Sunday, August 1, 2010

She had me at (the novelist’s version of) “Hello”

When I heard that Judy at Towne Center Books had snagged yet another NY Times Bestselling author, with a new book that, not only got starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly (intellectual, nice), but also Kirkus (way impressive, because, like Mikey, they hate everything!) AND People Magazine (four stars!) I knew this was an author I had to meet.

Still, I was dubious. High expectations, especially those imposed by Kirkus, are sometimes a death knell to the pleasurable discovery of a great book. Add the pressure to like something “literary” and it can be an easy recipe for self-flagellating disappointment.

I have read enough books to know what I like and what I don’t. I am also at the point in life at which I have the experiences and confidence to say that I loved Eat, Pray, Love and that I barely remember Ullysess or The Heart of Darkness. Also, I hated HATED The Corrections. Color me populist. I’m okay with that.

Also, time is precious. I am spoiled by an abundance of great books and the means to enjoy them. There was once upon a time (not so long ago) when I would power my way through a so-so book, because I had made the psychic and financial commitment of buying it. Now, with so much information coming my way, with so many ways to preview a book before buying it, and with so many opportunities to buy a book as a cheap impulse purchase, my patience for mediocre books is as thin (and nostalgic) as my 20-something waistline. I would say that I only finish roughly 20% of the books I start (unless I read them for TV30 Bookclub!) So many books, so little time!

So, even though I knew that Allegra Goodman is a NY Times bestselling author, AND that she has been compared NUMEROUS times to Jane Austen (and Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite classic works of literature), AND that her latest book got rave reviews all over the map, skeptic that I am, I was not sold.

Then I opened the book…

From the bookjacket, “Goodman weaves together the worlds of Silicon Valley and rare book collecting in a delicious novel about appetite, temptation, and fulfillment.”

A book about two sisters, Emily, a pragmatic, high-flying CEO of a Silicon Valley start-up and her sister, Jess, a romantic, tree-hugging philosophy major at UC Berkeley, and the times of the boom and the bust of 1999-2002, Goodman is spot on with characters, dialogue and the milieu of the times.

So, back to Hello.

First page, first paragraph. It’s Fall 1999. It’s raining in California. Much-needed rain.

“Like money, the rain came in a rush, enveloping the Bay, delighting forecasters, exceeding expectations, charging the air.”

One. Perfect. Sentence.

Plus, as almost every wonderful author is, Allegra Goodman was charming, humble, open and delightful.

Watch the interview. Read the book.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Optimism for the Future of Books!

This month, on one glorious day, I had two blow-you-away experiences that completely revived my hope for books, authors, and even, GASP, the future of publishing.

First, on In a Word, we had the great pleasure to talk to San Ramon author, Mahbod Seraji about his wonderful book, Rooftops of Tehran. Seraji’s story is one that many aspiring writers can relate to…

He always wanted to be a writer, hooked at an early age by Jack London’s White Fang. After much struggle, and various academic degrees and careers, at the age of 50-something he published his first novel—the story he was meant to tell—a semi-autobiographical tale of romance, politics and coming of age during the last days of the Shah of Iran.

And, not only did he achieve his dream of telling his story, but his book has been wildly successful! Critically-acclaimed, in the second printing and over 40,000 copies sold! (Which, BTW, for any author, let alone an unknown first-time author, is phenomenal!)

Dreams really can come true.

And then, as luck would have it, later that very same day, I took my son to see his favorite author of all time, Jeff Kinney, creator of the Wimpy Kid series. And, get this, he had a bus as big as any rock star!

Seeing the piles and piles of kids in line, many of whom may not be big literary type of readers, who are just in love with the Wimpy Kid character, who have discovered their own joy in reading, even if it’s layered with fart jokes and lots of comic drawing, it reminds me of the importance and the power of the written word, even if, and maybe, especially if, it’s not something considered “literature” by the so-called experts.

What an incredible day!! with the theme of the power of books to both connect us to one another and, also, to take us beyond our everyday lives into worlds that we would never otherwise know. Whether you are writing or reading literary fiction about the history of Iran or a graphic novel about a wimpy fourth grader—books give us the intangibles we long for—empathy, adventure, laughter, connection.

And that is the power of Mahbod Seraji and Jeff Kinney and all of the readers who love them and their stories.

And that gives me hope.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Great Book for Teens

You know how when your 14-year-old daughter asks you what she should wear to school, and you get all excited, and think, “Yay! Finally! She values my taste and sense of fashion and judgment enough to ask for my opinion about something as vitally important as what-to-wear to high school!”

And then you get all giddy and check your I-Phone to see what the weather will be and you check the family calendar to see if there is anything major going on, and then you mentally sort through her closet and come up with just the perfect recommendation for the climate and occasion, “How about your white skinny jeans and that new screen-printed tee that we just bought?”

And then, she smiles slightly, in what you will later recognize as that noncommittal, patronizing, oh-what-was-I-thinking-asking-you? or maybe great-now-I-know-exactly-what-not-to-wear look, and five minutes later she emerges from her room wearing denim shorts and an old sweatshirt?

Um, yeah.

As parents, it is our tragic destiny that our children chose to ignore not only our exquisite fashion sense, but also our accumulated, hard-earned wisdom about much grander things, such as life and success.

Which is why it is so wonderful to have a book like, Be the Star You Are For Teens to quietly slip to our teens in the hopes that they can learn from their peers peddling the kind of wise knowledge that is relevant to them, packaged in a way that they understand.

And, who could be better to write, collect and edit these stories than the vivacious, gorgeous, blond with sparkly star earrings, brimming with energy and enthusiasm and Star Power, than author, Cynthia Brian.

Brian, the best-selling author of “Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul,” compiles amazing stories from leading experts and teenagers encouraging them to discover their unique gifts, live up to their highest potential and be the stars they are meant to be.

My favorite story in the book is “Persistence,” written by Brian. She describes growing up on a farm, the oldest of five children in a family with little money. One day in the second grade she learned about something called “college” and announced to her family that she was going to go.

All agreed it was a great idea! Only one little obstacle—how to pay for it. After many weeks of brainstorming, it was decided that Brian would raise chickens and sell eggs to save money for higher education.

Waking up at 5:00 am to care for the birds, clean chicken poop, and collect eggs, Brian also suffered raids by foxes and mountain lions, and endured the nickname of “Chicken Lady.” Brians’s spirit was not dampened. As the cheerleading captain, she even had one of her chickens masquerade as the team “Falcon” mascot. Heck, Brian probably made it cool to raise chickens.

The result of all that hard work? Brian writes...

“By my senior year, those first twelve chickens increased to over two thousand. By the time I was eighteen, I had earned enough money from selling eggs to finance my entire university experience.”


For more inspiration, go to

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Art of Racing in the Rain

This month something happened to me that has never happened in the eight-plus years I have been doing the show.

Something terrible and devastating and humbling—something that rocked my literary self-esteem to the core.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating just a tad…

This month I fell in love with a book—our bookclub pick—The Art of Racing in The Rain.
My infatuation was immediate and intense and totally unexpected, like showing up for a blind date arranged by your sister and seeing Brad Pitt waiting for you with a single red rose and a Café Mocha.

The book was #4 on the NY Times Bestseller list. I knew people who loved it (including my co-host, Jim Ott and a guest on this show, Melanie Bentley), but I had my doubts. There are just so many books (I would venture to guess about 75%) that I start and just don’t finish.

Not to mention that the Cliff Notes/Entertainment Tonight version would be:

A racecar driver has a dog who is old and will soon be put to sleep. In a series of flashbacks, the dog remembers all the tragedies and triumphs of a very dramatic life with his master, full of wisdom and love that will warm the heart of anyone who has ever loved and lost a dog.

Big Yaaaaawwwwwnnnn. Plus, besides Marley and Me (and for dog’s sake, I cried enough already between the book and the movie), who can really get excited about a book in which you know in advance the dog dies?!

But from the very first page, I fell in love with Enzo, the dog narrating the novel:

Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively…I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth whie chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences. And that’s why I’m here now waiting for Denny to come home—he should be here soon—lying on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor in a puddle of my own urine.

Is that great literature or what?!

Enzo is wise and wonderful and loving and selfless and human in the best sort of way that one would wish an actual person could be human. Enzo is everything you could possibly want in a dog, friend, companion or narrator. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that I am the human (politically incorrect to say “owner” anymore, as if another being could actually “own” another being!) of a dog

who I can only say, with the utmost underestimation, I consider to be very special.

So, anyway, I fell in madly in love with this book and wanted another guest for the perfect discussion, so I invited one of my extraordinarily well-read, articulate, beautiful friends to read the book. I knew that she was a dog-lover and couldn’t wait to rhapsodize about the wonders of this book with her.

Surprise—a couple of days before the show, I got this message:

Heads up - I just finished reading and I am not a big fan of this book!

Yikes! I had to go back to the book and read all the glowing reviews and see the awards that it had won to reassure myself that actually, I had not been a sucker for some overly done sentimental piece of crap about life and death…(no offense to those of you who liked Tuesdays with Morrie)

No matter. On the show, my friend’s differing opinion of the premise of the book added a lot to the discussion—even though, if I remember correctly, she did refer to me as crazy at least once—a description that I happily embraced, and might have even suggested.

Also on the show—Cynthia Brian, the ball of energy and inspiration who is the author of Be the Star You Are! For Teens. More later…

And, just in time for Spooky October, Irma Slage, author of Phases of Life After Death. She really does See Dead People!

Friday, September 11, 2009

When We Were Colored

This month’s show is the perfect example of exactly why I LOVE doing In A Word.

This month, I had the Triple-whammy experience of reading a book that I normally would never pick up on my own (the Dublin “One City, One Book” selection); absolutely falling in love with it; and then—the cherry ontop—I had the honor of meeting and interviewing the amazing author.

That’s as pretty close to heaven as it gets for a book geek like me. To summarize:

Incredible book:

Historically edifying
Emotionally moving

A memoir of Eva Rutland’s time as a stay-at-home, “colored” mother of four in the days leading up to civil rights in America, the book was first published in 1964—the same year that the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial segregation. Then it was titled, “The Trouble with Being Mama.” Rutland’s goal was simple—to seek common ground with white women through the universal experience of motherhood. The book has been recently reissued, with a new title, a new foreword, and the assistance of the author’s daughter, Ginger Rutland, an editor at The Sacramento Bee.

Rutland writes genuinely and lovingly of her childhood in the South in the days of segregation. Her grandfather, a former slave, had built a successful business and put every one of his dozen children through college. Although it’s hard for us to imagine, Rutland remembers her middle-class “colored” youth as magical, “How beautiful it seemed--Atlanta, with its ermine-trimmed, diamond-studded, velvety cloak of segregation.”

It turns out that life was much more difficult and complicated for Rutland once she moved with her husband and small children to “liberal” California, which did not officially segregate whites and “coloreds,” but had a strong undercurrent of prejudice that was much more difficult to navigate than the clear delineation between the races in the South.

For example, even though there were no boundaries of white and “colored” parts of town, when Rutland and her family wanted to buy a lot on which to build a house, they had to get a white friend to buy it and then sell it to them. The owner would not sell directly to a “colored” family.

Rutland’s soft touch brings you gently into her world, makes you empathize with her as a mother, and then knocks you over with an anecdote about the reality of being “colored” at that time. The personal and the politics are seamlessly woven together and that is the power of the book.

Incredible author:


As I read this book, it seemed like Rutland was telling my story, although, on the surface, we could not be more different. Eva Rutland is a Black/African-American/“Colored” mother who tells of raising four children in the 60’s in the midst of the rapidly changing world of segregation and integration, and all the everyday challenges of any mother trying her best to take care of and teach her children well. By contrast, I live in a multi-cultural city that embraces, even celebrates, diversity. While Rutland’s daughter was forbidden to play with one of her white friends because the friend’s mother believed that “Negroes were dirty,” my children bring home friends of all colors and races, without a fleeting thought to their differences.

Still, as Rutland supposed, we mothers have common ground.

My favorite part of the book had nothing to do with race. It was when Rutland reflects upon all the time she has spent volunteering for child-centered activities like Girl Scouts and PTA—many times leaving her family at night to attend meetings or spending lots of energy on things that we supposed to be “enriching” for the kids, but often turn out to be more about the egos and social lives of the mothers.

Her conclusion, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If I had it to do over again, I would spend more time reading books, reading myself and reading to my children and cleaning the house.” Well, I agree with the reading part at least.

Incredible discussion:

Two passionate guests who lived through this period in California—one as a child and one as a parent.

A Must See show! You can watch online, streaming video! Just click here and watch the show M-F at 6:30 am, 1 pm and 9:30 pm.

Eva Rutland is a hero—not just for her courage, good sense and elegance in speaking out and finding common ground in a time of racial divide and fear—but for giving us all an example of how powerful the written word can be. To make us understand, to make us feel, and bring us, as readers, into a world that we would have otherwise never known—leaving us the wiser and richer and, maybe even kinder for the experience.

I leave you with these words, from the new foreword, Rutland writes, “Now, almost fifty years later, life in America has changed, but my story is as relevant today as it was then.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

August In A Word

“Oh, Da, Da, Dear, Dear,” as one of my favorite characters of literature, Piglet from Winnie the Pooh would say.

I am quite behind on my blogging. It is not for any lazy lack of literary gusto, but because all these pesky personal things (which I will not bore you with) keep getting in the way.

Oh, Bother.

Our July show features the very fabulous Christine Arylo, author of Choosing Me before We--the book that EVERY WOMAN SHOULD READ before entering into a serious relationship—especially marriage.

Wisdoms that, if followed, would save single females many years and tears chasing after the wrong man, fantasizing about the impossible dream man, and rebuffing the perfectly good, (if, perhaps style or hair-challenged) man who could potentially be the right guy for a lifetime of happiness. It should be noted—the book is not about being selfish (as some might surmise from the title) or about settling (as some might surmise from my description), but about finding yourself, knowing yourself, and then being open to letting the right guy into your life without judgment or ego.

Perfect for the young single girl or the newly-divorced cougar!

On to the bookclub discussion:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.

I liked this book in the same way I liked the title. Intriguing at first, then charming, then a bit cloying and ultimately predictable, but overall enjoyable.

I picked up the book when it first came out in hardback and Judy Wheeler from Towne Center Books assured me that it would be a NY Times Bestseller. I read the first three pages and did not have a problem putting it down. So many books, so little time!

Later, as Judy prophesized, the book hit the Bestseller list. All of a sudden, EVERY bookclub seemed to be reading it. And I can see the appeal. The book is quirky funny—clever, and a quick, easy read. But most of all, the book is a love letter to the power of literature, books in general and how reading and discussion and community around books can enrich a person’s perspective and even change one’s life.

In other words—a great bookclub pick!

And, as Pooh Bear has been known to say, “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words, but rather short, easy words, like, ‘What about lunch?’”

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Although all M.J. Ryan's books are great, I thought her last book, This Year I Will was a masterpiece. This book is about how to make changes we want to see happen in our lives—losing weight, changing jobs, getting organized—and it combines optimism and encouragement with some real, for-sure scientific evidence about how the brain works and why we are motivated to do the things we do with some compassionate understanding. Kind of like having an awesome mother with a Ph.D. in neuroscience who mixes a mean margarita while she cheers you on and dispenses spot-on advice—powerful, intoxicating, but also subtle and non-judgmental.

Her latest book, Adaptability: How to Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For, addresses change of a completely different kind—not happy, proactive change like New Year’s resolutions, but change that is forced upon us like getting laid off from our job, losing our retirement money in the stock market, seeing our business implode—in other words, the stuff that many of us are going through right now.

M.J.’s publisher, Broadway Books, pushed this book through the normally snail-paced publishing process quickly because this is a book that we need immediately. To quote Broadway,

“In her book, (M.J.) teaches the fundamentals needed to become a master of change, These essentials will allow you to accept the need to adapt and become aware of your internal resources…and learn how to get your brain on your side.”

The back of the book has my favorite section—20 Quick Tips for Surviving Change You Didn’t Ask For. Here are a few of my favorites:

• Because feeling in control is so crucial to resilience, and unasked-for-change can leave us feeling very out of control, try asking yourself this question during the day: What am I free to choose right now?

• When considering options, before you say something won’t work, consider how it might work. Try it on for a while.

• Get out and help someone else. When we focus on someone else’s problems, we put our own in perspective. If we focus on helping others, panic diminishes.

• What really matters here? That’s a question that will help you keep the change in proportion. A woman who lost her house was told by her minister that what she needed was a home, not a house. It helped her move to a rental with greater peace and perspective.

For the other 16 Tips, you will just have to buy the book. Or better yet, go to M.J.’s talk at Towne Center Books in Pleasanton on Wednesday, June 17 at 7:30 p.m.

See you there!