Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Nor Cal Independents Honor Towers of Gold

It's no secret that I love independent bookstores. I am down in Los Angeles and yesterday dropped into the new Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood, even though I had spent the previous two days surrounded by authors and books at the LA Times Festival of Books. Still, I wanted to see what they had and what caught my interest. I almost never pass up a chance to browse in an independent bookstore.

That is why I am so pleased to report that the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association has named Towers of Gold a Best Book of 2009. It won in the regional category against some amazing books, including Philip Fradkin's well-regarded biography of Wallace Stegner. (To the left is a poster of the award winners. T of G is in the middle on the right.)

The people who voted for Towers of Gold are the booksellers who are on the front lines, showcasing new authors and literary writers while fending of the threat from Amazon and other on-line sellers.

My book, a biography of Isaias Hellman, a banker and my great great grandfather, is not an obvious "must buy." While Hellman was nationally-known in his lifetime, he is virtually forgotten today. So when people browse the non-fiction section, they might not take notice of a book about a man of whom they have never heard.

Yet booksellers in the extended Bay Area have been very generous with Towers of Gold, and have recommended it to their customers. It spent a few weeks on the NCIBA bestseller list and is still displayed in many bookstores.

This is the beauty of independents: their owners and clerks are knowledgeable about books and have opinions. I owe much of the success of Towers of Gold to them. Thank you.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

As I’ve said in earlier posts, I have wanted to go to the Los Angeles Festival of  Books for years. As a book lover, the fair seemed irresistible: more than 450 authors, 130,000 book fans, sunny Los Angeles, and books galore.

Well, I am happy to report that fair met my expectations. I started getting giddy Saturday morning as I left my hotel in downtown LA and punched in the address of the fair into my new GPS device. (I used one of these on my last trip and it was so helpful I decided to buy one.) It only took about 20 minutes to start winding my way through the tree-lined UCLA campus, but by the time I walked into the Greeen Room I was almost hyperventilating

I immediately ran into David Ulin, the book editor of the LA Times, and his gracious greeting set the tone for the festival. The organizers treated authors like rock stars, which we clearly aren’t, but it was nice to be fed well, escorted to our panels, and be given a free mug.

After my third cup of coffee for the day, I headed out into the festival. There are hundreds of white tents set up around the campus, each hosting a publisher, or bookstore, or book-related organization. I immediately stumbled upon the booth for PoliPoint Press and Peter Richardson, one of the press’ editors. They publish contemporary books on politics and economics. I bought a copy of Breadlines: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger by Sasha Abramsky, a journalist who writes frequently for The Nation. I ws delighted to hear that Peter’s long-anticipated book on Ramparts Magazine will be out in September.

My panel on History: Hidden Los Angeles was at 3:30 and the time flew by. Soon, I was back in the Green Room where I met my fellow panelists D.J. Waldie, Chip Jacobs, and Bill Deverell, the moderator.

Did I mention that my panel was broadcast live on national television by Book TV on CSPAN-2? I only discovered this a few days earlier and was so busy getting ready for my trip that I only sent out a few emails. I rushed into the very crowded ladies room to apply a little makeup so I wouldn’t looked washed out on television. Well, authors in general are not part of the glam set and I felt very self-conscious applying mascara and rouge in the mirror.

The panel was packed and I think it went well. The LA Times blog Jacket Copy has  a report on the panel.

I got a chance to hang out with Scott Martelle, the author of Blood Passion, a book on the Ludlow massacre in Colorado. I also stopped by the Angel City Press booth, where Kevin Roderick, the editor/writer for the LA Observed blog, was signing copies of his book on Wilshire Boulevard. Kevin's blog is fabulous (I read it every day even though  I live in the Bay Area) and it was interesting to see that people regard him as a rock star. I ran into Andrew Tonkovich, the editor of the Santa Monica Review, who said he wanted to introduce himself to Kevin. Tod Goldberg, another author at the festival, blogged about how excited he was to see Kevin.

Other highlights:

By far my best moment at the festival was meeting Larry Gillmore, the “senior black correspondent” for The Daily Show. I felt like a stalker as I approached him as he sat by himself on the patio of the faculty club, right off the Green Room. But he was gracious and inviting and true to form, made me laugh.

Other celebrity sightings:

Maureen McCormick, better known as Marsha Brady, sitting in the corner talking on her cell phone.  I noticed she had picked up the LATFOB mug given to each author.

Cloris Leachman hurrying out of the bathroom.

Bob Barker from the Price is Right.

Interestingly, I did not recognize many of the well-known authors at the festival. I did see the very tall Jane Smiley everywhere

But that is the point of the festival. It is a gathering of ideas, of great tales and great fantasies. Authors are the medium to deliver these goods. And since writing  book takes so much time spent alone in front of the computer, it is wonderful to occasionally have the opportunity to join readers and other authors and have fun.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and other Southern Sojourns

For years I have wanted to attend the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which is easily the largest -- and best -- book festival on the West Coast. Each year more than 100,000 people go to the UCLA campus to hear more than 450 authors talk about a range of topics.

It has always seemed to far to travel for a weekend. But when I published Towers of Gold, one of the goals I set for myself was to appear at the festival. Well, I am delighted that the organizers asked me, and once the invitation was extended I had no difficulty committing to the 300-mile journey south.

I will be appearing on a panel Saturday at 3:30 pm titled History:Unknown Los Angeles. The authors DJ Waldie and Chip Jacobs will join me. Bill Deverell, my old Stanford buddy who is now a professor of history at USC and the head of the USC -Huntington Institute for the Study of California and the West, will moderate.

Each of us wrote about a "hidden" history of Los Angeles. Jacobs wrote Smogtown, which explores the impact of pollution on the environment. Waldie wrote a memoir about growing up in an LA suburb. I wrote about the early days of LA, the city's most successful banker, and the role Jews played in the state's development.

Come join us.

I will be doing other events in Los Angeles as well:

April 24 (Friday)

7:00 p.m.

Jonathan Club

545 S. Figueroa St.

Los Angeles, CA

April 25 (Saturday)

3:30 p.m.

Los Angeles Festival of Books

Panel: History: Unknown Los Angeles

With William Deverell, D. J. Waldie, and Chip Jacobs

Haines Hall 39

University of California at Los Angeles

April 26 (Sunday)

3:00 p.m.

Jewish Historical Society of Southern California

Hellman's old Farmers and Merchants Bank

411 S. Main Street

Los Angeles, CA

April 27 (Monday)

6:30 – 8:00 p.m.

Julie Robinson Literary Affairs

Westwood Public Library

246 Glendon Avenue

Los Angeles, CA

April 28 (Tuesday)

6:00 p.m.

USC Jewish Alumni Association


330 South Hoover Street

University of Southern California

Los Angeles, CA

They are all going to be fun, but I am particularly excited about the Sunday event. I will be talking in the bank building that Isaias Hellman built in 1905. When I was in LA in December I got to tour the Farmers and Merchants Bank Building, but I think it will be exciting to actually give a speech there. It's at Fourth and Main in downtown Los Angeles.,_Los_Angeles.JPG

The Farmers and Merchants Bank Building at 411 S. Main Street.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Author James Houston is dead

I just got the news that one of my favorite writers, James Houston, has died.

He came to international fame when he co-authored Farewell to Manzanar with his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. The book, which is still read regularly in schools, told the story of her internment in a detention camp for Japanese-Americans in California’s Owens Valley during World War II.

His later work also explored aspects of California’s history, including the fantastic Snow Mountain Passage, a novel about the doomed Donner Party. Patty Reed, who survived the Donner Party’s ordeal, once occupied the home the Houstons lived in Santa Cruz. He also wrote extensively about Hawaii, a state he considered a second home.

The list of his awards is long, and included an American Book Award, a Humanitas Award, a Californiana Silver Medal from the Commonwealth Club, and an Emmy nomination. He was also invited to be a writer-in-residence at many prestigious places, including the Rockefeller Foundation’s villa in Bellagio, Italy.

I first got to know Houston when I attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He was a long-time friend of Oakley and Barbara Hall, who co-founded the conference. Every summer, Houston would come up to Lake Tahoe and share his knowledge of fiction writing and the publication process with aspiring authors. He was tall and lanky and surprisingly elegant in his jeans and casual button-up shirts. Most important, he was accessible. He didn’t use his status as an accomplished author to set himself apart from people at the conference. He was generous and helpful.

He died Thursday at his home in Santa Cruz from complications from cancer.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Readings, Readings, and More Readings

“A story, after all, does not only belong to the one who is telling it. It belongs, in equal measure, to the one who is listening.”

That will be the theme of a reading tonight at 7 pm Orinda Books, part of a tour of a group of women authors. Michelle Richmond, Susan Freinkel, Brenda Webster, Jessica Barksdale Inclan and I will be reading from our respective books. We will also talk about the power of stories to change, to create self, to shape history and memory.

We are all members of WOM-BA, or Word of Mouth Bay Area. (weird name, I know, and a long and not-particularly interesting story.) It’s a group of women who have all published. We get together monthly and through e-mail to talk about writing.

This tour – and there will be two other segments with different authors May 7 and 14th at at Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco – was conceived and put together by Elizabeth Stark. She is the author of Shy Girl and energetic organizer who also writes a very entertaining blog.

Please come.

I also want to put in a plug for the Northern California Book Awards, which take place Sunday April 19 at 1 pm at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. The awards nominate authors in various categories, including fiction, creative non fiction, translation, non-fiction, poetry and children’s book. Dozens of authors are coming to celebrate the work of Northern California writers.

Towers of Gold has been nominated in the general non-fiction category.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Admission, or Tips on How to Get into that Prestigious College

I spent the last week traveling between East Coast cities on one of those overly-analyzed and dreaded parental excursions: the college tour. My 16-year old daughter and I trooped from New York City to New Haven to Middletown to Providence to Amherst and then Boston (read Columbia, Yale, Wesleyan, Brown, Amherst and Tufts) in search of that elusive, perfect college.

We were not alone. In every city, on every tour, we joined hundreds of other anxious parents and high school juniors and listened to surprisingly funny and eloquent descriptions of some of the nation’s most elite schools. We traipsed in large hordes behind backwards-walking student tour guides and peeked in numerous Gothic and Georgian buildings.

The entire tour was becoming a blur until I went into the newly-renovated Brown University bookstore. I was in search of Dexter Filkins’ book, The Forever War, because my editor in New York said it was an unputdownable kind of book. I had brought two new releases on my trip from California, but hadn’t been able to get into them, so I was in search of something great.

It took the bookstore staff awhile to locate Filkins’ book, and I poked around while I waited. I picked up a book on the front table and immediately knew I had to buy it. It was called Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, and it tells the story of a Princeton University admissions officer who goes through a life crisis. Tidbits about the kinds of applicants who apply to Ivy League schools are scattered throughout the book, as are snippets of admissions essays and thoughtful musings on what distinguishes a remarkable student from the merely great. How can I not buy this book, I thought? It’s what I am living through.

Korelitz, of whom I had never heard, but who must be talented since her agent is Suzanne Gluck, worked as a reader for Princeton in 2006 and 2007. (It turns out she is the cousin of Helene Hanff, who wrote 84 Charing Cross Road. Her husband, Paul Maddoon, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2003) She draws heavily on her experience in this novel, which almost reads like a (fun) manual on how to apply to a prestigious university.

The book saved me. Suddenly the dreary task of driving hundreds of miles between pristine campuses seemed easy. The drone of the admissions officers made sense. The state of the dorms and the taste of the food were put in context. In short, the book was a delight, a fun read, and an informative tome for a mother of a junior in high school. And for aspiring applicants as well. My daughter and I kept fighting over who got to read Admission. In my mind, that is high praise.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Slush Pile and other Myths of Publishing

I dropped into St. Martins Press in New York this week for a quick visit with my editor to talk about the paperback edition of Towers of Gold. I brought my 16-year old daughter along and thought it would be fun to show her the inner workings of a major publisher.

St. Martins is located in the historic Flatiron Building in New York, which celebrated its centennial a few years ago. It's located on 23rd Street between Broadway and Fifth and has a
great view of the city.

I asked to see the St. Martin's slush pile, which I imagined as a tower of manila envelopes and loose query pages. Vicki Lame, an assistant editor, showed me where the publisher stores unsolicited manuscripts and I was surprised to see it was smaller than I expected. She said that an editorial assistant had just gone through the pile -- a process that they do twice a year.

The slush pile only fills up one shelf in this bookshelf.

The world of reading proposals is changing as well. Editors at St. Martin's and other Macmillan imprints no longer read submissions from agents on paper. Agents e-mail proposals and they are loaded onto Sony e-readers. So there was only a minor tower of paper on the desk of Michael Flamini, my editor. (He still reads and edits completed manuscripts on paper.) Here is a picture of Michael holding up his e-reader.

I love to find out which books Michael has coming out. I picked up a galley of Mile High Fever, a book about the Comstock Lode by Dennis Drabelle, which is coming out in July. Flamini also has an autobiography of Vic Damone coming out that sounds fun. Flamini keeps the books he has edited on display in his office; if you look closely enough you can see Towers of Gold on the bottom shelf.

Friday, April 03, 2009

A Lighthearted Look at the Demise of the Newspaper Industry

Watch the staff of the East Bay Express sing their way out of trouble ... The video was produced and sung by Jonathan Mann. (via FishbowlLA)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Chronicle Keeps on Losing People

The Hearst Corporation is still keeping mum about the number and names of people who have taken a buyout from the San Francisco Chronicle, but a few more names have come out.

One of the paper’s top reporters, Seth Rosenfeld, who has produced stories that have garnered national attention, is leaving. Rosenfeld has written extensively about the secret doings of the University of California, and won awards for a 2002 series on how the FBI illegally gathered information at the university during the Cold War, and then tried to cover up its involvement.

Steve Rubenstein, who wrote column-like stories on quirky people and places around the Bay Area is departing.

Other departures include:

Ruthe Stein, who writes about the film world.

Tanya Schevitz, an education reporter.

Bill Burnett, real estate editor

Jennifer Thelen, a copy editor

Steve Hornbostel, a page designer

John Batteiger, a business wire editor

Rich Pestoric, an arts and graphics designer

Long time culture and arts reporter Steve Winn left recently as well.

UPDATE April 3, 2009:

Here are some additional names of reporters and editors leaving the Chronicle:

Elizabeth Fernandez, health and medicine reporter
George Raine, business reporter (advertising and marketing)
Gwen Knapp, sports columnist
Rico Mendez, page designer
Janet Fletcher, food reporter
Reyhan Harmanci, Datebook trends reporter
Glenn Schwarz, sports editor
Greg Ambrose, news and business copy editor
Rod Jones, news copy editor
Beth Hughes, news copy editor

The business side – advertising and classified – is also losing many employees.

Many of these reporters apparently were motivated to accept a buyout in order to preserve their pensions. The pension fund has lost about $25 million in value with the recent stock market dip. If reporters agreed to depart by April 3, 2009, they could get their pension paid out in a lump sum and retire by 55.

With the drop in the pension fund’s value, Hearst apparently plans to change its retirement rules, moving up the age of retirement to 65 and switching to an annuity, which pays out annually, rather than a lump sum retirement. For many reporters in their 50s, staying on under those circumstances just didn’t pencil out.

In response to all these departures, the Newspaper Guild is forming a new unit for freelancers. They are going to hold their first meeting Friday April 3 at noon at the California Media Workers building at 433 Natoma Street in San Francisco.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Wisteria, Poetry and Literary Tidbits

The wisteria outside my door is just coming into bloom

April 1 is the start of National Poetry Month. Norton has put up a fun website where you can listed to poets like Robert Pinsky and Kim Addonizio others read their own poems as wall as other people’s poems.

A lot of Bay Area writers have new books coming out:

Joan Gelfand s newest book of poetry, A Dreamer’s Guide to Cities and Streams, has just been released.

Catherine Brady’s latest collection of short stories, The Mechanics of Falling, has also just come out. Brady is a San Francisco resident and the stories are set largely in the city.

Jill Wolfson, a former Mercury News reporter who now lives in Santa Cruz, has a new YA novel. It's called Cold Hands, Warm Heart, and it tells the story of two teenage girls, one a fit gymnast who has a terrible accident, and the other a girl born with her heart on the wrong side. When the gymnast's heart is transplanted into the chest of the other girl, interesting things happen.

Brian Eule’s narrative nonfiction book. Match Day, was released in early March to coincide with the day that medical students learn which hospitals have chosen them to be residents. Eule went to Stanford and lives in Northern California.The New York Times wrote about his book and the process.

Michelle Richmond has written a wonderful essay about how both San Francisco and the South feel like home to her, and how those feelings show up in her fiction.

My book, Towers of Gold, is back on the San Francisco Chronicle best seller list at #6.

I have also started to blog at SFGate in a section called "City Brights." The San Francisco Chronicle has asked various members of the community -- artists, politicians, lawyers, sport enthusiasts, etc. to write blogs. (A case of a paper laying off its own reporters and getting content for free. More on that later.) My latest entry is about the grind and glory of the book tour.