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July 2010

When content has no value anymore....
26 Jul 2010

... What will happen to the creative class? Music is being given away for free, filmmakers have to fund their own movies, authors are watching the value of a book drop from $25.99 to $9.99 or less, journalists are getting paid $15 for an article. Eventually, no one is going to be able to make a living making art -- or anything vaguely like it -- at all.

Read more of my thoughts on this in the editorial that I wrote for Huffington Post, decrying the trend of devaluing "content." 

Five great California novels
19 Jul 2010

Last week, I wrote a post for the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy Blog about my five favorite California novels. (Click here to check it out). It was nearly impossible to limit myself to just five, so I thought I'd offer up a few more that didn't make the short list, but should definitely make it to your bookshelf:

- Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold. A sprawling epic based on the life of the stage magician Charles Carter, set early 20th century San Francisco 

- Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy. A quirky multigenerational soap opera, which takes place during WWII in southern generational.

- Jamesland, by Michelle Hunevan. A great contemporary LA novel, inspired by the theology of William James.

- Less than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis. Still his best book, so dark and damning.

- Oh The Glory of it All, by Sean Wilsey. A memoir by the son of a narcissistic San Francisco socialite. Very Mommy Dearest.

How Readings are like a Freshman English Class
7 Jul 2010


I'm back from a 10 days book tour, and as I gave reading after reading, it struck me that there are certain similarities between a bookstore reading and a high school classroom. To wit:

1) No one wants to sit in the front row. My readings might be standing-room only, with people in back having to jostle for position, and yet the first row would invariable be dead empty (except for the guy in Portland who was sitting in the front row clipping his fingernails, but that's another story). Even when I point out those empty seats, no one is willing to come forward to claim them -- no matter if they're pregnant, missing a leg, or 98 years old. I suspect that no one wants to be in the front row because they want to give themselves a chance at slipping out unseen if the reading turns out to be deadly dull, but really, unless you have a 200 person audience, an author is pretty much going to notice *anyone* who leaves in the middle of the reading. That empty front row always makes me feel a bit like a pariah, as if the audience is frightened of getting too close to me -- as if I, like a teacher who throws erasers at inattentive students or pitches screaming fits when no one does their homework, might start flinging bookmarks at the people in the front row or calling them out for typing on their iPhones while I'm reading aloud from the climax of the book. Really guys, I'm not that scary. I'm just glad you're filling a seat - I won't spit on you or yell at you or make you do extra homework. Promise!

2) No one wants to ask the first question. Generally, a reading is followed by a Q&A, giving audiences the chance to ask an author all the burning questions that they secretly want to ask. And yet, invariably, when I ask the audience, "Does anyone have any questions?" no one does. At least, not at first. Instead, I'm left up there trying to fill the empty air with some kind of vaguely coherent babble until some brave soul finally gets up the nerve to stick their hand in the air. Invariably, the question is "What was the inspiration for this story?" A predictable question, but still! I won't object. After all, it gets things started. And after that first question, a half dozen hands will immediately pop up in the air, so it's clearly not that people didn't *have* questions, it's just that they weren't willing to ask them yet. In this way a reading reminds me of a freshman English class, when the teacher asks what everyone thought of the homework, and no one is willing to answer first lest they give the wrong answer and look stupid. But I promise you, at a reading, there is no wrong question -- the author will be grateful for just about anything that shows some vague engagement with her/his writing. Even "what was the inspiration for this story?"

3) Signing books is kind of like a high-stakes pop quiz. When your aunt's old bridge partner or your former college dormmate or your sister's bridesmaid puts a book in front of you and asks you to sign it, you have to remember her name, and then, if you don't but probably should, figure out how to tease the name out of her without making it apparent that you don't remember. (The old "who should I sign this to?" trick works sometimes; but often the answer is a useless "me.") If, after a minute of small talk while you frantically run through your memory bank, you *do* have that critical epiphany, you still have to decide whether it's spelled Christine or Kristine or Chrystine or Christiane or Cristen. Trust me, you don't want to scratch out your mistake, not when they've just paid $26 for a precious paperback - after all, you want leave them with warm fuzzy feelings about you so that they'll buy your next book too. 

In a worst case scenario, I'll skip the name entirely and just write "Thanks for supporting the book." That won't earn me a failing grade, but is still probably no better than a C-. Which is a pass, but barely. 

Just finished: The Imperfectionists & 3 others
2 Jul 2010

Ten days on the road for my book tour - with no baby that required attending to, and many idle hours in airplanes, airports, and hotel rooms - meant that I had lots of time to read books. It was heaven, though I still didn't manage to work my way through the stack of books I had optimistically packed.

Still, I managed to finish off four books in ten days:

- Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson. An older book that a friend recommended, and rightfully so. A magnificent portrait of a family and their dark secrets, with the first person story of a little girl taking prominent position and the family history unspoolling in alternate chapters. What was amazing to me was how little of great importance really happens with this family, and yet how fascinating Atkinson makes it all seem. She draws incredibly memorable characters.

- Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See. I'm a sucker for a historical drama set in WW II Asia, and sure enough, I enjoyed all the parts of this book that took place during the war. Unfortunately, the book fell apart for me once it hit the United States, and became too much like a Chinatown soap opera. Plus, possibly the most annoying cliffhanger ending I've ever come across in a novel.

- Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosay. This was a panicked buy in the airport, when I realized that I had mistakenly just checked all my books in my luggage and had a 5 hour flight ahead of me but nothing to read. The only airport bookstore in my terminal was basically a glorified newsagent with only a few dozen offerings, one of which was this book. I grabbed it, recalling that my mother had loved this book. I, unfortunately, did not. Another WW II drama, and again, enjoyed the historical war parts, hated the contemporary parts, and really found the protagonist truly unbearable. By page 3, I had figured out exactly where this book was going, which made the rest fairly dull. I gritted my teeth on the plane and waded through it, regretting my packing error the whole trip.

- The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. A novel about the people who work at a failing English-language newspaper in Rome. Marvelously written as a collection of vignettes -- each one with a twist that stabs you in the heart, and most of which involve love and infidelity -- it's also an ode to the lost glory days of the newspaper. Touching and sad (especially for someone who, like me, has worked in the news industry) and also incredibly entertaining.

The books I didn't get time to read, but am eagerly about to dive into: American Rust by Philipp Meyer, A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, and The Believers by Zoe Heller. So many books, so little time.