Monday, March 24, 2008

Orange Prize

Berkeley writer Anita Amirrezvani’s first novel The Blood of Flowers, has been nominated for an Orange Prize, a British award that honors fiction written by women.

I heard Anita read this summer at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and her book about a young Iranian carpet weaver is beautifully written. It also has one of the most beautiful covers I have ever seen.

Julia Flynn Siler's book, The House of Mondavi, has been nominated for a James Beard Award.

The new Cody's Books opened this weekend on Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. David Hadju inaugarated the new store. Eric Alterman speaks on March 25th. Let us hope this is the final move and the new location works.

Don't forget that Jon Carroll and Leah Garchik will interview one another tonight at Berkeley Rep in a benefit for Park Day School.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Year of Fog Makes New York Times Bestseller List Michelle Richmond’s marvelous Year of Fog is #19 on the New York Times paperback list this week! It hit the San Francisco Chronicle list in hardback when it came out a year ago, and now appears to be becoming a book club favorite. I wrote a review of Year of Fog for a website called Culture Vulture, a one-stop place to find out the latest on books, movies, television shows, dance performances, plays, video games and more. It’s run by Michael Wade Simpson, a writer and former dancer.

Read Michelle’s reaction when she heard the news about the New York Times bestseller list. This is from her blog Sans Serif. (Although she has another blog just for her book, as well.)

“I just received the prettiest bouquet of roses from my publisher, with a note that said, “Dear Michelle, Congratulations on your very first New York Times bestseller.” Well, I would like to be very dignified and nonchalant about this, but I just about peed in my pants, as we say down in Alabama. Granted, they told me about it yesterday–a phone call from Nita Taublib and my editor, Caitlin Alexander, which began with the question, “Michelle, are you sitting down?”, and which resulted in my hurling a joyful expletive at Caitlin, as in, “Are you f-ing kidding me?”–but by this morning I’d kind of convinced myself I was dreaming, so when the flowers arrived it was like, oh, that really did happen, I wasn’t making it up."

Congrats, Michelle.

Michelle writes about a missing child and the love her would-be-stepmother feels for her. Well, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik writes about a different kind of love in her new book, Real Life Romance: Everyday Wisdom on Love, Sex, and Relationships. Leah will be appearing at Berkeley Repertory Theater Monday March 24th in conversation with her fellow Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. The two will sort of interview one another. This is a benefit for my daughter’s school, Park Day, a wonderful progressive elementary school in Oakland. Ticket information is here.

I want to highlight another benefit, this one for PACT, an adoption alliance. Susan Ito, blogger extraordinaire, is bringing writer and performance artist Alison Larkin to Oakland on Easter Sunday. Larkin wrote the book The English American, and it is getting great buzz. This benefit will be at 4 pm on Sunday.

The Lit-Blog Coop is disbanding. This was the effort of a small group of litbloggers (not me) to highlight books they thought were overlooked or underappreciated. They nominated a pick every quarter and had on-line conversations about the book and author. I did end up reading Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories as a result of their recommendation so I imagine others were influenced by their selections as well. But most of the bloggers have gone on to other endeavors and I guess they just ran out of steam.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The New York Times Explains Itself

Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the New York Times, explored how the paper of record was duped by false memoir writer Margaret Jones, who wrote Love and Consequences.

This is a story that fell between the cracks and I can see why. Hoyt does a good job of showing how the initial glowing book review gave the author instant credibility, enough that the reporter writing a profile for the Home section gave Jones an easy pass. He also debunks the notion that the Times reviewed the book because its editor was Sarah McGrath, the daughter of Times writer and former book review editor Charles McGrath.

However, this should be the last time this mistake is made. Now every book reviewer, blogger, reporter, and writer should realize that people can't be taken for their word. Remember the mantra: Check! Check! Check!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Literary Tidbits

Julia Flynn Siler, who wrote the bestselling House of Mondavi, has started a blog. She’s at the Neiman Narrative Nonfiction Conference in Boston and her reports are fascinating.

Garrison Keiller pens an ode to San Francisco. His sweet spot? A café on Irving Street in the Sunset.

“It was a glorious four days and I didn't even go to the beach. I just sat in a coffee shop on Irving Street near Golden Gate Park and smelled spring and watched the passing parade of youth.

Everybody in my coffee shop seemed to be in their 20s, locked into laptops, clicking and dragging, jumping to new links, sending IMs while text-messaging with the left hand, and the sheer volume of communication was impressive to behold. Here I was, chugging along writing a novel in which a guy meets up with his own mortality and is shocked into an outburst of passion, a sort of coming-of-old-age novel, typing taptaptaptap, and all around me beautiful young people were disseminating information in all directions by all media.”

The future of conversation is noise. Read Bay Area freelancer Dan Fost’s incredible article on how Twitter and social networking is changing lectures, conferences, and other gatherings.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Good Old-Fashioned Reporting led to the Eliot Spitzer Story; Too Bad There Won't Be Enough Bay Area Reporters to Do the Same

The New York Times deconstructs how it uncovered the Eliot Spitzer prostitution ring story. The Times reporters got the information through good old-fashioned beat reporting. The Attorney General's office had sent out a press release announcing the break-up of a prostitution ring. There was nothing unusual about that. But reporters noticed that the lead prosecutor in court on March 6 was very high up in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office. That got people thinking.

“No one had talked of the escort ring’s inner workings, and certainly no one mentioned the governor’s name,” according to a story in the Times. “Just one fact piqued interest for some in the room: The lead prosecutor on the case was Boyd M. Johnson III, the chief of the public corruption unit of the Manhattan United States attorney’s office."

"Later that day, reporters at The New York Times learned of the unusual presence of three lawyers from the corruption unit, including the boss of that division and an F.B.I. agent from one of the bureau’s public corruption squads. The public corruption units often look at the conduct of elected officials."

"Within hours, the reporters were convinced that a significant public figure was involved as a client of the prostitution ring.”

That’s how reporters get stories. By being around and working sources. That’s the kind of gumshoe reporting that will now be missing all around the Bay Area as virtually every paper has slashed its staff to the bone.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Donner Party

The story of the Donner Party, which survived a winter in the snowy Sierra through incredible courage, determination, and a touch of cannibalism, has fascinated the American public ever since the ill-fated 1846-47 trip.

Dozens of books and memoirs have been written about the wagon train party that left Missouri in late October 1846, part of a massive migration west that would pick up steam after gold was discovered in California in 1848. The 81-member group made a major miscalculation by taking a time-consuming and improperly named shortcut over the Wasatch Mountains that prevented it from crossing the Sierra before the winter snows set in.

Surprisingly, the best-known non-fiction book on the subject, Ordeal By Hunger, was published by George Rippey in the 1930s. Since then, new documents, diaries and letters have come to light and archeologists have led new expeditions to Donner Lake and Alder Creek, the two sites members of the Donner Party spent the winter.

Now journalist Ethan Rarick has written Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West, drawing from the new documents and new information about what happens to humans as they slowly starve. It got a rave review in the New York Times Book Review. I went to hear him speak last night at Cody’s Books in Berkeley. Even though I thought I knew about the Donner Party (I had read Ordeal by Hunger as well as James Houston’s magnificent novel Snow Mountain Passage) I was moved by Rarick’s descriptions of those who survived.

Rarick believes that the Donner Party continues to fascinate people not because of the cannibalism, but because the story illuminates how regular people survived in extraordinary circumstances. Most survival stories turned into books feature military men or famous explorers like Shakelton or Hilary, not ordinary mothers and fathers.

“There’s much we can learn about regular people in extraordinary circumstances,” Rarick said. “That’s the story of the Donner Party.”

Rarick was one of the last writers to speak from the Cody’s on Fourth Street. The store is moving to Shattuck Street in downtown Berkeley and will reopen on April 1. All the books in the store are 40% off and as Rarick spoke, I saw people with stacks of books walking to the cash register. The store is looking pretty empty but there are still lots of great deals.

I also had a chance to go last week to hear Michelle Richmond read from her book The House of Fog, just released in paperback. Richmond will talk tonight (March 12) at A Great Good Place for Books in Montclair. I stopped in that bookstore yesterday and the owner Kathleen Caldwell said the book was selling briskly. I see that it is #8 on the Chronicle paperback best-seller list. The Chronicle named it one of its ten best books of 2007. I have just started it and can vouch that it is a page turner. Richmond is a beautiful writer who can also craft a compelling plot.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Better Get Your MBA Before You Write That Book

So it turns out being an author now means learning to market yourself to corporations. The days of just trying to get a booking in a local bookstore, a radio interview here and there and a profile in a paper just don’t cut it.

The New York Times ran a story in the business section on Sunday on how Seattle is becoming the new power center for book sales. The reason? Its triumvirate of Amazon, Starbucks, and Costco.

These three corporations are increasingly driving book sales as more and more of the market shifts from conventional bookstores to other points of sale. The good part of the shift is that the people in power at those companies clearly love books and often advocate for titles that are not just mass market easy reads. The downside is that there is just a narrow funnel to capture their attention, often driven by the publicity departments of publishers.

I went into a Whole Foods the other day and was surprised to see a rack of books and CDs right next to the prepared foods section. I guess the store figures people will browse while they wait for their number to come up. I think we are going to see more and more of this kind of unusual marketing for books. The rack was small, so I don’t know if this is a good thing.

In other book news, Ed Champion and friends are carrying on a week-long discussion about Nicholson Baker’s new book on World War II, Human Smoke. The reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, Mark Kurlansky, really liked the book, which challenges long-held assumptions about the causes of the war. But Ed and friends are suggesting that Baker’s newspaper-snippet-long sections are less historical than carefully selected to present an argument and that a book that poses as a historical treatise may in reality be much more manipulative. (I think that is what they say.) Anyway, all these discussion have gotten my attention and I definitely want to check out the book.

The Annual Tournament of Books has begun. Today it is The Savage Detectives vs. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name.

The website of blogger Maud Newton was hacked over the weekend and all of her 8,000 posts were deleted. Fortunately, her webhosting site had back-ups.

Goodbye, The Wire. It was too short.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Mercury News Layoffs -- New Proof that Media News is Short-sighted

The Mercury News lost some of its best reporters today as its new owner, Media News, continued its desperate slash of costs. Twenty-three reporters and editors are leaving, most involuntarily, although some took a buyout. Look for a much thinner paper and many more unnoticed shenanigans.

I haven’t worked at the Mercury in nine years so I don’t know all those who are leaving, but there are a few who were let go whose work has consistently been outstanding.

Barry Witt, for example, broke more hard-hitting stories than most everyone, including the news that Alameda County had vastly overpaid to lure the Raiders to Oakland.

Carolyn Jung has been a food writer and the food section editor and consistently made the section interesting.

Lisa Chung was a columnist, metro reporter, and editor and a visible face of the paper.

Sue Hutchinson’s column held prime real estate in the paper for years. She was nimble with words and wrote about an astonishing variety of topics.

A few veterans took buyouts, including Steve Wright, the editorial page editor (and my former editor) and Rebecca Salner, the assistant managing editor of business. They both had been at the paper for almost 20 years.

These people were assets to the newsroom. It’s a crime they will no longer be part of this news-gathering operation. In protest, Charles Matthews, a former Merc reporter, cancelled his subscription to the paper today. Read his reasons.

Here’s the list:


Lisa Chung, Metro feature writer, ex-columnist

Steve Chae, Library

Katherine Conrad, commercial real estate reporter

Barbara Egbert, copy editor

Barb Feder, medical writer

Dennis Georgatos, 49ers beat writer

Elizabeth Goodspeed, features designer

Joanne HoYoung Lee, photographer

Carolyn Jung, food columnist

Dave Kiefer, sports writer

Thu Ly, photographer

Mike Martinez, travel writer

Erik Olvera, Metro reporter

Connie Skipitares, metro reporter

Barry Witt, Metro reporter


Alvie Lindsay, state bureau chief

Matt Mansfield, deputy managing editor

Pam Moreland , features editor

Rebecca Salner, AME of Business

Steve Wright, head of editorial pages

Voluntary departures

Sue Hutchison, features columnist

Julie Kaufmann, food editor

Levi Sumagaysay, assistant Business editor

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Goodbye Newspapers (Sung to the Tune of Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road)

The demise of newspapers continues. The Mercury News, my old stomping grounds, plans to lay off 30 reporters and editors tomorrow. The paper once had 400 editorial employees; it will soon have 170.

My former colleague Michael Bazeley has a wonderful eulogy for the Merc.

Peggy Drexler wrote a moving opinion piece in the Chronicle today about the death of newspapers.

Here’s another view.

When I left the Mercury News nine years ago to write essays and books, I never thought it was a good career move. Now it looks like it was.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Will the New York Times Investigate its Role in the Margaret Jones/Seltzer Flap?

The heat is on for the New York Times to do an examination on how its reporters (or more accurately, book reviewer and free-lance writer) completely bought into the false story perpetuated by Margaret Jones/ Seltzer.

Some people are calling for the Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt to examine whether Jones’s book got extensive coverage since its editor, Sarah McGrath, was a daughter of Charles McGrath, the former editor of the Book Review.

“What the Times has not really done is deal effectively with the big ugly toad squatting on the center square of this story...The New York Times,” writes Hartfort Courant reporter Colin McEnroe.

"Seltzer's book got the kind of ride from the Times that authors dream of. A rave in a featured daily review by alpha critic Michiko Kakutani and then a truly gushy piece in the House and Home section. How did it get that kind of star-making treatment?

One has to think it has something to do with Seltzer's editor, Sarah McGrath, who worked for three years on this book without ever noticing that it was 100 percent hooey and who is the daughter of Times writer-at-large Charles McGrath. In identifying papa this way, the Times kind of covers up who he really is -- the editor emeritus of the Times Book Review. So, Mr. Hoyt, one thing I would like you to look into is how many times Mr. McGrath slouched into this or that office around the building and suggested that a little more than usual could be done for this book by one of Sarah's authors. "Never" would be a wonderful answer.”

I remember when I was an intern reporter at the Fremont Argus, way back in 1982. One of the veteran reporters was profiling a guy for a routine story. But he checked the guy’s credentials anyway, going as far as calling his college to confirm that he had graduated when he said he had.

I was impressed by that level of care and tried to emulate it whenever possible. You would be surprised by how often people distort the innocuous details of their lives.

That said, I don’t think it was Michiko Kakutani’s role to fact check the book. The feature reporter who wrote the piece for the Home section should have done some fact-checking. Unfortunately, she was a freelancer which meant she was trying to do the piece in a timely fashion so as to maintain a decent work to pay ratio. When you are not on staff, you can’t be expected to be as thorough as a regular reporter. And the Home section is not intended to be a bastion of hard-hitting journalism.

That leaves the publisher, Riverhead. Acquiring editors are usually so pressed for time they don’t investigate prospective authors. They want to establish a good relationship, not an adversarial one. But clearly an interim step is needed with memoir. Why can’t the publisher ask a writer to provide documentation to back up key elements of a story? It can be submitted shortly after a manuscript is delivered.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Look What Came to Visit

I came home on Monday afternoon and was surprised by three wild turkeys sitting on my porch. I knew that the turkeys were roaming all over the East Bay, but I didn't expect to see them where I live, up in the hills. When I shooed them away (you should see how much they pooped in just a short time) they flew! That's how little I know about turkeys. I thought they just waddled.

Another Author Caught Lying

I wasn’t surprised by James Frey, (his opening sentences were too far out to be believed) but I didn’t expect this one.

Last week, in positive book review and a long and colorful profile in the Home and Garden section, the New York Times heaped praise on Margaret B. Jones for her affecting memoir about growing up as a gang member in Central Los Angeles.

It was all made up.

Margaret B. Jones is not really a half-white, half Native American foster child who joined the Bloods, but Margaret Seltzer, a privileged girl from an affluent family in Sherman Oaks, CA. She was outed after her sister saw the profile and called up Riverhead, the book’s publisher. Love and Consequences is a lie.

“In a sometimes tearful, often contrite telephone interview from her home on Monday, Ms. Seltzer, 33, who is known as Peggy, admitted that the personal story she told in the book was entirely fabricated,” according to an article in the New York Times. “She insisted, though, that many of the details in the book were based on the experiences of close friends she had met over the years while working to reduce gang violence in Los Angeles.”

I paid attention to this one because I am so dismayed by the killing that is taking place on the streets of Oakland and San Francisco. I thought of writing a book by following all of Oakland’s murders for a year, but ultimately decided it would be too dangerous. When I read about Love and Consequences I said to myself that this memoir was probably a much better, more effective way to shine light on all the killing that is taking place.

I was wrong on that account, as well.

Monday Musings

Michael Chabon’s and Michael Pollan’s fundraiser for Barack Obama in Berkeley on Friday raised more than $50,000, according to Chabon.

As I drove by the scene on the Uplands in the Berkeley Hills around 6:30 p.m., cars and valet attendants were so stacked up that the street was nearly impassable. Some of those who attended apparently donated $4,600, the maximum permitted by law, according to Chabon. Alice Waters, a longtime supporter of the Clintons, was supposed to attend.

The evening was billed as “Fine Talk, Fine Food, and A Fine Candidate,” and was one of a series of Obama fundraisers put on by Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman. Months ago they pledged to raise $25,000 for the candidate; they have been so successful that they have upped their goal to $75,000. Their website says they have raised $65,000 but I think Friday’s event puts them over the top.

The party took place in one of the most generous, politically-minded parts of Berkeley. The 94705 zip code has donated $415,000 to Democratic candidates this election and only $17,000 to Republican candidates. No surprise, as this is Berkeley.

Mary Roach, whose new book Bonk is coming out next month, had a sweet piece in Play, a New York Times magazine, on Sunday, about learning to swim as an adult.