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Ghost Word

Ethereal thoughts on books and writing.

Updated: 2018-01-31T08:09:35.021-08:00


Why is is so quiet here? Find me on Berkeleyside


It's been more than a year since I posted a story on Ghost Word, but not because I am lazy. I am writing regularly on Berkeleyside, a news site I run about Berkeley. I frequently write about local books and authors there, so come check it out. You can find it here.

I plan to resurrect Ghost Word soon at a different URL.

Peggy Orenstein on the marketing of pink


From her home in north Berkeley where she lives with her filmmaker husband Steven Okazaki and seven year old daughter Daisy, Peggy Orenstein has been opining for years about the world of girls and feminism for the New York Times magazine. Last week, her latest book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, was published and it is getting big play in both legacy and on-line media. It is both an expose of and meditation about the corporate push to market princesses and pink and early sexuality to young girls.Orenstein just escaped the snows of Chicago (she got on the last plane leaving O’Hare on Tuesday) and is about to embark on the West Coast portion of her book tour. (She will be speaking Feb. 7 at St. John’s Church in Berkeley and Feb. 17 at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland) Ghost Word caught up with her to ask a few questions.Do you wear pink?Of course I wear pink. I’m not a crazy person. But it’s such a tiny slice of the rainbow and although in one way it seems to celebrate girlhood, it also repeatedly and firmly fuses girls’ identity to appearance then it presents that connection not only as innocent but as evidence of innocence. And that innocent pink pretty quickly turns into something else, a kind of diva, self-absorbed pink and ultimately a sexualized pink.What is Daisy’s position on the color now?Truthfully, she was actually never that into pink, which is part of why I became so aware of it.  It was never her favorite color, but people were constantly pressing it on her. I remember being in a drug store and the very nice clerk offered her a balloon, then asked what color she wanted and before she could answer, (I think she was going to say purple) said, “I bet I know,” and handed her the pink one. Daisy looked at me kind of confused, like she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to say thank you or no thank you. And I thought, really? When did THIS happen? I think last time I asked her, her favorite color was “rainbow.” That’s all right by me.What’s the big deal about little girls being obsessed with princesses? Hasn’t that always been the case?Comparing the way girls do Princess today to the way we played is like comparing a five-channel TV to a satellite dish. There are 26,000 Disney Princess products alone—considering they can’t slap them on cars, liquor, cigarettes anti-depressants or tampons, that means they’re on EVERYTHING. And it becomes this mandate, the only game in town. I remember going to Daisy’s preschool and they were doing a project where they were making a book, each one filling in the sentence “if I were a [blank] I’d [blank] to the store.” So if I were a ball I’d roll to the store. And the boys had filled the sentence in all kinds of ways. Yes, some said Lightening McQueen but they said puppies, bugs, raisins, all sorts of things. The girls said exactly four things: Princess, Ballerina, Butterfly and Fairy. One especially ambitious girl said “Princess, butterfly fairy Ballerina.” It’s too narrow. The teacher was really surprised—she’d been around a long time and this was really when the princess juggernaut was truly taking off. She had tried to get the girls to broaden their imaginations but said they just wouldn’t.No question it’s cute. And it can feel empowering because you think, well, girls are freer to express their femininity and their sexuality and we're not tamping that down or denying it anymore. But it’s part of this flume ride that defines girlhood as makeovers and spa birthday parties and princesses and Bratz dolls and being the fairest and ultimately the hottest of them all, that encourages them to define themselves from the outside in instead of from the inside out.  It pretty quickly slides from playing pretty, to playing “sassy” to playing sexy, which does the opposite of what people might think in terms of girls’ emotional and psychological health. Being objectified—judging yourself by the way you think others see you--actually disconnects them from their sexuality and ma[...]

Best Books of 2010


I have been spending most of my time writing about Berkeley, CA for Berkeleyside and asked Berkeley authors for their favorite books of 2010. Here is the article I wrote.A few of the many good reads on Lance Knobel's bookshelves.Berkeley is a city for book lovers. There are 30 independent bookstores in the city and at least three stores specializing in rare books. Berkeley residents love their public library and check out items at a rate three times higher than other California residents. In 2008, that meant they borrowed 2.2 million books, CDS, DVDs, and tools. The University of California library system, considered one of the best in the world, has more than 11 million books scattered throughout 29 libraries on campus.Given the community’s deep interest in the printed word, Berkeleyside asked a number of authors and library professionals for their recommendations for the Best Books of 2010. The books didn’t have to have been published in 2010; they only had to be read this year. And the eclectic choices, from the Stieg Larsson books to a book about bankers during the Depression, reveals just how broad our reading tastes are. Sylvia Brownrigg: The great thing about literature is that it travels so swiftly, leaving no carbon footprint -- you don't need to be a locavore when it comes to reading. However, it is always a pleasure to enjoy and champion writers from around town, and two brilliant books were published in 2010 by San Francisco authors: The Bigness of the World, by Lori Ostlund, and The Professor: A Sentimental Education by Terry Castle.Ostlund's stories, mostly of middle-aged lesbians navigating the dangerous waters of communication, and the often safer territory of travel abroad, are wry, subtle and intelligent, with memorable lines and a melancholy that lingers under the humor. I first encountered Ostlund's great voice at a Litquake reading, and was delighted when her prize-winning collection came out in paperback this year.Terry Castle's book is a different kettle of fish: half of the book is a gripping, painful and funny memoir of a tormented affair she had as a grad student with a charismatic, madly narcissistic older woman. The second half is a selection of Castle's long review essays from the "London Review of Books", which typically combine autobiographical comedy with deep, startling readings of the authors under review. The most famous -- one could say infamous -- of these pieces was Castle's appreciation/ deflation of Susan Sontag, after the latter's death. It is hard to shake the image of the celebrated theorist darting in and out of buildings on University Avenue in Palo Alto, urgently modeling for Castle what it was like to dodge gunfire in Sarajevo.If you are going to travel, from the comfort of your armchair or in this case your Kindle (not that I have one, yet) -- you have to sample the English writer Helen Simpson's newest story collection, In Flight Entertainment. Simpson is always sharp, true and insightful, and in this latest book takes the brave risk of using climate change as a theme in several stories, with the result that the reader is haunted afterwards, not just by great writing but by an ominous sense of where we're all headed. This book will be coming out in paperback, a book you can actually hold, in 2011, but before then it's on offer for Kindle readers -- or those who are willing to go to Britain to stock up for their bedside table.Sylvia Brownrigg, who lives in the Elmwood, is the author of five acclaimed novels including The Delivery Room and Morality Tale. She frequently reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and has just completed her first young adult novel, Kepler’s Dream.Linda Schacht Gage: When a Cal journalism student gave me a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, I read it in one night.  The book is the true story of cancer patient Henrietta Lacks and the impact her resilient cells have had on the medical industry. I liked the combination of compelling family story an[...]

What Did California Look Like Before the Europeans?


Grizzly bears at the shoreWhen Laura Cunningham was growing up in Kensington, CA  she used to walk to school and wonder what the San Franciso East Bay looked like before buildings and roads covered everything.That curiosity about the landscape continued as Cunningham got a degree in paleontology at Cal and natural science illustration degree at UC Santa Cruz. So in the early 1990s, Cunningham began to research what California looked like when it was teeming with elk and antelope rather than cars and people. The result is A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, a remarkable picture book published in October by Berkeley’s Heyday Press.Flipping though the pages is like taking a step back in time. Cunningham has created realistic paintings of the early California landscape, beautifully recreated in the book. There is a  painting of grizzly bears resting under a large oak tree and one of them eating the carcass of a whale that has washed up on shore. There are paintings of marshes full of birds and small mammals and paintings of native grasses.  Cunningham also includes “before and after” paintings, such as El Cerrito Plaza in the 21st century and the same spot thousands of years earlier.“Vernal pools, protected lagoons, grassy hills rich in bunchgrasses and, where the San Francisco Bay is today, ancient bison and mammoths roaming a vast grassland,” reads a description on the Heyday website. “Through the use of historical ecology, Laura Cunningham walks through these forgotten landscapes to uncover secrets about the past, explore what our future will hold, and experience the ever-changing landscape of California.”El Cerrito Plaza todayGrizzly bears eating acorns (at El Cerrito Plaza thousands of years ago)Cunningham spent years learning about California’s flora and fauna. In addition to poring through books and handling fossils at  libraries at UC Berkeley and around the state, she hung out on ridge tops to catch a glimpse of a California condor. (They used to live in the Bay Area but are now only live south of the Monterey area.) She traveled to Yellowstone National Park to observe grizzly bears up close and hiked to remote hills to find patches of native grasses. She discovered some animals that once lived in California but no longer do, like the Gong, an albatross-like bird that has a distinctive cry. Now it can only be found in the South Pacific, she said.“What impressed me most was the sheer abundance of wildlife,” said Cunningham, 45, who now lives in a small Nevada desert town.  “We’ve lost a lot of the abundance and biodiversity of the state. It must have been beautiful.”Downtown Oakland thousands of years ago frameborder="0" height="61" scrolling="no" src="" width="50">This article originally appeared on Berkeleyside. (image) [...]

East Bay author tackles circumcision in first novel


Lisa Braver Moss is a product of Berkeley — she grew up there, went through the public school system, and attended UC Berkeley. When Moss decided to write a novel featuring a Jewish doctor who starts to question the practice of circumcision, she set it in Berkeley. Moss, who now lives in Piedmont, will be speaking Friday November 12 at 1:30 at the Jewish Book and Arts Festival at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center.Lisa Braver MossGhost Word caught up with Moss just days after the November 1 release of The Measure of His Grief. Why did you decide to write a novel that has circumcision as its main theme?The Measure of His Grief is a literary novel about a Berkeley physician, Dr. Sandy Waldman, and his Jewish identity, his marriage, his secrets, his grief over the death of his father, and the price he pays for being a visionary.  It’s also about Sandy’s wife, Ruth, a nutritionist and cookbook author who had a difficult childhood and who will lose patience with Sandy; and their teenage daughter, Amy, whom Sandy and Ruth adopted at birth and who spends a lot of the novel grappling with whether to make contact with her birth family.  So, while the book is very much about circumcision, it’s not a treatise on the topic; it’s literary fiction.I first became interested in the circumcision controversy in the late eighties, after the births of my sons.  We’re Jewish and they were circumcised, but that decision haunted me because while it reflected my tradition, it did not reflect my spirituality.  I felt that in order to ensure that my sons would be accepted in the community, I’d been asked to separate myself from my biological urge to protect them.  I found myself wanting to write about my experience, and published a few articles questioning the practice from a Jewish point of view.I went on to write articles and books on other topics, but remained interested in Jewish circumcision.  I found it surprising that despite all its psychological, sexual, medical and religious complexities, no novelist had ever taken it on.Two things inspired me to make a foray into fiction with this topic.  One, I myself had become much more deeply engaged in Jewish thought and Jewish life and community as a result of the research I did to write those first articles.  The more I delved into Jewish writings to understand the circumcision tradition — in order to write in opposition to it — the more Jewishly engaged I felt.  I always thought that would make an interesting story, and that’s what happens to Dr. Sandy Waldman.  He’s grown up assimilated, for reasons different from mine — he’s the son of Holocaust survivors, many of whom didn’t rear their children Jewishly — but like me, Sandy discovers what Judaism means to him as he rails against circumcision.The second inspiration happened when I interviewed several men about this topic, including a Jewish man who felt he had remembered his own circumcision trauma.  I learned about foreskin “restoration,” in which circumcised men stretch their residual tissue over a period of months and years to mimic the function of the lost tissue.  I was astounded by the fact that there may be as many as a quarter of a million men around the world who are currently engaged in this process, and I couldn’t seem to shake myself free of that information and its rich possibilities for exploration in fiction.  Also, the idea of that kind of repair struck me as very rich, since repair/healing, tikkun olam, is really the central tenet of Judaism.So between the foreskin restoration aspect, the interviews I did, and my own strengthened Jewish identity as I expressed my opposition to circumcision, I began to realize I might have a novel — and that if indeed I did have a novel, I had a male main character.Why did you set it in Berkeley?I was born at Alta Bates Hospital and reared in Berkeley — went through the B[...]

Meredith Maran and My Lie: A story of false incest


Bay Area author Meredith Maran has been chronicling her life and the world around her since the mid 1990s. Her bestselling memoir, What It's Like to Live Now and Notes From an Incomplete Revolution, detailed what it was like to come out as a lesbian, raise two sons in a marginal neighborhood, strive for social justice, and grapple with the successes and shortcomings of feminism. Her 2001 book, Class Dismissed, is Maran’s in-depth look at Berkeley High, where she spent a year following three students from three different ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds. It remains an incisive look at an American high school grappling with sex, class, race, and the achievement gap.But Maran’s tenth book will prove to be her most provocative – and controversial. My Lie, A True Story of False Memory, published last week by Jossey-Bass/Wiley, tells the story of how Maran falsely accused her father of sexual abuse. Her volatile charges, made in the middle of the height of the recovered memory movement, split her family apart, denied her children a relationship with their grandfather, and shaped Maran’s reality for more than a decade.Years later, Maran realized she had made the whole tale up, and My Lie recounts how she reached out to her father and family for forgiveness. My Lie also attempts to make sense of the recovered memory movement that rocked the nation in the late 1980s and led to numerous high-profile trials, like the infamous McMartin preschool case. Maran discusses how a generation of feminists attempted to bring incest and sexual abuse out of the shadows and how some overly zealous prosecutors and therapists exploited the recovered memory phenomenon.On Tuesday, September 22, Berkeley Arts & Letters will present an evening with Maran, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review Editor, and Berkeley novelist Ayelet Waldman. The topic “How do we come to believe lies?” will begin at 7:30 pm at the Hillside Club.Maran will also be on KQED Forum with Michael Krasny at 10 am September 22.Ghost Word caught up with Maran just as My Lie was published. Your story is so shocking and disturbing – a daughter realizes that her once-beloved father molested her, cuts off contact for a decade, and then realizes she had made the whole thing up. To tell this story, you must lay your faults and biases out for everyone to see, which must have been extremely difficult. Why did you decide to tell this story publicly and how hard is it to admit this lie?I have a big mouth, and I'm a memoirist and essayist. Therefore, my faults, along with my gifts, are always on public display. I'm a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kinda gal. I like people who are the same way. Denial, obfuscation, withholding, dishonesty with self and/or others: not my favorite traits. And I can't ask more from others than I ask from myself.It actually felt--not good, exactly, but satisfying to explore this piece of my worst behavior, to come forward and say, I did this terrible thing and I'm doing my best now to understand why and to make amends where that's possible. I'm a great believer in "be the change you want to see," and admitting a wrong is a good place to start.You write that as a young journalist you wrote extensively about incest and sexual abuse and that after a while this became the prism through which you saw the world.  How did immersing yourself in the “recovered memory” movement influence your thoughts about your father?I'm a person who is publicly admitting to a huge mistake--not a saint. It's profoundly tempting to blame the harm I caused on the mania of the times. There's no question in my mind that absent the recovered memory craze, I wouldn't have accused my father of molesting me. I'm almost equally certain that I would have come up with another way to blame my pain--and women's pain--on men if that story hadn't presented itself. My Lie not only deals with your particu[...]

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer


When Lauren Belfer's City of Light came out, I devoured it. I don't generally adore historical novels, but this one about Niagara Falls and the building of an electrical system hooked me from the start. So when I heard that her new novel, A Fierce Radiance, was about the discovery of penicillin, I rushed to my library and put it on reserve.

Unfortunately, I wish I didn't move that fast. Belfer's second novel is not nearly as good as her first. It tells the story of a female photographer from Life Magazine who goes to the Rockefeller Institute in NYC to photograph human tests of penicillin. It then goes on to talk about how the federal government commandeered research and production of the drug during World War II, but strictly limited its use to soldiers. The pharmacy companies were required by law to produce the drug and sell it cheaply, but they conspired to create similar drugs which they later patented and made money on.

The back story is good. It's just that Belfer inserts clunky dialogue and far-fetched situations to tell the story. I found myself cringing at her writing at times.

Still, I did not know anything about the medical quest to prove penicillin and produce it on a large scale, and A Fierce Radiance told me that story.

A Visti from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan


I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I am not sure what to make of the book. It’s a series of sketches of various people in and around the music industry at various times of their lives. The book is not like a traditional novel with a neat narrative arc, character development or even an identifiable plot. And yet it is not exactly a set of linked stories, either. It’s written in the first, second, and third person points of view and sometimes it’s even tough to know who is narrating. Yet I liked it.The book opens with a 30ish kleptomaniac named Sasha. She is in a public bathroom and a woman on the toilet has left her purse open by the sinks. Sasha peeks in and spots her wallet. Like a kid drawn to free candy, Sasha cannot resist stealing the wallet.All of the vignettes spin from there. Readers meet Sasha’s boss, the music executive Bennie Salazar, and then the book travels back in time to San Francisco, when Salazar and his friends had a punk music band. We meet different characters from the band at different points in their lives, at times when they are successful and times they are not.One-78 page section is devoted to a PowerPoint presentation put together by Sasha’s 12-year old daughter. Egan has gotten a lot of press for including this in the book and one friend of mine said she thought A Visit from the Good Squad will be taught in MFA programs from years to come.The book, with  its nonlinear and decidedly unchronological sequences, paints a picture of how people evolve over time.Meredith Maran put it well in Salon:“Like strands of raffia wrapped around a bursting-at-the-seams scrapbook, the novel is loosely bound by time, the dread "goon squad" of the title. Teenagers lacerate their parents’ hypocrisies (Sasha’s daughter is allotted 78 pages for her PowerPoint presentation detailing her mother’s annoying habits), then reappear as parents of their own snarling kids. Parents are exposed as graying, thickening, incurably immature iterations of their teenage selves. Young rock stars grow old and irrelevant, then hip again: "Two generations of war and surveillance had left people craving the avatar of their own unease in the form of a lone, unsteady man on a slide guitar." Time gets us all, Egan reminds us, tossing us into the quicksand pit of the past, hurling us over the cliff of the future, playing hard to get — and making pleasure hard to get — in the now.”[...]

A Night of Nonfiction


On Wednesday evening, high in the hills about UCSF, author Terry Gamble will host an evening with some of the region's best-known non-fiction writers.

Cocktails will be served and drinks will flow. I suspect there will be lots of interesting conversation, given that the writers' specialties range from 19th century tycoons to 21st century killers to natural disasters to ADHD. Other sub specialties include S&M, the contents of Imelda Marcos' closet, the rift between German Jews and Eastern European Jews, the Pony Express, and the birth of photography.
The evening is a benefit for Litquake, the Bay Area's premier literary festival.

While I am one of the featured authors, I am sure I am there by mistake since the others have such a long list of accolades behind them. They include:
  1. T.J. Stiles, who biography on Cornelius Vanderbilt won the Pulitzer Prize. His previous book was on the Pony Express.
  2. Katherine Ellison, who won Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for the San Jose Mercury News for the overthrow of the Marcos regimes in the Philippines. Her new book, Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, is about her and her son's ADHD. It will be released in October.
  3. Rebecca Solnit, whose book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, won the California Book Awards Gold Medal. 
  4. Po Bronson, whose latest book, Nurture Shock, spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
  5.  Stephen Elliot, the founder of the Rumpus on-line literary magazine, whose latest book, The Adderall Diaries, touches on the murder of Nina Reiser of Oakland.
Sounds pretty good, huh? The evening runs from 6:30 to 8 pm. Tickets are $125, with all the proceeds going to Litquake. Buy tickets here. 

Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector


Allegra Goodman exploded onto the literary scene in 1996 with the publication of her first novel, The Family Markowitz, and followed up that success with Kaaterskill Falls in 1998. Both novels dealt centered around Jewish families, and the latter was set in an Orthodox community in upstate New York. Goodman was born in Hawaii in 1967, got her bachelor’s degree from Harvard, and her PhD in English from Stanford University. Her succeeding novels, Total Immersion, Paradise Park, and Intuition are set in those various locales.Her latest book, The Cookbook Collector, reflects the time Goodman spent in California. Set in both Berkeley and Palo Alto, the cookbook collector traces the lives of two sisters, Emily and Jess, who are as different as they can be. Emily, who lives in Palo Alto, is the CEO of a Veritech, a fledgling technology company on the verge of going public. Tess, who lives in Berkeley, is getting her doctorate in philosophy from UC Berkeley and is making ends meet working in an antiquarian bookstore and Yorick’s. Since Emily is practical and Jess is dreamy, the book has been marketed as Sense and Sensibility for the technology age.The story opens in 1999 when the NASDQ was on a seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory and ends in 2002, after the country is humbled by the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  The Cookbook Collector deals with America’s last period of economic instability: the stock market crash of the late 1009s. The Cookbook Collector has many scenes of Berkeley, particularly its great bookstores. Ghost Word caught up with Goodman to find out why she set so much of her book in Berkeley.Many of your previous books have been set in New York state and center on Hasidic communities. Why did you decide to set a book in the Bay Area, specifically Berkeley?Actually, only one of my books is set in New York.  "Kaaterskill Falls" is about a community of orthodox  (and anti-Hasidic) German Jews who summer in the Catskills.  My new book is set in Cambridge Mass and in the Bay Area--where I went to graduate school.  I think Berkeley interested me so much because I lived for four years on the Farm at Stanford!  The mystique of what seemed like a real college town across the Bay! When did you spend time in Berkeley? (I know you spent some time at Stanford.) Your book is filled with specific details about the city, including references to Pegasus Books, Amoeba Music, Moe's, etc. As a grad student I loved to explore the bookstores of Berkeley--particularly the used bookstores.  I'd try to find old hardback copies of classics I was reading for my oral exams.  My husband and I also had friends who lived in Berkeley and we attended a wedding in the Rose Garden.This city has a reputation for being politically progressive and food oriented. Do you share that impression? What do you like best about Berkeley? Least?I think Berkeley is politically progressive and also historically progressive, by which I mean that dissent and political debate inform the city's traditions.  Cambridge also has a progressive tradition, but sometimes I suspect its heyday was in the 19th century during the time of the firebrand Abolitionists, and earlier during the Revolutionary War.  The food in Berkeley is better than the food in Cambridge because of the abundance of lovely California produce.  I love the fact that in Berkeley you can get organic whole wheat pizza AND greasy falafel AND vegan muffins AND Korean take out AND an elegant expensive dinner if you so choose.  Cambridge restaurants--both the fast and slow kind--are generally less imaginative.  We have fewer hole-in-the wall places serving unusual dishes.  At the other end of the price spectrum, places like the Harvest or Henrietta's table are good, but bor[...]

Henry Lee's gripping book on murder of Nina Reiser


Henry Lee’s byline is one of the most familiar in the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s covered crime in the East Bay for 16 years and is known to have the best police sources around. He writes so fast that his words are often online shortly after the report of a crime comes across the scanner.Lee got his start as the crime reporter for The Daily Californian, the newspaper for UC Berkeley. In 2006 he covered the mysterious disappearance of Nina Reiser of Oakland, a beautiful young mother of two who had last been seen heading to Berkeley Bowl. Hans Reiser, Nina’s brilliant but strange computer programmer husband, was eventually convicted of her murder. The case gripped the Bay Area.Lee’s book about the crime, Presumed Dead: A True Life Murder Mystery, will be published July 6. He will be appearing Monday July 12 at The Booksmith on Haight Street at 7:30 pm, at Books, Inc. on Fourth Street in Berkeley on August 11. For a complete events list, look here.Ghost Word caught up with Lee in between crime stories.Where do you live? What years did you go to Cal?I live with my wife in Oakland. I went to Cal from 1991 to 1994. I was originally pressured to study law or medicine or business, but I decided to go with psychology, telling my parents (Dad is an electrical engineer; Mom is a retired medical technologist) that psychology is "half 'ology." At Cal, I chased cops as the crime reporter for the Daily Cal. But my interest in sirens goes back to when I was a boy, chasing cops and ambulances with my best friend on our BMX bikes! I like to think of what I do now as a simple, befitting extension of my childhood fascination with sirens.You got your start reporting at the Daily Cal. What was your most memorable story?I just remember a lot of fun stories. I covered the Naked Guy (look for a picture of me witnessing one of his arrests circa '93 at ) I also gained a reputation for arriving at crime scenes faster than the cops. In two distinct cases, I recall chatting with the cops while they were on perimeter posts searching for suspects. In one of those cases, I ended up chasing the bad guy, who was on foot, while I was on my bike. The cops were on foot, huffing and puffing behind me. I actually yelled out, "Westbound over the fence" as the guy ended up going through my own apartment complex on Dana Street at the time. Seconds later, cops broadcast on their radios, "Westbound over the fence!" They caught the guy. How long have you been a reporter for the Chronicle? How do you manage to file so many stories every day? Do you work in the East Bay or San Francisco or just rove around, posting from cafes?I've been a reporter ever since I started out as a summer intern in 1994. I don't know if we should curse the Internet, but that is how I can file from anywhere, my Oakland office, my Oakland home, in a car, from the courthouse, or while on vacation (which I have been known to do). I bring my laptop wherever I go; I consider it something akin to the "nuclear football" that the military brings with the President. Criminals never work bankers' hours, and alas, neither do I. What did you find so fascinating about this case that made you want to write a book about it?There was so much to delve into, with Hans' computer background, how Hans met Nina, how they fell in and out of love, their rancorous divorce proceedings, Hans' strange behavior before his arrest and while taking the stand on his own defense, that there was no way that all of it could fit into the confines of daily newspaper reporting. With my book I was able to flesh everything out, go deeper into this case and be a fly on the wall for the readers during key moments in the couple's past as well as the police investigation. Of course, I ended up be[...]

Absolutely hilarious Gary Shteyngart book trailer


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I laughed all the way through this one. Writer Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) gets famous writers and the actor James Franco to give a plug for his latest book, Super Sad True Love Story.

Trailer for Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro


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This looks better than the futuristic novel. It stars Academy Award-nominated actresses Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan. It is scheduled to be released in October.

David Sedaris makes me laugh


In Berkeley, David Sedaris could walk on the stage and grab the audience by just saying “hello.”In fact, that’s what happened Monday June 14, the opening of Sedaris’ seven-day run at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. From the time Sedaris strode out on the stark stage, dressed in a button down shirt and tie and carrying a folder of papers, he had the audience leaning forward in their seats, gobbling up every word.The laughs started early and lasted late as Sedaris read selections from his book-in-progress, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, and from his diary.“I have a book I need to turn in at the end of the month, so that’s what I am doing here,” Sedaris told the sold-out theater. “It is a book of fables, but fables have morals and I don’t.Sedaris then proceeded to read a number of stories with animal protagonists that were wry and keenly observed, that is, of course, if one believes animals can have human characteristics.Sedaris started his set by explaining that he had recently bought a vest and was wearing it at an airport in Wisconsin when a gruff, older worker for the Transportation Security Administration ordered him to remove it. He was piqued by her request, he said, so he decided to turn her into a rabbit and put her in his story.Let’s say she doesn’t come off particularly well. The rabbit is so power hungry he (she becomes a he in the story) chews off the magical golden horn of a unicorn just to prove a point.Sedaris has to turn in his book at the end of the month, so he is on a small road show to refine the stories. He was just in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theater before coming to Berkeley.Ian Falconer of Olivia fame will illustrate the fables. Dame Judi Dench and comedian Elaine Stritch will be doing a recording of the book, a prospect which seems to be making Sedaris a bit nervous.“I just want to make sure that by the time it gets into her (Stritch’s) hands there is not a lot of fat,” said Sedaris. “I just wanted to make it as good as it can be. I just hate the idea of her wasting her breath.”It says volumes for Sedaris’ popularity that even though he is presenting a work in progress, tickets for his readings/act sell out almost immediately. Tickets for the Berkeley Rep show were snatched up in hours.Sedaris edits and makes corrections as he reads in front of a live audience, he said. “I’m editing as I’m talking,” Sedaris said during a Q & A session at the end of the show. “Sometimes I read and I get an idea and I think this might fix things. Sometimes I just hear myself and I think I am embarrassed to have read that, or yes, that sounds just right.”A few tidbits gleaned from the evening:• Sedaris now lives in England, not Paris• He swims for exercise• He has moved around so much, he no longer thinks of himself as a North Carolinian• He doesn’t like people eating or drinking in the audience• He doesn’t like to have his picture taken[...]

You don't have to give up your typewriter


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The pleasures of typing united with the ease of the computer. (via Galleycat)

The Agony and Ecstacy of Book Reviews (set to thumping music)


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How does a writer survive a bad review?

Thanks to Meg Waite Clayton for tipping me off to this.

Michael Lewis is Washington's new darling


From the moment Michael Lewis' new book, The Big Short, came out in April, it struck a nerve, It sold an astonishing sold 162,000 copies in its first month.But now there’s news that the book has captured the attention of our country’s lawmakers.According to a story on the website Politico, The Big Short has been mentioned at least 15 times in the hallowed halls of Congress -- on the Senate floor, in committee meetings, and in press conferences.Dick Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip, stopped pontificating during a discussion on regulatory reform to recommend the book to his colleagues.“I’m going to plug a book: Michael Lewis’s ‘The Big Short,’” he said.Senators Chris Dodd and Harry Reid also gave the book a shout out during Senate debates. And its not just Democrats. According to Politico, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are quoting from the book.  Republican Senators John Ensign of Nevada and Kit Bond of Missouri have mentioned the book.Lewis met with House Republicans in the fall to talk about the financial crisis. He was so well-received that meeting turned into a three-hour Q and A session. Then Bay Area Congresswoman Jackie Speier asked him in May to address the House Democratic Caucus. Since then, Lewis has been getting phone calls at his Berkeley home from house staffers with questions about the meltdown. Lewis, who has finished his book tour and is back in Berkeley, finds all this attention a bit unnerving.“When senators are reading your book, it reaffirms your faith in society, on the one hand,” he told Politico, “and, on the other hand, it makes you nervous, because I don’t think of myself as advising people who are actually going to change things.”Lewis probably brought more smiles to lawmakers' faces with this satirical op-ed that ran recently in the New York Times. [...]

Two new books on immigration and life in the Borderlands


Tyche Hendricks, who teaches international reporting at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, will be talking about her new book, The Wind Doesn’t Need a Passport: Stories From the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, tonight at 7:30 pm at Bookmith on Haight Street in San Francisco.  She will be appearing with Peter Schrag, the former editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, who has also written a book that touches on US-Mexico relations called Not Fit For Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.Hendricks’ book, which draws a vivid portrait of the people who live on both sides of the border, comes out as the US is once again gripped by questions of illegal immigration. The recent passage of a law in Arizona that gives police expanded power to ask people for documents proving their legal status is just the latest expression of frustration over the immigration question. Hendricks is now a special projects coordinator at KQED. Ghost Word asked Hendricks about her book and some of the controversies surrounding immigration" In passing its new restrictive immigration bill, Arizona lawmakers described the border as an almost lawless region, where thieves, drug dealers and murders have almost unfettered access to the U.S. They said the law was necessary because the federal government was not preventing people from coming in to the U.S. illegally. Is life in these border towns really so tense? Is there any common ground between people living on both sides of the border?The Arizona law authorizing local police to serve as federal immigration agents comes during an economic recession (when immigrants historically have been targets of public frustration) and after years in which Congress has failed to act to overhaul immigration laws. Over the past decade or so, beefed up border enforcement in Texas and California funneled illegal border crossings and a share of drug smuggling across the Arizona desert, so Arizonans get a steady stream of news stories about border troubles. People who live in the borderlands (in both the United States and Mexico) do bear the brunt of those problems – not only uncontrolled migration and drug trafficking but also pollution, too-rapid growth and strained health care resources. But I also found a remarkable spirit of neighborliness in twin border towns, a shared history and many, many families with cross-border ties. I was inspired by the way that doctors, ranchers, environmental scientists and businesspeople in both countries were rolling up their sleeves in a very pragmatic way and reaching across the border to tackle problems together.What prompted you to write this book? How did you find your subjects?The book began with a series I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about the U.S.-Mexico border. In telling the stories of individual people and places and concerns along the length of the border, a larger story emerged. While the border from a distance appears to be a dividing line, I began to see that, up close, it’s actually a bi-national region, one that’s often misunderstood by those of us who live far away from it. It’s the place where our two countries are stitched together – fascinating, vibrant, fraught with serious challenges, but a place whose inhabitants might have something to teach the rest of us about how to get along and tackle our shared concerns. I found the people and topics I wrote about in the book through classic shoe-leather reporting: talking to people who pointed me to other people. It took plenty of advance preparation and a certain amount of spontaneous serendipity.C[...]

The Donner Party saga still haunts us


Gabrielle Burton has been thinking about Tamsen Donner, the wife of leader of the doomed pioneer party, for more than 25 years. She and her family – her husband and three daughters – retraced Tamsen’s journey across the United States in a never-to-be-forgotten road trip. Burton recounted that 1970s journey in a memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner, published in 2009 by University of Nebraska Press.  But writing a memoir didn’t get Tamsen Donner out of Burton’s system. She still heard Tamsen’s insistent voice inside her head. Why, Burton wondered, had Tamsen sent her small children to safety that terrible winter of 1846 and stayed behind in the treacherous Sierra Nevada to look after George Donner, who lay close to death? Burton attempts to answer that unknowable mystery in her new novel, Impatient With Desire. Written in a diary format, based on letters sent by Tamsen to her family back East, Impatient With Desire is a lyrical novel that explores a  woman’s excruciating dilemma: should she remain loyal to her husband or her children?  Burton will be speaking about Tamsen Donner and her new novel at Book Passage on Thursday, May 6 at 7 pm. Her book has received rave reviews. It was an Indie Next Pick and a Borders Fiction pick.   I have written previously about Burton’s fascination with the Donner Party. I can relate to it since I, too, love history. I also admire how she has spun out both fiction and nonfiction books about the Donner Party.Here’s how Burton describes her book:“In the spring of 1846, Tamsen Donner, her husband, George, their five daughters, and eighty other pioneers headed to California on the California-Oregon Trail in eager anticipation of new lives out West. Everything that could go wrong did, and an American legend was born.The Donner Party. We think we know their story--pioneers trapped in the mountains performing an unspeakable act to survive--but we know only that one harrowing part of it. Impatient with Desire brings us answers to the unanswerable question: What really happened in the four months the Donners were trapped in the mountains? And it brings to stunning life a woman--and a love story--behind the myth.Tamsen Eustis Donner, born in 1801, taught school, wrote poetry, painted, botanized, and was fluent in French. At twenty-three, she sailed alone from Massachusetts to North Carolina when respectable women didn't travel alone. Years after losing her first husband, Tully, she married again for love, this time to George Donner, a prosperous farmer, and in 1846, they set out for California with their five youngest children. Unlike many women who embarked reluctantly on the Oregon Trail, Tamsen was eager to go. Later, trapped in the mountains by early snows, she had plenty of time to contemplate the cost of progress.Historians have long known that Tamsen kept a journal, though it was never found. In Impatient with Desire, Burton draws on years of historical research to vividly imagine this lost journal--and paints a picture of a remarkable heroine in an extraordinary situation. Tamsen's unforgettable journey takes us from the cornfields of Illinois to the dusty Oregon Trail to the freezing Sierra Nevada Mountains, where she was forced to confront an impossible choice.”Impatient with Desire is a passionate, heart-wrenching story of courage, hope, and love in hardship, all told at a breathless pace. Intimate in tone and epic in scope, Impatient with Desire is absolutely hypnotic.[...]

Get Haunted at Book Launch Party for Picture the Dead


The Booksmith on Haight Street will be turned into a 19th century spiritualist haunt on Thursday, May 6 when the author and illustrator of a new young adult novel, Picture the Dead, don period costumes for a reading of their work.Oh, yeah. That local man of mystery, Lemony Snicket, will be acting as ghost.The event is the formal launch of Picture the Dead, described alternately as a ‘illustrated paranormal teen romance novel,” or a book with a “Cold Mountain feel.” It was written by Adele Griffin and illustrated by Lisa Brown, who draws the three-panel book reviews for the Chronicle. She is also married to Snicket (aka Daniel Handler)That family is known for its fun and sense of humor and the book launch promised to provide both. Those who wander into the Booksmith can try their luck communicating with dead spirits, or if that doesn’t work, get their picture taken with a paranormal being. (Snicket)Griffin and Brown got the idea for Picture the Dead a few years ago when their two families rented an enormous house outside of Boston for a vacation. While there, they got this sense that there was another, well, non-human presence, in the house.“We thought it would be restful but it ended up being different,” said Brown. “It felt like there was a presence in the house. It wasn’t us, it wasn’t the kids. It was like we were in someone else’s house and we were the invaders. It wasn’t sinister, but you felt you weren’t alone.”Then Brown and Griffin stumbled upon an antique Victorian trunk in the basement. Crammed inside was an old scrapbook filled with Civil War photographs ringed in black, and “spirit photos” that purported to show the dead communicating with the living. Spiritualism and séances were popular in the latter half of the 19th century, the pair point out on their website.“It was almost as if it was inviting us to this story,” said Griffin.The trunk proved to be a conversation piece and Griffin and Brown soon found themselves collaborating on a historical novel set during the Civil War. It centers around Jenny Lovell, an orphan living with her uncle and not-so-kind aunt.  When her fiancé dies in the war, she soon begins to sense that his spirit is not at rest. Jenny attempts to find out how and why her fiancé died, and her questions bring her into an alliance with a spirit photographer. Secrets spill out and soon nothing is as it appears.The pair did extensive research for the book and based the settings and many of the details on actual events and people. Brown studied daguerreotypes from the Library of Congress and drew her illustrations using those portraits as a guide. She then put the pictures on her computer and remastered them.The Booksmith event on Haight Street starts at 7:30 pm. If you can't make the party, will be streaming the party live. [...]

Are Journalists the New Entreprenuers?


UCB Letterhead TT I spent part of Saturday at a conference for recovering journalists. Oops. I guess I mean journalists in transition.And there were a lot of them at “Spring Training for Journalists,” held at City College. There were current and former reporters and editors from the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Contra Costa Times, the Oakland Tribune, and elsewhere. The bulk of the crowd seemed to be people 35+, although there was a smattering of young reporters as well.In the past few years, Bay Area newspapers have shed 400 reporting and editing positions, which means there are a lot of people trying to reinvent themselves. And that’s what the conference was about – how to survive in this somewhat hostile, yet very interesting, media environment.I missed the opening statement by Steve Fairinu, who has just taken over the managing editor position of the Bay Citizen, the new, not-yet-launched website that will cover Bay Area news. Apparently he was upbeat and inviting, and told the gathered reporters that he has a freelance budget and he intends to use it.  It’s a smart move, because there is a great depth of talent in the Bay Area. There were workshops on how to do multimedia reports using slides and sounds, and a keynote address by Davia Nelson, one of the “Kitchen Sisters,” on creating compelling radio documentaries.  There was a panel on writing books and on revamping your resume.To survive nowadays, journalists have to wear multiple hats. Not only must reporters write and produce traditional pieces for newspapers, magazines, and radio -- usually on a freelance basis -- they also have to write for websites, start their own blogs, or even create their own small businesses by producing neighborhood websites.One example of the new entrepreneurism is the explosive growth of nonprofit journalism organizations. The Bay Area now has the highest concentration of these new businesses in the nation. Mother Jones, New America Media and the Center for Investigative Reporting have been around the Bay Area for more than 30 years but have completely reinvented themselves in recent years.Mother Jones has a vibrant website. New America Media has formed partnerships with thousands of ethnic journalists around the country and has brought their work to a central website. CIR, which has long partnered with CBS, recently created California Watch. Mark Katches and his team, which includes some longtime Chronicle reporters like Lance Williams, have seen California Watch stories appear in dozens of newspapers and websites around the state. San Francisco Public Press is a new consortium of journalists reporting on San Francisco news. Two of its stories recently appeared in the Bay Area section of the New York Times. Individual reporters are also experimenting with new forms of journalism, making life as a reporter much different than the days when one went into work at 10 am, found and reported a story, and went home at 7 pm.My experience is probably fairly common. I worked for the San Jose Mercury News for nine years. Since I left, I have freelanced for a number of news outlets including the Los Angeles Times, People Magazine, the Chronicle, and San Francisco magazine.Most recently I have been writing for the new Bay Area edition of the New York Times, but that opportunity will soon go away as The Bay Citizen will take over that section at the end of May.I blog for City Brights on SFGate and for Ghost Word, my site about the Bay Area[...]

David R. Dow: A Lawyer's Unsettling View on Executions


UCB Letterhead TT David R. Dow is an attorney living in Texas and he has a job that most Texans don’t respect: defending death row inmates.Texas is the kind of state that kills its criminals with regularity and doesn’t think twice. Unlike other states, such as California or Illinois, that have wrestled with the legality and methods associated with the death penalty, the majority of Texans seem to consider putting someone to death no big deal.Dow is not one of them. As a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit legal aid corporation that represents death-row inmates, Dow has served as the attorney for 100 men on death row. For dozens of years, Dow has fought to stop his clients from being put to death. It’s a mostly futile exercise, but after reading Dow’s memoir, Autobiography of an Execution, you understand why he does it. Even though the majority of his clients are cold-blooded murderers, (he thinks seven were probably innocent) Dow makes a convincing case that the death penalty strips people of their humanity. It also disproportionally punishes the poor and people of color.“I used to support the death penalty,” writes Dow. “I changed my mind when I learned how lawless the system is. If you have reservations about supporting a racist, classist, unprincipled regime, a regime where white skin is valued more highly than dark, where prosecutors hide evidence and policemen routinely lie, where judges decide what justice requires by consulting the most recent Gallup poll, where rich people sometimes get away with murder and never end up on death row, then the death-penalty system we have here in America will embarrass you to no end.”Autobiography of an Execution is a highly readable memoir. Dow cuts back and forth between scenes of his clients who are about to be put to death with scenes of his wife and young son. Dow is conflicted because defending death row inmates, most of whom did commit the crimes for which they are jailed, takes time away from his family. The scenes of his young, innocent son who trusts the world contrast sharply with the scenes showing the indifference of the legal system. Innocence versus venality. The most heartbreaking story in the book is of one man who has been sentenced for the execution-style murder of his estranged wife and two children. Dow calls him “Henry Quaker.” Generally, Dow does not concern himself with his clients’ guilt or innocence; his job is to spare them from death. As the book progresses though, Dow becomes convinced of Quaker’s innocence. It is heartbreaking and infuriating to see how the machinations of the law are so structured that they cannot pause to consider whether someone really should be put to death. Everyone passes the buck; no one accepts responsibility for making the decision that someone will be put to death."Our system of capital punishment survives because it is built on an evasion," writes Dow. "A juror is one of 12, and therefore the decision is not hers. A judge who imposes a jury's sentence is implementing someone else's will, and therefore the decision is not his. A judge on the court of appeals is one of three, or one of nine, and professes to be constrained by the finder of fact, and therefore it is someone else's call. Federal judges say it is the state court's decision. The Supreme Court justices simply say nothing, content to permit the machinery of death to grind on wit[...]

Dan Fost tells the tale of the San Francisco Giants


UCB Letterhead TT Last night I went to a book release party for Dan Fost, who has just published The Giants Past and Present. It’s a big, colorful coffee table book about the history of the Bay Area’s most heart-wrenching team, which has not won a national championship since it moved here from New York in 1958.Dan held the party at the Public House, the new Traci des Jardins restaurant in the ballpark. With a dozen beers on tap, dozens of flat screen televisions mounted on the walls showing different sports games, and great food, it was a wonderful place for a book party.Dan is a former writer for the Chronicle (he now freelances for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Magazine, among others) so a number of his newspaper colleagues were there. Joan Ryan, whose new book is The Water Giver, was there, as was Jason Turbow, whose book The Baseball Codes, released in March, is now in its fourth printing. Benny Evangelista, who covers technology for the Chronicle, was also there.I have known Dan since 1986 when we were both new reporters in Ithaca, N.Y. He worked for the town’s main newspaper, the Ithaca Journal, and I worked for the out-of-town competitor, the Syracuse Post-Standard. It was so much fun to be a reporter in a small town. We tried to scoop one another whenever possible, but it was a friendly rivalry. When there was a murder, everyone cared. Much of the town would be glued to the newspaper or radio coverage and would follow the trial like it was the most important event around. We were big fish in a very small pond.From the time Dan arrived in Ithaca, he stood out. (And not for his unruly curls, although they did garner him notice). He is a graceful and funny writer and his words always improved the Ithaca Journal. He has brought his deft touch to Giants Past and Present. The book has been getting lots of attention. Dan was on Michael Krasny’s show on KQED (with Giants President Larry Baer) and on John Rothmann’s show on KGO 810 AM.Dan will be reading from his book tonight, April 21, at Book Passage in Corte Madera at 7 pm. He will be at the Los Angeles Festival of Books this weekend.Dan grew up a Yankees fan but started to love the Giants when he moved here in the early 1990s. His son Harry may be the Giants’ biggest booster.Here’s an interview with Dan done by a Giants blogger and one by the Marin Independent Journal.[...]

Dave Eggers Rides to the Rescue of John Sayles


UCB Letterhead TT In 2009, The Los Angeles Times reported that John Sayles, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker and award-winning novelist, was having a hard time getting a new book deal. UCB Letterhead TT No publisher wanted to touch Sayles’ 1,000-page tome Some Time in the Sun, described as a tale about racism and the dawn of U.S. imperialism.Sayle’s agent had sent the book to a number of publishers who passed, in part because of the gloomy state of the economy.But Dave Eggers, the writer and San Francisco publisher of McSweeney’s books, has apparently purchased Sayle’s book and plans to publish it in the fall of 2011. The deal was reported recently on Publisher’s Marketplace.  McSweeney's editor Jordan Bass told the Associated Press that the novel "felt like equal parts (E.L.) Doctorow and 'Deadwood'" and praised its "captivating pacing." This comes at the same time announced that it would be placing McSweeney's content on its website. Some other recent book deals by noted Bay Area authors: (All from Publishers' Marketplace)Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson's THE NEW INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, the story of how entrepreneurs are using web principles to rejuvenate manufacturing - and the economy - through open source, custom-fabrication and do-it-yourself design, predicting that we are about to see the collective potential of a million garage tinkerers unleashed on global marketsAuthor of the NYT bestseller Beautiful Boy, David Sheff's THE THIRTEENTH STEP, drawing on recent research and stories of the author's own and others' experiences to show what's wrong with how we approach addiction today and the best ways to treat and prevent it.Guggenheim fellow Peter Orner's LOVE AND SHAME AND LOVE, a colorful mosaic of three generations of the Popper family of Chicago.[...]

Northern California Awards Handed Out


UCB Letterhead TT The Northern California Book Award ceremony was held Sunday at the San Francisco Public Library and Catherine Brady, a professor at the University of San Francisco, won the fiction award for The Mechanics of Falling. (She's in the photo at left) Tamim Ansary won in the nonfiction category for Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. Dave Eggers won in the creative nonfiction category for Zeitoun. D.A. Powell won in the poetry division for Chronic. Here are the other winners.The Northern California Independent Booksellers Association has handed out their list for the best books of 2010 and there was a bit of an overlap. Eggers won in the nonfiction category and Powell won for poetry. Abraham Verghese won in the fiction category for Cutting For Stone, Novella Carpenter won in the food writing category for Farm City, and Tom Killon and Gary Snyder won in the regional category for Tamalpais Walking.Frank Portman won in the teen category for Andromeda Klein, Gennifer Choldenko won in the children’s literature category for Al Capone Shines My Shoes, and Shino Arihara won for illustrating Zero Is the Leaves on the Tree.[...]