, a genre-bending thriller narrated by a charismatic and dangerous hitman-turned-doctor, to Reagan Arthur at Little, Brown, in a major deal, for seven figures, for publication in July 2009, by Markus Hoffmann at Regal Literary (NA).

UK rights to Jason Arthur at William Heinemann, in a good deal, at auction, for one book, by Lauren Pearson at Regal Literary (UK/Commonwealth).

Dutch rights to Pieter Swinkels at De Bezige Bij, in a pre-empt.

Dr. Josh Bazell works in the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Buying Books versus Taking Them Out from the Library

In the last five days I have spent more than $100 dollars on books, not a huge sum, but not a small one either. I bought Scott Kemble’s Soma, Jason Roberts’ A Sense of the World, Kevin Devlin’s The Numbers Behind Numb3rs, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, Charles Shields’ Mockingbird, and Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. They were all paperbacks.

In the same period, I took three books out of the library: Ann Packer’s Song Without Words, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story.

Looking at this small sample, it seems that I buy more books than not. But the opposite is the case: I rarely buy hardbacks, unless they are by my friends, and I only occasionally buy paperbacks.

As an aspiring author who hopes lots of people will buy my book, how do I defend this position? I admire and respect so many writers and I root for them and cheer them on even when I don’t know them. This should translate to buying lots of books, but it doesn’t.

When I first started this blog I wrote about my obsession with working the hold lists at various libraries and the rental bestseller list at the bookstore A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland. The bookstore no longer has a rental program, much to my dismay, but I have continued to finesse the books I have on hold at the Berkeley and Oakland libraries. I can’t tell you how much pleasure I get from hearing about a book and then rushing to reserve it, gaining a third or fourth or occasional first place in line. If I don’t rush, there can be 30 to 40 holds on a book.

I could go out and buy these books, but I get a lot of satisfaction from the chase. It’s perverse, and doesn’t support authors, but it gives me purpose in life. How many people think about their library hold list a few times a day? Not many, I can guarantee.

For the last few weeks, I have maxed out the number of holds I can place with the Berkeley Public Library. The limit is 16, although a librarian told me yesterday the limit might soon go to 60! So I have had to cancel some books I had reserved (sorry Martha Raddatz, but your book on the Iraq war was just taking too long. Ditto Nancy Horan. A friend I respect told me she found Loving Frank a bit contrived) Just yesterday I added Shalom Auslander’s new memoir to the list, so I am maxed out again.

Here is what I am waiting for:

What you Have Left by Will Allison

He’s taught fiction at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers a few times. I’ve heard him read before, and he is wonderful. His publisher took out a full page ad in the New Yorker touting this book, but I don’t know if it has gotten much recognition. (Oops, I just checked and saw this book has been declared lost. Now I may never get it.)

Four Seasons in Rome: on Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr. He is the son of the novelist Harriet Doerr. I heard this one was great. It’s a memoir about the time he spent at the Rockefeller Foundation on Lake Como.

The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt. This is a novel about Britain during World War I and an East Indian mathematician. My husband and daughter love math, so I thought they might enjoy this.

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. One of the hits of the season. I could have purchased it for $12 at Costco, but didn’t. What’s worse: buying from a chain or getting it from the library? I bet the author would encourage me to buy, regardless of place.

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold. (This, too, is for my daughter, who loved The Lovely Bones)

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta. I really enjoyed Little Children.

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer. My friend Ilana DeBare said not to miss this one.

Trashed by Alison Gaylin. Then there are those books I reserve and can’t remember why. I think this one is a mystery featuring a reporter.

The Genetic Strand, by Edward Ball. I really do love nonfiction and this one could be good.

One Drop, by Bliss Broyard

How Starbucks Saved my Life : A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else by Michael Gates Gill. This sounds hokey but actually has gotten some interesting reviews.

As you can see, my reading tastes are eclectic. I probably should focus but what fun is there in that?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Seymour Hersh on Bush and Iran

Here's the New Yorker article Seymour Hersh talked about at the Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival. In it he says Bush is looking for a new pretext to bomb Iran. His attempts to create fear about a widespread nuclear program in Iran didn't produce much support, so he's changing his message to argue bombing is needed to support American ground troops fighting in Iraq.

Of course, Bush's new press secretary Dana Perino belittled the piece. That's par for the course, according to Hersh. Bush completely ignores the media and barely pays attention to his own party, unless they are part of the neoconservative branch.

Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival

I spent about 24 hours at the Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival, and to my surprise, I found it exhilarating. And exhausting. The format was different than anything I had experienced, and it created an environment where you were bombarded with the thoughts and words of various authors.

The really big names like Frank McCourt, Sy Hersh, Elizabeth Edwards, Douglas Brinkley, and Doris Kearns Goodwin got to speak by themselves for about an hour. Otherwise there were sessions where four or five authors came on the stage and spoke for about 15 minutes each. They weren't there to read; they were there to entertain, to showcase their personalities .

I have seen many authors read, but I never quite realized how authors today are required to be bright, witty, and quick with a quip. Some authors at the festival were excellent at this. Joe Quirk, author of Sperm Are From Men, Eggs Are From Women, gave a short lecture on sex and biology that had people doubled over laughing. Kevin Devlin, the Stanford professor who has a math show on NPR, was also entertaining.

Irshad Manji, the Canadian journalist who wrote The Trouble With Islam kept the audience enraptured with her talk about personal responsibility and courage in the world. She obviously has given this talk dozens of times at universities around the globe, and she does it convincingly. She went on way too long, however, perhaps not realizing that she was cutting into the time of other writers.

What these kind of conferences do well is expose participants to writers they may never have heard of and may have never sought out. I really enjoyed seeing Lolly Winston, Kemble Scott, Amy Wilentz, Judith Freeman, Tamin Ansary, and Robert Scheer, among others. There were a few I wish I could have heard, but I had to leave before their presentations, including Goodwin, Brinkley, Jason Roberts and Beth Lisick.

Hersh and McCourt were worth the whatever the conference organizers Jim and Cindy McGillen may have paid them. McCourt talks in a lilting Irish accent and is charming and funny and self-deprecating. He spoke about teaching at a vocational high school in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the lengths he had to go to make the kids interested in writing.

Hersh spoke after lunch on Saturday and his talk immediately changed the tone of the conference. He spoke about the Bush administration and the small group of neoconservatives who have hijacked foreign policy, despite the complaints of more moderate Republicans and much of the rest of the country. Hersh also spoke about the article he has in this week's New Yorker about new plans to bomb Iran. He said the Taliban are poised to take over Afghanistan and any bombing of Iran might lead that nation to bomb Pakistan in retaliation. And as we all know, Pakistan is very unstable and had many nuclear weapons. Hersh ended his talk by saying he thought the US would live through this dark period. Robert Scheer came on stage next and said he disagreed with Hersh. He had interviewed every president since Nixon (except the current one) and that America is giving in to its darkest impulses.

Was this conference worth $500 a ticket? Clearly, most of those attendees didn't have to think twice about the price. Most were in their 60s or 70s and obviously very wealthy. There were many women with beautifully coiffed blonde hair and fingers and wrists decked in diamonds and gold. I saw a lot of Chanel, Burberry and other designer goods. The authors were more poorly dressed than the attendees. The audience looked happy, and looked like they felt they had gotten their money's worth.

These people clearly love books and were delighted to meet so many authors. They were buying four to six books at a time at the book table (staffed by Borders, not an independent bookstore.)

The weather was beautiful, the Sunset Center was a great place to spend a day, and the conversations -- on stage and off -- were stimulating. I would definitely go back next year.

Photo Identification: Frank McCourt and Irish singer Shannon Miller; Irshad Manji signing books; Elizabeth Edwards signing books; Joe Quirk, Julia Flynn Siler, Lolly Winston, and Kemble Scott hanging out in the Green Room; Bridget Kinsella and Jason Roberts at the festival.