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March 8, 2014

Misty Copeland: A ballerina from San Pedro has her say

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Misty Copeland performing with ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Misty Copeland has just returned from two weeks performing in Japan, and though severely jet-lagged, the American Ballet Theater soloist is eager to chat. Her excitement about the publication this month of her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, is palpable, even in a phone call from her home in New York City. "I've known from the time I started dancing that I would be telling my story at some point," she said. "I definitely didn't think it would be this soon!" There is a lot about Copeland's story that has been well documented in the press. In the book (written with Charisse Jones, the former Los Angeles Times staff writer), Copeland herself speaks out for the first time about her emotionally turbulent and often financially precarious upbringing in San Pedro, the court battle between her mother, Sylvia DeLaCerna, and her ballet teacher, Cynthia Bradley, and her ascension in the world of classical ballet starting with her win at the 1997 Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards. The story continues with Copeland's opportunities outside of ABT, including performing with Prince, and her quest to become the first black female principal dancer in an elite ballet company.

misty-copeland-life-in-motion.jpgCopeland, 31, discovered ballet at the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club, where she would spend after-school hours. Bradley, a former dancer, was teaching a class there and quickly realized that she had a dance prodigy on her hands. Copeland was 13 -- generally considered old for girls to start ballet training, but she demonstrated grace, flexibility and the capacity to quickly learn the fundamentals of ballet. She began studying more seriously at Bradley's school. To ease the commute between school and the Gardena motel where the family was living, DeLaCerna allowed her daughter to move in with Bradley and her family.

Copeland switched to home schooling and flourished in her new living arrangement. But after the success of the Spotlight Award, and a subsequent summer intensive course at San Francisco Ballet, she sensed that all was not well between her mother and Bradley. Resentment boiled over and DeLaCerna decided that Copeland, at the time 15, should move back to the motel. Plans were made for her to attend a new ballet school and enroll at San Pedro High School. At Bradley's suggestion, Copeland sued for emancipation. Gloria Allred was brought in to represent DeLaCerna and eventually the emancipation request was dropped. The unsavory episode had ended but Copeland describes in the book how she was traumatized and crushed. (Copeland writes of their relationship today, "I love my mother but I've never really understood her.")

In time, she managed to recover and continue her training in Torrance. The following year she was accepted into ABT's summer intensive program in New York City. She joined ABT's studio company in 2000, became a corp de ballet member in 2001, and was appointed an American Ballet Theater soloist (the first black female ABT soloist in 20 years) in 2007.

"It was really nice to feel comfortable enough and mature enough to be able to look back on all of those experiences that made me the dancer and woman I am," Copeland says of the memoir. "It's amazing to be sharing my story while I'm still in the midst of my career." Copeland has spoken out often about the difficulties connected with being a black ballerina in a world that is mostly white. She fully embraces the fact that she is a role model for young dancers of color, recently becoming the public face of ABT's diversity initiative Project Plié, which offers scholarships to minority dancers around the country. "I'm constantly out there, hands on with kids and mentoring them. They seem to feel I'm like them and I'm real. They're not intimidated. I think for the most part they want to hug me, which is so nice. They see themselves in me. I didn't have that when I first became a professional. It's a very powerful thing."

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Copeland speaks to children.

Copeland's reverence for the tradition and history of ballet has both consoled and sustained her since she began dancing. "I think that coming from my background, I never really felt like I was part of a lineage or anything I could really put my hands on," she says. "Entering the ballet world, there was something that was so comforting about knowing there was such a rich history....It was like, wow, I'm a part of this thing that's so much bigger than me.

"In ballet there is a technique that was built and we still follow that technique. There was just something about the tradition that really drew me in. I think ballet in general was this safe haven that I had never experienced before in my childhood -- feeling like I had this beautiful and fun escape from my everyday life. I still think of it that way. It's a very sacred place -- the stage and the studio -- where you can kind of escape what's happening in the world."

In addition to her book tour, Copeland is busy preparing for ABT's spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House. The company is traveling to Abu Dhabi this month for the touring production of "Coppelia;" Copeland will be debuting in the principal role of Swanhilda, a first for her. Here in Southern California, Orange County ballet audiences can see her dance with ABT next March in the company's new production of "The Sleeping Beauty" at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa. The ballet will premiere here before becoming part of the spring season at Lincoln Center. That means Copeland's family and friends get to see it before New York audiences.

Returning to Southern California to perform is a positive experience for her. "The first time I was on a big stage was at the Music Center," she says nostalgically. "I feel like this is home. It's so cool that I get to come back here and perform for my community."

Misty Copeland will speak at Live Talks Los Angeles on Thursday, March 13, at the William Turner Gallery in Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica.



Misty Copeland discussed her desire to become the first African American principal dancer in a major company at a TEDx Talk in Washington, D.C. in 2012.


Copeland solo at Gala de Ballet "Despertares" in 2012 in Mexico City.


Previously on LA Observed:
Ballet dancer Misty Copeland comes home to San Pedro
Misty Copeland takes NYC

December 1, 2013

Letter from Down Under: Welcome to the Homogenocene

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes from Australia:

I lost the day after Thanksgiving, but not in the usual Black Friday pursuits. I took off Thursday evening from LAX bound for Melbourne, Australia, and landed Saturday afternoon in a strangely familiar landscape, though I've never set foot here before.

With sunny blue sky, grassy hills dotted with eucalyptus, and tree-lined, car-clotted city streets running down to the ocean, it feels a lot like Southern California. Although the Pacific is east of here, not west, in a geographic coincidence, St. Kilda, the neighborhood where we're staying, faces Port Phillip Bay to the west, just as Venice does to Santa Monica Bay. And the nearby, rapidly gentrifying Prahran precinct could easily be the coolest neighborhood in LA on a hot Saturday night, with a few people even sporting Lakers gear.

Welcome to the "Homogenocene"--the rather worrisome title that some observers have given to our era of globalization, in which one increasingly finds a similar cosmopolitan mix of culture and nature wherever one travels in the world. As Buckaroo Banzai says: "Wherever you go, there you are."

I'm here with my partner, Ursula Heise, for conferences and meetings at the University of Melbourne with colleagues in what we call the "environmental humanities," a rapidly emerging global interdisciplinary field of study that brings together history, literature, philosophy, cultural anthropology and geography, art, media, and communications. Our concern is what the disciplines that study culture can contribute to understanding and improving our relationship with nature.

The environmental humanities take the Homogenocene as a subject to study, but you might also rightly conclude that the field is symptomatic of the era. In the Homogenocene local diversity--biological and cultural--is increasing in most places, even while the differences between places seem to be decreasing. Our global connections, while not new, are increasingly dense, and everywhere, nature and culture are inextricably entwined.

treesinparadise.jpgOn the long flight over I was reminded of this again and again while reading my friend Jared Farmer's enthralling new book Trees in Paradise: A California History.

Melbourne, it turns out, is an important node in the network of ideas and species that has connected Australia to California. The great nineteenth-century California eucalyptus promoter Elwood Cooper came by much of his knowledge about eucalypts through the U.S. consul general in Melbourne, who introduced Cooper to the work of the great Australian eucalyptus authority Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller.

Actually, there was a two-way exchange of knowledge and seeds. Eucalypts traveled from Australia to California, Monterey pines came the other way. A "tree culture" was shared across the Pacific, writes Farmer: "These 'improvers' believed they could accomplish good works through tree culture, a nineteenth-century term for a body of practical knowledge that includes afforestation, horticulture, and landscaping." They believed not only that the landscape could be improved--or even "emparadised," to use an old-fashioned term--but that good citizens would also grow among the orange groves, underneath the palms, protected by towering, fragrant eucalyptus trees.

We're skeptical of such ideas these days, and for good reason. This kind of "civic environmentalism" was often deeply racist and not subtle about it. It was white families this landscape was meant to create. This brand of environmentalism--propagated by Californian and Australian environmental reformers a century ago--has rightly been thrown on the trash heap of history.

But, perhaps, in this era of the multicultural Homogenocene, there is still something useful to be harvested from these "renovationists," as Australian environmental historian Ian Tyrrell calls folks like Abbot Kinney, who succeeded Cooper as the leading eucalyptus expert and promoter in Southern California. As Farmer writes, "to renovate means to repair and also to improve."

These days, we don't like to think of improving nature much either. The idea is filled with hubris. It's what gave us the LA Aqueduct, Hoover Dam, and the California State Water Project, all of which we feel ambivalent about at best. We'd rather try to return to nature. But there's no pure nature or culture to go back to. So as we try to figure out how to repair the damage that has been done by the hybrid human and natural systems that we depend upon, and adapt to a rapidly changing climate, we better get good at renovating again.

And maybe now, in the early twenty-first century, in the thick of the Homogenocene that Cooper, Kinney and many, many others set in motion, Melbourne and Los Angeles can play an important role again in the global network of trade in ideas, and, yes, species too--but this time as vibrant cities where people from dozens of countries, speaking dozens of languages, are all contributing their own creative ideas to shaping nature and culture and new forms of civic environmentalism. Listening to them might be a good place to start.

October 13, 2013

Three new photojournalism books from masters of the craft

erwitt-provence-boys.jpgBoys in Provence, 1959. Courtesy of teNeues/Photo © 2013 Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.


Veteran war photographer Don McCullin started a controversy last month when he declared, after receiving the lifetime achievement award at Perpignan's Visa Pour l'Image Photo Festival, "We haven't changed a thing. Once the Syrian war is over you can bet your life there will be another tragedy in my lifetime. We will not see the end of war and suffering." McCullin has spent decades documenting war and cruelty, from Vietnam to Biafra. But rather than feeling satisfied that his images raised awareness of the tragedy of starvation, or the cruelties of war, he feels disillusioned and inadequate. On a panel discussing the merits of war photography with David Douglas Duncan, 97, famed photo editor John Morris, 96, and several younger photographers, there was much disagreement. Certainly, the images brought home from Vietnam shaped public opinion, turning many against our involvement in that war. But McCullin seemed deeply troubled by his time spent documenting unspeakable horrors he did not try to halt, but only document. "You have to suffer the shame of memory and then you have to somehow live with it, sleep with it, understand it without trying to become insane," he said.

The pull of war is strong. Whether it's the search to expose evil and human suffering, find the adrenalin rush or make a name for yourself, there are many young and old photographers still traveling the globe to document the battlefields and disasters that the world never seems to run out of. McCullin himself headed to Syria last year. But in looking back, he realized he was just too old to run for his life wearing his equipment and a flak jacket. He deemed the mission a mistake. Several photo editors on last month's panel said the risks are just too great, and they no longer will take freelance photos from Syria, not wanting to encourage anyone to risk their lives in search of a great photograph. Most major agencies and newspapers do not have staffers in Syria now, citing its danger.


salgado-iceberg.jpgIceberg between the Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. 2005 © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery. Below: Nenet Nomads (Windstorm). Siberia, Russia 2011. © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images
Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery
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Sebastiao Salgado is another photographer of conscience who has spent much of his adult lifetime documenting the world's conflicts and mayhem. He recently decided, for very different reasons, to change course. In a recent TED talk, the renowned and respected photographer, whose luminous black and white images--of drought in the Sahel, gold miners harvesting gold by hand snaking up a mountaintop in Brazil, looking more like ants than people, or oilfield workers, faces stained black with oil, dealing with the gushers running rampant after the Persian Gulf War--almost belie their tragic overtones. He revealed that his doctor told him he must stop shooting disasters and tragedy as his own health was suffering along with that of his subjects. It forced him to reevaluate his life and work, and put the brakes on a career that spanned several decades. "I had lost all faith in humanity," he says in the introduction to "Genesis," his impressive new book.

Salgado, 69, retreated with his wife to his family's farm in Brazil to ponder his future. The two decided to issue their visual wake-up call to the world by spending several years documenting the pristine landscapes and cultures that are at risk unless we change our ways and begin addressing the environmental issues that threaten the earth.


salgado-nenets.jpgThe resulting images, as one would expect from Salgado, are exhilarating, compelling, breath-taking. He spanned the globe on an eight-year odyssey that he calls his "homage to the grandeur of nature," seeking out tribes and landscapes untouched by the modern world. You can feel the cold of Northern Siberia as you gaze upon the Nenets tribespeople walking through a snowstorm or feeding their sled dogs. The book is filled with one natural wonder or remote tribe after another, captured in a way that makes you feel you are right there next to Salgado. These majestic landscapes are so remote it's easy to imagine the sound of the shutter piercing the silence as Salgado worked.

The resulting photographs are available two ways: as a coffee table book published by Taschen, affordable at $65, and as a limited edition two-volume book, each one almost three-feet long, with a wooden stand of its own designed by architect Tadao Ando. In a pre-publication ad in many major newspapers, Taschen offered the two volumes for $3,000. If they didn't need a room of their own to view them properly, I would have made the purchase. Having them nearby to gaze at seems to restore your faith, if not in humanity, then at least in Mother Nature. This is photojournalism at its purest. No ego involved, just conscience and artistry perfectly combined. Two rooms of large prints are currently on exhibit at the Fetterman Gallery in Bergamot Station.

Two other large photo books offer photo collections from masters of the craft. The first accompanies a small show also at Fetterman Gallery by National Geographic and Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. The show marks the publication of his book "Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs." McCurry, 63, has spent most of his career as a Magnum photographer working on assignment for many publications, including National Geographic. He has traveled the world, to India, Tibet, Cambodia, Kashmir, the oil fields of Kuwait after the Gulf War and Afghanistan. It was there in 1984 that he made the most iconic photo of his career: a green-eyed Afghan girl whose face graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and riveted its readers. He returned to Afghanistan 17 years later and miraculously found her again, and told that story for Geographic. This large book presents fourteen of his photo essays with text that tells how he got the photos. The chapters present rich color images from his travels around the world and clearly, McCurry is extremely gifted. His images, often bathed in ethereal light, provide a travelogue of diverse locales and faces, showing daily life as well as monsoons, war and hardship.


mccurry-mother-child.jpgMother and child looking through taxi window, Bombay 1993. Copyright Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos.


Unfortunately, though, rather than letting his work speak for itself--and the photographs do, eloquently and powerfully--he decided to package the photography with newly commissioned essays and ephemera collected over the 30+ years of his career. The first photo in the book is a full page picture of McCurry armpit deep in water in India, camera hoisted above his head. The book travels down the path of "how he got the picture" with essays written by someone, not McCurry, reverently describing in detail how these stories came to be and relating how, as a young boy looking at a Brian Brake photo essay in National Geographic, "he could not have imagined that he would one day inherit Brake's mantle as the master of the photo essay..." Of the many qualities that made McCurry a good photojournalist, humility was not one of them.

The book also has pages of beautifully photographed letters, journals, visas, press passes, passports, foreign currency, well-worn shoes, perfectly preserved tearsheets from every magazine and newspaper that ran McCurry's photos, every journal and note he scribbled to himself and seemingly every receipt for every purchase McCurry made over the decades of his career. While it's interesting to see the paper trail that his assignments created, in the end I found it distracting. I kept wondering, where did he keep all this stuff and how did he keep it in such pristine condition while wading through waist-deep water or running with rebels in Karachi? Perhaps that's part of what his Geographic assistants were for.


For me, there is too much McCurry here. Each chapter includes photos of McCurry, often posed with his subjects who oddly seem like props. These add a sour note to an otherwise beautiful book. To my mind, a photojournalist is a fly on the wall, unseen, unheard. The most egregious of these "I was there" mementoes is a series of photos taken by McCurry's assistant on September 11. Sad for all the wrong reasons, his assistant photographed him photographing the twin towers going up in flames. Why were they included? Why were they shot, for that matter? Didn't his assistant have more important photos to take that day? It's quite obvious that McCurry was there, given the hauntingly beautiful images in the book. I wish McCurry had let the photography speak for itself and saved the ego-trip for a presentation to a photojournalism class.

Elliott Erwitt, 85, has also published a scale-tipping new book called "Kolor." Erwitt's sense of humor and sardonic eye has kept me a fan for years, and after a long career, he is at the point where he probably has rooms full of unpublished images. Erwitt has said in interviews that photos take on special significance when they are put together and published in a book, which he does periodically--there are 8 titles on the backflap from his latest book. He felt it was time for another one, and so he went through his stockpile of unpublished Kodachrome slides, edited them and published "Kolor," which he calls his homage to George Eastman, founder of Kodak. The book presents a huge collection of never-seen color work made over the years, including outtakes of his Hollywood film work shot on the set of "The Misfits" and many images taken while shooting commercial work in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Erwitt always kept a second camera at his side on commercial jobs and found time to shoot personal pictures. Many of those are published here, offering a glimpse beyond the black and white photography he made his name with on assignment for Life and other magazines, while working in the editorial and advertising worlds as a member of the prestigious photo agency Magnum.


erwitt-fashion-coat.jpgFashion shoot in New York, 1989. Courtesy of teNeues/Photo © 2013 Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.


His humor shines through, even if not every image published here makes it onto the top rung of his impressive body of work. Even Erwitt's rejects are worth seeing, and they are paired across the spreads in a way that takes advantage of his off-kilter sense of timing and humor. It's fun to wade through. After decades of producing stellar images, it's impressive to see the result of his longtime passion of documenting life and its simple moments. As a side note, Erwitt, who has always been somewhat reclusive, has recently appeared in a video for a Cole-Haan marketing campaign that featured four still-vibrant artists born in 1928. All beautiful seniors and creative souls in their unique way, they are people whose commitment to their craft keeps them going into their 80's. In Erwitt's case, we appreciate the many laughs he brought us as he held up a mirror to our society while exposing our humanity along the way.

October 11, 2013

In the autumn of my books

Thumbnail image for al-martinez-photo.jpgI was sitting on the edge of an easy chair in my home office looking at books piled here and there when it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn't be giving so many of them away. It was beginning to feel like I was nudging unwanted children out the door.

I could see them in the rains of autumn, shivering against the inclement weather, looking back at the shelves they had occupied for so many years; where they had brought so much pleasure to me and to others who sought the comfort and emotional distance that books provide.

I was cleaning out my cave, which is to say my office, a chore I assume occasionally when the room becomes too cluttered even for me, and the hundreds of books and travel souvenirs and, well, this and that seem to be closing in on me. The electronic Nook and the Kindle were taking the place of books, I told myself, and I had to keep up with the new and hip digital age.

But as I was pretty much into the job of creating different piles of books to give away, to keep and to decide on, I took a break to see what was going on in Facebook. So doing, I came across the photograph of a man on oxygen reading a volume of Mark Twain stories.

He was sitting in what appeared to be his home library, perhaps recovering from surgery, seeking emotional comfort, transported from his own painful presence into the barefoot world of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn along a trail laid out by the master story teller who created them.

I could understand that. During recovery from heart surgery and other critical operations, books were my attendants, easing me back into a reclining chair and being by my side for the moments it took for me to drift away from self-pity into landscapes of imagination. John Steinbeck was my main guide. I can't tell you how many times I read from "Grapes of Wrath," not sunny prose but the eloquent syntax of history seen through eyes of compassion, diverting me from the self-obsessions of my lesser griefs. The Joads suffered for a lifetime, I for a few days.

I lived in the magical words of Ray Bradbury too, picturing him at the center of his own clutter during visits to his home, calling him my friend, and mourning his passage from Earth to God's gleaming stars and to the eternal spaces of his own creation. Alex Haley was a friend and collaborator too, and I have read from "Roots" when my own distress needed comparisons to the hard worlds of others.

Poetry, memoirs, biographies, novels, non-fiction accounts—they all lay in piles around me. Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Alice Munro, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker... literary royalty intersecting to lift up their readers, to make us well.

I sat there for a long time, paralyzed by my own indecision, then I picked up "Grapes of Wrath" and read its classic opening: "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth..."

And I knew what I had to do.

August 22, 2013

Misquoting Dorothy Parker

Today is Dorothy Parker's 120th birthday. She was born on August 22, 1893, and her devotees shall observe the occasion by posting her quotations and poems on the Internets. However, a famous quip about Los Angeles may not be applicable.

As the president of the LA Chapter of the Dorothy Parker Society and tour guide, I am asked on a regular basis if Dorothy Parker actually said that Los Angeles is "72 of suburbs in search of a city." The answer is...probably not.

The quote has been attributed to Dorothy Parker but it's really a paraphrase of Aldous Huxley's bon mot found his 1925 book, Americana. He wrote that Los Angeles was "nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis" and he was probably quoting someone else who initially said Los Angeles was seven or six suburbs in search of a city. The witticism expanded from there. At times it was attributed to H.L. Menken, Robert Benchely, Alexander Woolcott and Dorothy Parker.

Most likely it was Mencken who used the phrase in an essay published in the April 1927 issue of Photoplay magazine after visiting Los Angeles for three weeks in 1926. I cannot find the actual essay so I must reserve the right to be wrong. Thanks to Kim Cooper, I have found the publication online. But I still reserve the right to be wrong.

Regardless, Mrs. Parker's hatred for our fair city inspired plenty of other waspish quips.
I can verify that she once told a reporter that she loathed palm trees, calling them "the ugliest vegetable God created." You can tweet that.

April 25, 2013

Paris Photo comes to Hollywood

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Paris Photo is the annual photography fair held in France — transported to the U.S. this weekend for the first time. On the lot at Paramount Studios are gallery spaces, booksellers such as Taschen and Aperture and live artist conversations and film screenings. Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," is one of the featured speakers. At the preview on Thursday, City Hall's culture maven Olga Garay-English welcomed the organizers to LA and Councilman Tom LaBonge presented a proclamation and a calendar.

Photos by Iris Schneider. Top, looking onto the New York backlot at Paramount Studios from a facade occupied for the weekend by Zucker Art Books. Below, display space inside facades on the studio's New York street.

paris-photo-3.jpg paris-photo-2.jpg

April 8, 2013

April in LA is for film and books

colcoa-poster-2013.jpgThe City of Lights, City of Angels Festival, celebrating the best in new and classic French films, will be held from April 15-22. Over 35 features will be screened at the Director's Guild in Hollywood and it's open to the public. While we know that a few of the films have already been picked up for release in the States, this may be your only chance to see most of these gems. Every genre of film is represented, but I am a sucker for French comedies so I am particularly looking forward to Daniele Thompson's "It Happened in Saint-Tropez," Christian Vincent's "Haute Cuisine" and Philippe Leguay's "Cycling with Moliere." There are opportunities to meet with filmmakers at the afternoon "happy hour" talks as well as classic films such as Louis Malle's "The Fire Within" and one my all time favorites, Jacques Demy's "Bay of Angels," both starring Jeanne Moreau. Tickets and more information

With the guessing games over who the next owner of the Los Angeles Times will be heating up, we should rejoice every year the Festival of Books continues. Started 18 years ago by Narda Zacchino and Steve Wasserman, both now long gone from the paper, the festival is a gift to the community. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, April 20 and 21, USC will be host to over 100,000 people appreciating over 100 panels, stage presentations, music and children's programs. Admission is free as are all the outdoor events and most of the panels, but tickets are required for the indoor conversations, such as Joyce Carol Oates with Patt Morrison and Anna Quindlen with Karen Grigsby Bates. These are always popular and for thirty dollars you can buy a pass that allows you to reserve a spot at up to eight of the conversations.

Outdoor stage events this year include such big names as Debbie Reynolds, Paul Anka and Valerie Harper and there are dozens of panels focusing on history, biography, fiction, crime — you name the genre. The festival is akin to Queen for a Day for authors who toil alone to create their works and suddenly are surrounded by so many readers. They come from all over the country for this special weekend so it seems like the least we locals can do is show up and take advantage of it while we still have it. This year, for the first time, there is the added advantage that the Expo Line drops you right in front of campus. More details

The most recent addition to the April festival calendar is the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. We are so spoiled here in Los Angeles with the Academy, the Cinematheque and UCLA screening classic films all year round, but last year several thousand attendees from 49 states poured into Hollywood to remind us of the incredible pull the home of the movies has on the world. The Fourth TCM Festival will be held April 25th through the 29th and they take over the Roosevelt Hotel and the Loews at Hollywood and Highland for a packed schedule that gives audiences a choice of four or five films at a time, from early morning until late at night. Films are screened at Grauman's, El Capitan and the Egyptian.

Highlights this year include Jane Fonda immortalizing her hand prints in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese theater and introducing "On Golden Pond" and stars such as Max von Sydow and Eva Marie Saint discussing their extraordinary lives and careers. Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow will be in conversation with Carl Davis, the composer and conductor who has illuminated and elevated Kevin's restorations of films such as "The Wind," "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" and the incomparable "Napoleon." Still, it is the simple joy of watching a great movie on the big screen that has to be the biggest draw of the festival. This year's sampling includes "The Great Escape," "Bonnie and Clyde," "On the Waterfront" and "From Russia with Love" as well as brilliant comedies such as "The Lady Eve," "Ninotchka," "Libeled Lady" and "It Happened One Night." A few passes are still available and tickets for individual films can be purchased on a first come, first served, stand by basis for twenty dollars each, ten for students, at the theater box office. Full schedule

December 2, 2012

7 hours of 'Gatz' leaves her wanting more

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One of the great perks of being a kid is that people read to you. I still miss it. That may be part of why I was so enchanted by "Gatz," currently playing 9 performances at the Redcat at Disney Hall. The theater production, put together by the New York-based avant-garde troupe called Elevator Repair Service, brilliantly performs F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" by reading the entire novel onstage, incorporating every written word into the production. In doing so, it becomes so much more than the novel is, or than a play could be--I guess that's why the word transformative was invented.

I admit I was nervous before the show. But it was a nervous anticipation. Could I last seven hours (eight including a dinner break) in a not-that-comfortable chair listening to a whole novel? Within minutes I was swept away. If you're going to read a novel in one sitting, better make it a good one and in choosing "The Great Gatsby," ERS chose well.

I was awed by the beauty of the words, the way they sounded strung together, the images they painted. The staging was quirky and minimal. It allowed my imagination enough room to fill in the blanks, making the event participatory and thrilling. Like good theater should be, it was a very social experience: the intimate Redcat is a perfect venue — everyone knew from the start that we were all in it together and you could sense that excitement as we took our seats.

Set in a dingy office, the play begins with the narrator, Nick, played by Scott Shepherd, finding a copy of "The Great Gatsby" in a Rolodex on his desk. While waiting for an interminable reboot of his aging computer, he picks it up and starts reading. His bored colleagues gradually drift in and out of their workaday doldrums playing the characters so elegantly drawn by Fitzgerald. The seminal novel about the dreams and delusions of the young strivers of New York's upper and wannabe-upper class took flight onstage. The drab office was a perfect contrast to the life, both lofty and artificial, depicted in the book.

There are many surprises. First, it's funny — something unexpected from one of the great tragedies in American literature. But it's undeniable when hearing and seeing it onstage. Of course ERS has helped entertain with its inventive staging and visual touches. You feel you are witnessing something fresh and new. Great art often makes you see something familiar in a totally new way. Director John Collins said recently, "We knew we might fail, but it would be a worthwhile failure."

gatz-shepherd-iris.jpgAs Shepherd reads and the action takes place around him, the novel he holds becomes the most important character on the stage. In fact, when he leaves the book after Gatsby's murder and starts reciting the words by heart, it's somehow shocking to see him go on without the novel in hand.

It was exhilarating, exciting, hypnotic, poignant, heartfelt, intelligent and utterly charming theater. It lasted from afternoon 'til evening and it didn't make me tired. I laughed, I cried and felt everything in between.

When it was over, I was weirdly energized. I confess that somehow I had gone all these years without actually ever reading the novel, having started it a few days before I saw the show. After it was over, I couldn't wait to go home and finish it, relishing the thought of being immersed in the writing all over again.

Elevator Repair Service has been trying since 1999 to do a staging of "The Great Gatsby." Initially, it was not their intention to read the whole book onstage. But in trying to structure a play from the book, Collins and Shepherd said that every time they tried to extract something meaningful from the novel, it always seemed to diminish the work.

After years of wrestling with the book they decided the only way to do this was to read the novel it in its entirety. It took years to get permission from the estate to play in New York and Los Angeles, although it has been performed abroad intermittently since its Brussels premiere in 2006. Redcat finally succeeded in bringing it to its stage. It will run for 9 performances through December 9.

After seeing this production, I watched a trailer for the upcoming film of "The Great Gatsby" by Baz Luhrman, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey McGuire, Carey Mulligan and a cast of thousands. Multitudes of elaborately costumed extras leap off the screen, carousing in opulent locations featuring Gatsby's extravagant mansion lit up like a house on fire. It was a cacophony of excess. Nothing was left to the imagination and I'm sure no expense was spared. The clip only lasted two minutes, but I afterwards I thought "Now THAT was exhausting."

It was so much more satisfying to settle in for 7 hours of inventive storytelling, seated in a roomful of perfect strangers who had gathered together to share something unforgettable.

Photos of the production and of Scott Shepherd by Iris Schneider

October 25, 2012

Q&A: Daniel Olivas and USC poet Andrew Allport

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of six books including the novel, "The Book of Want" (University of Arizona Press.)

In my day job as a government lawyer, I work with many non-writers who love literature. They belong to book clubs, read publications such as The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon.com, and LA Observed. And they argue, argue, argue about the merits of the latest "big" book.

body-of-space-in-the-shape-of-the-human.jpgSome of my colleagues have an even closer connection to literature. For example, one of the lawyers on my floor is married to an acclaimed novelist. And I recently learned that one of our newly hired attorneys has an award-winning poet for a husband. That poet is Andrew Allport, who holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, where he now teaches writing and literature. He is the author of a chapbook, "The Ice Ship and Other Vessels," published by Proem Press. His reviews and poetry have appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere.

And now Allport can add a full-length collection to his name. His book, the body | of space | in the shape of the human, won a poetry contest and was published this year by New Issues Press. After reading his new book, I asked Allport if he'd be open to an online interview, and he agreed.

DANIEL OLIVAS: Your debut collection, "the body | of space | in the shape of the human," was the winner of the 2011 New Issues Poetry Prize. How did you learn that you'd won? Had you submitted the manuscript to other poetry contests?

ANDREW ALLPORT: I had submitted the manuscript to at least a few other first book prizes, though I had really forgotten about them when I got a call from Marianne Sweringa, the managing editor at New Issues. At the time I was working as a sort of writer-for-hire in a sleepy corner of the university bureaucracy; everything I wrote was in bullet points. I was a little dazed by the news. I remember being quite sure that my name had been mistakenly put on some other poet's manuscript, and it would only be a matter of time before Marianne called back to apologize for the mix-up. She sounded like a nice person, so I hoped she'd take pity on me and publish mine as well.

DO: How did your manuscript take shape? Did it go through many iterations before you believed it was ready to submit it to the New Issues contest?

AA: It was a long and confusing process to get the book to where it ended up. I can't remember all of it, but basically what happened was this: when my father died very unexpectedly in 2008, I was already nearly done with a poetry manuscript. After a period of incapacitation, I managed to write a couple poems about the experience. But they hardly fit with the rest of the collection. Instead of starting a new manuscript, which might have been less effort, I began replacing poems, and the book gradually shifted in tone as the feeling of elegy took over, becoming darker and more emotionally direct. I think I worked this way because the idea of starting something new seemed too daunting at the time; perhaps this had to do with finding ways of making life after a traumatic experience somehow contiguous with life before, or perhaps it was something else. In any case, in the end only a couple of poems remained from the original when I submitted it to New Issues, and those were subsequently cut.

DO: You divide your collection into four sections each beginning with quotations from, respectively, Shakespeare's "King Lear," Robert Musil's novel, "The Man Without Qualities," Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1797 letter to Thomas Poole, and August Wilhelm von Schlegel's "On the Study of Greek Poetry." How do these authors set the stage for each section? How have they influenced you as a poet?

AA: Lear is my favorite play. I think it has affected me in different ways ever since I read it for the first time in high school, when I cried in English class over Cordelia's death, which I never saw coming. The quotation in the book, which precedes the first section, is from the scene where Edgar, the good son, is pretending to lead his blind and suicidal father towards a cliff. Edgar has to keep reassuring Gloucester that yes, the cliff is coming up soon, feeding him all this sensory information: the pitch of the hill, the smell of the sea, the tininess of the people below. When I set out to write about my father, I decided that I needed that kind of transparent artifice, in which the fictional setting becomes more evocative than the real one. The fact that there is no cliff only heightens the pathos of Gloucester's attempt at suicide; Edgar's resurrection of his father is a moment of love and forgiveness but also a lie. I knew I would lie about him, but I knew that lying would be part of telling the truth about him.

As for Musil and Coleridge and Schlegel, I don't have such a clear idea. They were things I was reading at the time and must have jotted down. They represent different ideas of art and different thematic elements of the book, but it's all kind of jumbled up and impossible to put one epigraph to a particular theme. Coleridge is talking about the difference between parts and the whole; Schlegel about naturalness and the sentimentality; Musil about progress and nostalgia. The epigraphs freeze each of them into little statuettes of thought, probably grotesquely distorted. The first epigraph of the book is the important one, I think, but--and this is true of the section breaks as well--I think it's important for a collection to have little stopping points where readers can take a break, reflect, and decide if they want to keep going or call it a day.

DO: One of my favorite poems in your collection is "Keats, Listening to Van Morrison" because I love Morrison's song "And It Stoned Me" which paints a nostalgic scene of two boys caught in the rain after going fishing. You play off the Morrison lyrics as you imagine John Keats being moved by his vocals ("Strange entanglement of singing, a twin voice..."). What brought you to this unusual pairing?

AA: Keats seems like he would have been one of those boys in the song. There's a freedom to the scenes of the song! These two boys hitchhiking around and drinking whiskey with strangers...but such an innocence, too. And the speaker is so observant and close to the sensations of the experience, with the water on his skin and the joy of just being out and alive in the world. Keats was, from all accounts, a fierce and funny guy to be around, despite the tuberculosis. I'm into the Romantics--Wordsworth gets an appearance in the book, too, hiking around in California--but to me their value is their effect on our current moods and problems, not so much their original context. The title used to be "Reading Keats, Listening to Van Morrison," but someone suggested it would be better without "Reading," because it suggests that it's Keats who is listening to the song, which is an image I like better: the two boys make him think of his brother Tom, and perhaps all the water makes him think of mortality, and his own epithet as well--"one whose name was writ on water." Likeness in the unlikeness, right?

DO: The poet, Mark Irwin, observes that your collection "take[s] its emotional heart from Book VI of St. Augustine's 'Confessions,'" a book that is considered by many as the first Western autobiography. When did you first read Confessions? Do you agree with Irwin's assessment?

AA: The title of the book comes from this section of Augustine, although the words aren't in that order. As does the question at the heart of writing: "In what state shall we depart this life?" When I first read Augustine I was attracted, as many people have been, to its honesty and specificity. As you say, it's an autobiography, and it has all the best aspects of contemporary autobiography (or what is increasingly labeled, oddly, "creative non-fiction"): humble beginnings, ambition, drugs, concubines, spiraling doubt and despair, divorce, self-reinvention, apostasy, and spiritual rebirth. Bob Dylan, basically. The metaphysical question of Book VI is the physical existence of the divine--how do you picture something that simultaneously has no shape but is everywhere? For Augustine, this was about reconciling ideas of God, but I found that they echoed the difficulty of thinking about grief and absence: someone who dies is like God to us, unknowable and intimate.

DO: How would you describe your writing routine? How do you juggle teaching, marriage and fatherhood with the writing life?

AA: It's not much of a routine. My mentor, David St. John, once gave me some reassuring advice about writing that I try to keep in mind. He said you have to recognize how you work and respect your method, no matter how erratic or disgraceful it seems compared to other people's habits. I write when I can, which is not to say I'm always writing when I could be. Teaching is a funny business in that you're always exhorting your students to write, and sometimes feel bad if you're not taking your own advice.

DO: How much do you hate the question (usually from friends and family): What are you writing now?

AA: Wait, are you pointing out the aggravating nature of this question while also asking it? Tricky...well, since you asked, I'm early in another collection. It's on boyhood, drone aircraft, Pythagoras, and water rights. So far...

October 18, 2012

Revisiting the Garden of Allah

GOA pool.jpgIn early October, WeHoville.com contributor Kaitlin Parker posted a lovely history of the Garden of Allah hotel/apartment complex in slide show format, featuring an underground tour of the site in its current incarnation as a mini mall at Crescent Heights and Sunset. Ulisses Acosta, the site's current property manager, even revealed tiles and tunnels that may date back to the hotel's original foundation.
TTWS-cover-11-SMALL-195x300.jpgOne of the few people who might know for sure is author Martin Turnbull, who has devoted himself to tracking down bits of Garden of Allah hotel lore and integrating them into his fictional series about the famed residential hotel through the decades.

On Saturday, October 20th at 1 PM, Martin will join the LA Chapter of The Dorothy Parker Society at Greenblatt's Deli to discuss his research and latest Garden of Allah novel, The Trouble with Scarlett, featuring Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley who both lived in the hotel its Golden Age in the '30s.

Martin may even have an update on the status of the historical, original scale model of the complex that's still up for auction.

Join us on Saturday. We'll be on the second floor of Greenblatt's Deli at 1 for a no-host lunch.

Historic Garden of Allah photos from Marc Wanamaker and the Bison Archives.

September 11, 2012

LA-centric text-speak

In this town of vanity license plates — WINBIGG lives right up the street and we've spent hours trying to figure out what he does; SLPYDOC who you'd think might work at Disney, but actually is an anesthesiologist who was famous for making house-calls; and my fave, A GUCCI on the back of an ancient mint-green Cadillac Eldorado the color of a pack of menthol cigarettes; BKINIS; CBRISKET; PERFECT; I♥BOTOX, and the somewhat interesting MOD3RN — my car doesn't have a license plate at all.

I got a new car a year and a half ago. My neighbor, who'd moved here from Atlanta a year ago, asked me yesterday in her adorable drawl, how I'd gotten a-way with driving a car for a year that doesn't have a license plate...

a-gucci-plate.jpg"I can explain," I said. "I really can."

I didn't want a new car. My lease was up and it cost too much to buy it in some banking formula I don't understand (as I'm sure the second I turned it in, they resold it to someone else for half the price.)

I realize this is LA-centric but it's not my fault I live in a city where it's not possible to walk from one place to another; public transportation is limited and sluggish; I'm too scared to ride a bicycle on a city street, let alone navigate a high-speed canyon; and constructing a subway, in my opinion, under a city that's actually on an earthquake fault (or three) and has a working oil-well dead-center (on the high-school campus of Beverly Hills) is one of the worst ideas ever, and if I was FEMA I would be fighting it.

But back to my car. I got the same exact car I had before just a newer model. I don't like it as much. It's not quite as zippy. It's probably a little safer: I can't quite drive it with one finger, I have to keep both hands on the wheel.

A few weeks later, a yellow envelope arrived from the DMV which due to its inflexibility and size was obviously my new license plate. I knew the moment I saw it. I had some sixth sense. I put it on the mail table like an unwanted court summons. I didn't open it.

A friend came for dinner. I brought the envelope into the dining room. "I can't open this," I said. "I know it's terrible. I know I can't put this on my car."

My husband rolled his eyes. My friend said, "You're being ridiculous. Just open it."

I opened up the envelope and looked at the license plate. It was worse than I could've even imagined -- it was a perfect abbreviation in text-speak.

My license plate said in big capital letters: 6SXL208.

I instantly translated the "SXL" to Sexual and when you add the "6" in, it became Sick Sexual. (No idea what the 208 meant, but I wasn't taking any chances.)

The "SXL" was bad enough but when you put the "6" in front of it. The text-speak instantly transformed to a sext.

What if somebody thought it was a vanity license plate?!

"Not happening," I said to both of them.

They looked completely perplexed. My husband said sheepishly, "It's just a license plate."

"No, it's not," I insisted. "It's asking for trouble. Worst case scenario, someone could think it was an invitation to follow you home."

The next day, I called the DMV. I got a very nice person named Anthony. I told him my story. "OMG," he said, without missing a beat, "you can't drive around with that on the back of your car. I get it completely. What if you were driving home alone late at night and someone decided to follow you?!" He told me to make an appointment at the DMV and for an $18.00 administration fee, they would give me a new license and registration.

I asked him if he'd ever had a call like this before. "Oh, yeah," he answered. "We've been having a lot of trouble with the 6 series. A lot of people are getting 666 and they don't like it, at all. But I have to tell you this is the worst one I've ever heard."

I can't explain why it took me a year and a half to get to the DMV. Well, I sort of can. Our local DMV was shuttered for renovation, life got in the way, I sort of liked being anonymous, if I got caught by a red-light camera, they wouldn't be able to find me. For the record, I have a clean driving record.

But last week, I finally went to the DMV. My husband came with me, partly because he's supportive and partly because he was certain they weren't going to take it back.

I told my story to the woman behind the counter. In some version of the "cheese-lady," she rolled her eyes at my husband sympathetically. (Everyone has a "cheese-lady." The cheese-lady is the woman behind the counter at Whole Foods who whenever I'm being particularly fussy about cheese, rolls her eyes sympathetically at my husband and then bats them three times. And I maintain that in every marriage, there's someone like the cheese-lady. For the record, we have a cheese-man, too.) But since I figured we never had to interact with the woman at the DMV again, I didn't give her the kind of dirty look I usually give the "cheese-lady." Also, I was a little worried about my replacement license plate.

"You can return it," she said. "But I only have one," and added with some attitude, "I hope you like it."

"I'm sure I will," I said with extreme confidence. I did. It was better than I could've even imagined.

My new license plate is 6WQW213.

My husband looked at me somewhat baffled as did the "cheese lady" at the DMV.

But in some text-speak version of K$sha with a dollar sign instead of an "e", I instantly interpreted the "Q" as a fancy variation of an "O" and "213" being L.A.'s primary area code translated it to 6WOWLA. Yep. Text-speak.

So, I have an appointment this week at the car dealership to get holes drilled into my car (why they aren't there in the first place, is also something that baffles me) so I can put the darn thing on the car. And if a police officer stops me in the meantime (for driving around without a plate), I'll just have to try to "sxplain."

loose-diamonds.jpgThe paperback edition of Amy Ephron's latest book, Loose Diamonds...and other things I've lost and found along the way, was just released with an added story, "Secrets," and a bound-in readers' guide. She will talk about the book and sign copies at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Thursday night at 7 p.m.


She writes a monthly column "L.A. POV" for the New York Times' T on-line on fashion, entertainment, food, and occasionally court. She recently directed a short film, "Chloe@3 AM," which was featured by the American Cinematheque at the female director's festival in January 2011.

Amy Ephron is also the author of five novels, including the international bestseller "A Cup of Tea;" "Biodegradable Soap;" the L.A. angst ridden "Bruised Fruit," and the cult classic "Cool Shades." She is publisher and editor of One For the Table, a website devoted to food, politics and love. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Alan Rader, and any of their five children who drop in.

Photo: Maia Harari

August 14, 2012

Who you gonna call?

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been under siege lately, with its operations and practices going back for many years under scrutiny. But there's a side of law enforcement that is rarely talked about. It came to the fore the other day, in the Texas shooting of a cop and several others; as it happened, the constable had gone to the home of an unstable man to serve eviction papers. The man killed him.

I write about a very similar incident in my new book Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History. It's about a beloved deputy in the Antelope Valley - the little-known side of LA County - who was gunned down by a hermit in August of 2003 (nine years ago this month) by a hermit who may have feared eviction. As it turned out, the deputy was looking for someone else he had evicted from the area in the days prior to his visit - and there were additional, underlying reasons for the incident, all of which are explored in my book.

I first wrote about the killing and the manhunt for Rolling Stone; during the two years that I worked on my piece, I came to see a side of law enforcement that is not generally apparent to many civilians. The work of a cop is dangerous. It's one thing to say that but another to see it. Most cops get nervous about domestic violence calls or traffic stops - the deadliest kind of police work. Deputy Stephen Sorensen had volunteered for the position of resident deputy in Lake Los Angeles. That involved patrolling a far-flung area of the Mojave, where if you're in trouble, it might take an hour for back-up to arrive. As it happened, he had a run-in with the hermit Donald Kueck during a highway encounter years before their final clash. It nearly became violent, and strangely, occurred at just about the same time - high noon on a summer day - in the Antelope Valley.

llano-sign-lao.jpgAfter my magazine piece came out, I spent the next six years working on my book. It continues my long-time desert wanderings, expanding the story of the week-long manhunt and the two main characters, the sheriff and the hermit. In addition, it takes a look at the history of the old commune of Llano; it was near these crumbling ruins that the shoot-out occurred, just outside the trailer where Kueck once tried to build a utopia for one, and not that far from where Sorensen lived and worked, available when anyone had a need.

During my journey into this story, I spent time with several cops who were involved with the hunt for Kueck, a dedicated desert citizen who knew the terrain so well that he managed to outfox a massive, high-tech posse for seven days. One of the cops, veteran homicide detective Mark Lillienfeld, loaned me a book which recounts the history of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Through that book and others, I learned that Los Angeles - not Deadwood or Tombstone - was the most violent of all frontier outposts, the place where many an outlaw landed as they rolled westward.

I also spent hours listening to tapes of the final conversations between Detective Lillienfeld and Donald Kueck, as the cop tried to convince the fugitive to surrender after he was surrounded in a complex of sheds where he was making his last stand. Throughout this strange shadow play, Lillienfeld was at the Riverside apartment of Kueck's daughter; Kueck had been calling her while on the run and now, in his final hours, the siege was being televised, with choppers hovering over the hide-out as a sundown deadline for surrender approached. The conversations between the cop and the hermit are recounted in my book, with both men wanting something from the other as a distraught daughter is caught in the middle. Listening to these conversations told me a lot about an unseen side of police work - an emotional toll that cops try to hide in one way or another - and a few other things as well.

To write my book, I also went inside the SWAT operation, with the help of Lt. Bruce Chase and then others involved in it. During my many conversations with Chase, we talked about why he signed up with the sheriff's department. To my surprise - and I'm not sure why, as I'm not surprised by all that much - one of the reasons was that he was a long-time fan of Louis L'Amour. Reading L'Amour's work as a kid, he was struck by the code of honor that motivated the Sackett brothers and other L'Amour characters; like them, he came west one day and joined the law.

But that doesn't mean law enforcement didn't throw him a few curves. For instance, during the manhunt, the SWAT team staged its operations from, of all places, a desert convent. In addition to their own vans and other equipment, the sheriff's department needed a structure near the crime scene which could serve as a base. They also needed a place where they could land a chopper. A convent in Lake Los Angeles served the purpose and during the seven-day hunt, deputies were coming in from the desert to eat and sleep; some prayed with the nuns. Chase was relieved to throw off his gear in a shady place and catch some rest on the cool cement floor of the convent after trekking across the desert bakery all day. Yet it was certainly not how he or any of his compadres had envisioned a life in law enforcement.

Months after the manhunt concluded in a Wagnerian firestorm under a full moon, I sat down with Sheriff Baca and asked him why someone would want to go to the desert and guard it, alone. "Whatever it was," he told me, "it was Steve's mission to protect God's creation." It's an apt description of the Mojave Desert, with its Joshua trees, terror, and beauty.

When it comes to law enforcement, we have a schizophrenic relationship. A free country needs rules after all, and nowhere is this dynamic more palpable than in the Mojave, where the silence can calm you down or jack you up, whispering all sorts of messages until one day, someone has a problem and the man shows up and you suspect that you have to leave your home.

Photo: LA Observed

May 29, 2012

Counter of books at The Last Bookstore downtown

lastbookstore-counter-jg.jpg

Photo by Judy Graeme.

May 7, 2012

What I learned from biographer Charles Higham - and Orson Welles

charles-higham-washpost81.jpgorson-welles-cbsmic.jpg

Joel Bellman, a former radio and newspaper journalist, is communications deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Chances are, the recent passing of author and biographer Charles Higham escaped your notice. He left no survivors. His longtime partner had died two years earlier. And Higham - who'd reportedly broken his hip earlier in a fall - had passed away more than a week before the story of his death finally broke in the Hollywood Reporter.

To the extent that Higham was known at all by the general public, it was for a series of sensational tell-all celebrity biographies notorious for their scandalous, sometimes thinly sourced and often hotly denied allegations of personal peccadilloes, weird sex (lots of it) and general depraved portrayals of his subjects. Critics dismissed them; the entertainment industry reviled them; and ultimately, many readers simply tired of them.

Still, I felt a twinge of sadness when I read about his lonely death. And I thought back to a long-ago interview I conducted with him, and how, though it was our only contact, it taught me one of the most valuable lessons of both my professional career, and my life.

Higham's literary career was controversial, to put it mildly. Born into privilege in England, his family fell on hard times following a divorce. He published poetry from a young age and wrote several plays. Later, as a successful journalist and film critic, he took a writer-in-residence position at UC Santa Cruz, which led to his first book, one of the few serious critical overviews of the films of Orson Welles. Though generally admiring, it was also unsparing - and committed, for Welles acolytes like Peter Bogdanovich and author Barbara Leaming, the unpardonable sin of blaming Welles for many unnecessary self-inflicted career wounds. Higham attributed them to Welles's "fear of completion" that repeatedly led him to abandon projects that remained unfinished, or were subsequently maimed and mishandled by others attempting to salvage what was left.

Higham went on to become the New York Times Hollywood correspondent, and the successful author of numerous formulaic and increasingly sordid biographies largely trashing some of the biggest movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s.

I don't know whether Errol Flynn really was a Nazi spy or Cary Grant a "wife-beating, miserly closeted homosexual," as one obit short-handed two of his more sensational claims. But when I had the opportunity to interview Higham for a radio documentary I was producing on Orson Welles, I didn't care. Tawdry tales of Tinseltown - true, exaggerated, invented, unverifiable - didn't interest me.

What did interest me, intensely, was what he'd written about Welles, an early hero of mine both for his prolific and wildly successful radio career in the 1930s and 1940s, and for a small handful of some of the most memorable American films ever made, from the acknowledged masterpieces "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" to the noir classics "Lady From Shanghai" and "Touch of Evil."

In 1985, Welles turned 70, and Higham had written "Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius," the more critical of two biographies published that year. The other, by Hunter College film professor Barbara Leaming, boasted Welles's complete cooperation and Leaming's uncritical adoration, offering a gracefully written and colorful portrait of an uncompromising genius who'd suffered more than his share of indignities and tough breaks in a world of artistic philistines. Higham's book, by contrast, had enjoyed no cooperation from Welles at all - that earlier book had ensured lifelong enmity from the sensitive and easily wounded Welles. Its writing was mechanical, the tone generally unsympathetic, the narrative a tragic arc of vanity, indulgence, and artistic dissipation. Small wonder that critics dismissed it as merely the latest uninspired product in a literary assembly line of celebrity takedowns.

Still, much as I love and admire so much of Welles's work, I could not brush aside Higham's "fear of completion" thesis. And when I interviewed Higham - after having earlier interviewed Leaming - I found myself increasingly skeptical of her sunny, uncritical embrace of the Orsonian world-view. I really wanted to embrace her simplistic account of the unjust victimization of a misunderstood and underappreciated genius. But Higham, a more graceless writer, nevertheless made a compelling case for something more than just bad luck dogging Welles's career. As an acting prodigy whose lifelong infatuation with Shakespeare began when he was a young boy, Orson himself in a candid moment might have agreed with Cassius: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

As I was wrapping up my interview with Higham, he offhandedly asked me if I'd interviewed Welles himself for the piece. "Oh, God, no," I said, dismissing the possibility. "I can't imagine he'd agree to do something like this. He doesn't know who I am, and I don't know anyone who knows him." Higham replied, "You should do it. At least try. He's staying here in town at a house in the (Hollywood) Hills close by."

As I pondered our conversation later, I began to think, "Yeah - what the hell? What have I got to lose? Why don't I?" I made a mental note to follow up.

The following week, as it turned out, based on some previous investigative reporting I had done, I was subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness in a civil lawsuit brought against the Lyndon LaRouche political cult. After almost two full days on the stand, getting pounded in cross-examination by the LaRouche attorney - an aggressive former prosecutor - I was exhausted and anxious to get back to my documentary.

As I was about to pull out of the parking lot, I snapped on KNX for a quick news update, only to hear: "Actor-director Orson Welles was found dead today in the Hollywood Hills home where he had recently been staying. Officials said he had suffered an apparent heart attack, and died alone. Welles, 70, was best known..."

I don't remember the rest of the report; I don't think I heard it. I may have been in shock. Not only would I have to reconfigure the documentary from a birthday tribute to a eulogy, I could not believe how my timidity and procrastination had cost me a priceless opportunity to snare what might have been one of the very last interviews Orson Welles would ever grant. At the very least, I had missed forever a chance to tell the great man how much his work had inspired me. And he'd been living less than a mile from my office.

I went on to finish what became a two-part documentary, a sad and difficult job quite different than the project I had eagerly embarked upon. It got some attention and won a few awards, and today it's part of the archived holdings in the Paley Center for the Media. But I will always regret the failure of nerve that carried such an incalculable price.

Late in his career, in a reflective moment, Welles famously observed that "We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone." Last month, Higham - like Orson - apparently suffered a fatal heart attack, at home, alone. He, too, was past his prime, his early artistic promise not eclipsed by a string of hammy bit parts, chat-show appearances and Paul Masson commercials, but buried under a pile of lurid yet lucrative celebrity exposes that similarly earned him wealth and fame, while costing him dearly in credibility and respect.

But it's the second half of Welles's quote that I want to remember: "Only through our love and friendship," he added, "can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone." And that's the lesson I learned not just from Orson, but from Higham: in work, and in life, never hesitate to reach out to someone, no matter how prominent or inaccessible they may seem.

They can only say no. But over the decades, I've been surprised by how often they say yes.

Washington Post file photo from 1981 of Charles Higham; young Welles photo from Bellman

April 16, 2012

The Stendahl connection

P4140087.JPGNow that I've read April Dammann's book, The Exhibitionist: Earl Stendahl, Art Dealer as Impresario, I'm discovering more and more that art dealer Earl Stendahl still influences our city's artistic evolution.

There's a Stendahl connection to LACMA's exhibition "Children of the Plumed Serpent: the Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico," which opened April 1st. Stendahl, the first U.S. dealer in Pre-Columbian art has a piece in the show, a large capstone from Teotihuacan, Mexico, which the late Dr. Virginia (Ginny) Fields acquired for the museum before her untimely passing. In addition, Stendahl Galleries loaned Earl Stendahl's letters from Diego Rivera, promoting Emmy Lou Packard, a young American artist who worked with Diego and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, to the current LACMA show "In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States." Earl Stendahl became Packard's dealer and sold her work at rates equal to his male artists at a time when many dealers did not.

Upcoming are two rare occasions to tour Earl Stendahl's home/gallery in Hollywood. Author April Dammann will be discussing her book and Earl Stendahl's work at an open house with the Los Angeles Visionaries Association on Sunday, April 22nd at 1 PM. Make your reservations here.

Stendahl Galleries will host a new show that is only open for one weekend. From Friday, April 27 through Sunday, April 29, the work of Maynard Hale Lyndon will be on view in an exhibit called "Looking Boxes: Playful Ways of Seeing the World." "Meet the Artist" receptions are planned for Friday, April 27, 6 - 9 pm and Sat, April 28, 4 - 7 pm. RSVP. Contact stendahlart@aol.com for details and reservations.

Be sure to check out the Pre-Columbian art in the garden as pictured in this post. If you like what you see, here's the book's video.

April 11, 2012

April is my favorite month to stay in LA

annie+hall+tcm.jpgYou never have to look too far to find lots of things to do in Los Angeles, but April is the one month of the year I make sure I stay in town because so much comes to us. The third annual Turner Classic Film Festival opens on Thursday, April 12, immediately followed on April 16 by the City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival and then their final weekend is overlapped by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held at USC on April 21st and 22nd. So many choices, so little time.

This will be the 3rd annual TCM festival and I have to admit, when I first heard of their plans to bring classic films to the big screen at Grauman's and other theaters in the heart of Hollywood, I was dubious at best. How many people would show up to see "Sunset Boulevard" at 9 in the morning when they could stay in bed watching it on their television? Well, I was humbled to learn several thousand people from 49 states and throughout the world would and the festival has been selling out ever since. This year, stars such as Liza Minnelli, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Jones, Kim Novak and directors John Landis, John Carpenter and Stanley Donen are among the dozens who will be introducing films such as "Cabaret," "Two for the Road," "Auntie Mame," "Vertigo," "The Women" -- over 100 films in all. It is a veritable convention of film lovers and part of the joy of it for those of us who live here is that it is a reminder of how lucky we are - between UCLA, the Cinematheque at the Aero and the Egyptian, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences we have access to classic films year round.

Still, the TCM festival is something special. For those who didn't buy passes last summer when they went on sale, individual tickets are sold before the screenings on an "as available basis," so your chances are best at those shown in the largest venues, Grauman's Chinese and The Egyptian. Check out tcm.com for the schedule and check again in a month or so to see when next year's passes go on sale.

The City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival is in its sixteenth year -- and with fewer theaters showing foreign films year-round, it is a rare chance to see over thirty French films that may never be released in this country. Because of ColCoa, past attendees were already familiar with Jean Dujardin, this year's Oscar winner for best actor for "The Artist," because several of his previous films, including his hilarious OSS James Bond-spoofs, have been shown in past years. This year, new releases include the much anticipated "Another Woman's Life" starring Juliette Binoche and "Americano," starring Salma Hayek from the writer director Mathieu Demy, son of Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy. Classic films are celebrated at ColCoa and this year those include "Call Me Savage" starring Yves Montand and Marcel Carne's "Hotel du Nord." The festival is held at the Director's Guild and is open to the public. Full schedule

The Los Angeles Times continues with its budget struggles, but miraculously their Festival of Books flourishes. Each year hundreds of authors -- who spend so much of their time alone with their computer -- gather for a weekend to engage with -- and be amazed by -- thousands of active, engaged readers. There are a variety of "stages" -- the cooking stage, the poetry stage, the children's stage -- you get the idea -- and dozens of panels and one on one "conversations" such as Rodney King with Patt Morrison.

This year's "celebrity authors" include Betty White, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julie Andrews; Scott Berg will be moderating one of several biography panels (I am moderating another) and discussions with the likes of Katrina vanden Heuvel, Tom Hayden and Robert Scheer are sure to be lively and informative. Something for everyone. The Festival of Books was the brain child of Narda Zacchino and Steve Wasserman -- now both long gone from the Times -- and has evolved into one of the finest book festivals in the country. For years, the Festival was held at UCLA, but last year moved to USC. It opens on Friday night with what will be the 32nd annual LA Times Book Awards, coordinated by the Times' film critic Kenneth Turran, and that too has public tickets available. Admittance to the Festival of Books is free, but this year they are selling passes for $30 to eight panels for those who want to be sure to get in to see their favorites. (Stages and outdoor performances are all free as well.) It is still one the best deals in town and for tickets and more information. Website for info

Happy April.

Annie Hall screens at the Turner Classic Film Festival on April 15 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre

February 18, 2012

Brushes with death and greatness

We start the day in Seattle. My husband and I meet a guy who buys green coffee beans. He's getting on a plane to Uganda in two hours, but has time for a chat that includes a brief discussion of the "magnificent bastards" one sometimes meets in various African countries, the ones who sluice your way to product, to connections, who offer outsize hospitality and big belly laughs, until the talk turns to money, which is when it all comes apart, and you realize you have once again fallen for a magnificent bastard.

I tell the guy, I just read and reviewed Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the actually magnificent book by Katherine Boo, about a slum in Mumbai and the commerce that rages there, the recycling of the tiniest of objects (used tampon applicators, anyone?), the micro-saboteurs, the NGO money that never goes where it's supposed to go, the smiling for the Western cameras. And yet, life goes on, as does death.

Two hours later, we are on our way back to Portland, driving south on the 5 freeway with several hundred pounds of green coffee in the back of the car. We've just picked up drive-thru. I am dumping fries into a bag my husband can easily access while driving when, POP! CRACK CRACK!

"Holy shit, what the fuck?" or something like it comes from our mouths, as does, "What happened?" Though we don't need to ask; the cold air rushing in the window just behind my husband tells us the window has exploded, as does the green glass that continues to shatter and pop.

"That did not come from a rock," says my husband, who does not slow down, who does not swerve. "Someone shot at us."

I undo my seatbelt and scrabble through the glass and coats in the backseat. I tell him, I see no shell...

"It wouldn't have been a bullet because that would have gone out through the opposite window," he says. "It was probably from a pellet gun."

We have no idea what car it came from; we're in the middle lane, cars and trucks passing on the left. But what an incredibly stupid thing, I am thinking, and then, as I look at the fish sandwich in my hand, what if they had shot through the driver's window? What if they had shot my husband in the head? I am not sure what sound I make, but he reaches over and says, "It's okay."

Yes, it is okay. Also, disturbing, to the point where terror is in your throat when you think about it, but what are you going to do?

What I am going to do, ninety minutes after we get back to Portland, is interview Katherine Boo. I had admired her book so much; at the work she did over a three-year period. We all, those of us who practice long-form narrative, have walked into projects with a great deal of gung-ho; sometimes, we falter. Boo did not falter. The opportunities for her to not merely leave, but to flee, were everywhere, as was dying, nearly always brutally, especially among the young. But she stayed, and with her staying, wrote a great book.

"Nancy?"

Boo approaches the table where I am to interview her. She is a tiny thing, I might easily cup both her hands in mine. As soon as she sits, we are in the thick of talking, of what it can feel like to be in the midst of a story, the trespassing nature of it, the slowness, the small moments of beauty you would never get if you did not stick around, the toll it can take and the push back from authorities, which in Boo's case meant being held by police. Also, the immense gratitude to friends, editors, spouses who say, don't be afraid to do this, and, you must do this.

I check the phone app I am using to record, files from which can be instantly loaded into the cloud for human transcription.

"Maybe in India," Boo says. Maybe. And it might be transcribed by the time I drive home. Not that I am driving tonight, glass still all over the car, and as I will later find, in my shoe.

After the interview, Boo and I hang out in front of her hotel. It's her first reading tonight. I tell her, the butterflies subside by the third or fourth. She asks what I am working on. I tell her, two projects, one for which everyone wants to tell me their stories, the second, about a murder, for which few will, people are afraid, not even the cops will talk to me...

"But they will, you know they will," Boo says, the subtext being, if you stay, if you commit. Standing in the light rain, smiling, she is so little but so big.

I take a cab home, and think what I nearly lost today, and what I was given, and how much I need both.

Nancy Rommelmann is the author of The Queens of Montague Street, which was recently excepted by the New York Times Magazine ("Dazed and Confused," February 5.)

November 17, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- November 17, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

  • Los Angeles Press Club honors Hugh Hefner at its Fourth Annual National Entertainment Journalism Awards dinner at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel
  • Victoria Patterson speaks at Gustavo's [ Arellano] Awesome Lecture Series at Fullerton Library about her new novel, This Vacant Paradise. 6:30 PM
  • Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra hosts "Austria a la Carte" at the Austrian Consul's residence in Brentwood.
  • Author Richard Polsky converses with Shepard Fairey about Polsky's book, The Art Prophets: The Artists, Dealers, and Tastemakers Who Shook the Art World, at Book Soup. 7 PM

Friday, November 18, 2011
  • The Spa Less Traveled: Discovering Ethnic Los Angeles, One Spa At a Time editors read their book at Vroman's. Oh, and happy 5th birthday to Prospect Park Media. 7 PM
  • Pasadena Children's Guild hosts its 44th Annual Snow Ball Preview Party and Auction at the Castle Green in Pasadena. 6:00 PM. Event continues with a brunch and holiday boutique at the same location on Saturday.
  • Filmmaker Wim Wenders discusses and signs Places, Strange and Quiet at Book Soup at 4 PM.
  • Randall Robinson discusses his novel, Makeda, at Eso Won Books at 7 PM.
  • Soil Desire People Dance performance starts at The Velaslavasay Panorama. Continues to Saturday. 8 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- November 17, 2011" »

November 4, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- November 4, 2011

Friday, November 4, 2011

  • Dick Howard and Martín Plot discuss "Democracy in America" as part of the new West Hollywood Lecture Series curated in partnership with CalArts at the West Hollywood Library, City Council Chambers, starts at 7 PM
  • "Antiquity in the Twentieth Century: Modern Art and the Classical Vision" symposium starts at the Getty Villa and continues to Saturday. 10:30-5 PM
  • Los Angeles Transportation Club hosts its 88th Annual Installation Dinner at the Hyatt Regency Long Beach.
  • Lupus LA hosts its Ninth Annual Hollywood Bag Ladies Luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
  • La Luz de Jesus Gallery 25th Anniversary Celebration Part 11 with Mark Mothersbaugh, Mark Ryden, and many, many others. 8 PM
  • Designer Alber Elbaz visits Lavin Store in Beverly Hills tonight.
  • Night & the City: LA Noir in Poetry, Fiction, & Film events at Beyond Baroque: Raymond Chandler and his Los Angeles Legacy at 7:30 PM and A Night with James Ellroy, live and in person, at 9:30 PM. Venice
Saturday, November 5, 2011
  • SNL's Molly Shannon signs new book, Tilly the Trickster, at Barnes & Noble at the Grove. 1 PM
  • Los Angeles Police Foundation hosts its True Blue Gala at L.A. Live.
  • American Indian Arts Market at Autry National Center 10 AM -5 PM.
  • Friends of the Los Angeles River benefit hosted by the LA Weekly at its LA 101 Music Festival at the Gibson Ampitheatre, Universal City.
  • Leslie Klinger discusses Before Dracula: History of Vampire Literature at Brentwood Branch Library. 2PM
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art honors John Baldessari and Clint Eastwood at its inaugural Art and Film Gala.
  • Seth Rogen, Adam Arkin and others host Exceptional Children's Foundation's Fourth Annual Art Sale Fundraiser at Downtown Art Center Gallery. Los Angeles. 6 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- November 4, 2011" »

October 28, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 28, 2011

Friday, October 28, 2011

  • Young Literati 4th Annual Toastbenefit for the Los Angeles Public Library hosted by Shepard Fairey and featuring the talents of Russell Brand, Demetri Martin, Henry Rollins at Richard J. Riordan Central Library, 630 W. Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071. 8 PM
  • Zombie Prom starts at 9 PM in the historic Linda Vista Hospital , formerly Sante Fe Railroad Hospital, 610 S. St Louis St, Downtown, continues Sunday.
  • Peace Over Violence honors Los Angeles Police Chief at its 40th Annual Humanitarian Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. 6 PM.
  • Urban Land Institute hosts Night at the Square on 10/27 from 6-8 PM
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles throw the The Big Bash! fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
  • Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) presents "BELGIUM à la carte" at the Hancock Park residence of the Consul General of Belgium 7PM
Saturday, October 29 2011
  • ¡Vivan Los Muertos! at The Autry in Griffith Park, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA 90027-1462. 3-9 PM
  • Janet Fitch reads at the Hedgebrook LA Alumn Garden Party at the historic Stendahl Galleries in Hollywood Outpost Estates, benefiting Hedgebrook Women's Writer Colony in the Puget Sound.
  • First annual Automotive Authors Book Signing featuring Matt Stone, Steve Lehto, & Phil Noyes at Petersen Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd, Miracle Mile. 2-5 PM
  • Night & the City Lit Bar Crawl with PENUSA. 7 PM h/t Rina Rubinstein's Culture Alert newsletter: CultureAlert@hotmail.com
  • Cedars-Sinai Medical Center hosts the Women's Guild Annual Gala at the Kodak Theatre.
  • Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles hosts Girltopia: The World of Girl Live at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Run for cover from the Girlzillas running amok Downtown at the sold out event.

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- October 28, 2011" »

October 24, 2011

LARB eyes Joan Didion

Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) devotes a week to the work of Joan Didion, who has just released another memoir, called Blue Nights. Meghan Daum, Susan Straight, Amy Wilentz, Richard Rayner, Amy Ephron, and today, Matthew Specktor, who grew up around the corner when Didion lived in Brentwood, contribute essays contemplating the author and her place in the L.A. literary landscape.

The upstart literary review now comes in e-book format via Kindle. And on Thursday, November 3, Live Talks Los Angeles hosts a benefit for the LARB in the form of a conversation between the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik and filmmaker Ed Zwick.

Can't get enough of La Didion? Catch "An Evening with Joan Didion" at Vibiana on Nov. 16 through the ALOUD lectures program.

October 20, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 20, 2011

Thursday, October 2011

  • Celebrity Chef Tour fundraiser for the James Beard Foundation, featuring the cooking of Iron Chef Marc Forgione and family at Chaya Brasserie, West Hollywood, 7:30 PM. h/t Eater LA
  • Outfest Legacy Project honors Adam Shankman at its Legacy Awards 2011 at the Directors Guild of America. 8 PM
  • Eric Olsen, Glenn Schaeffer, & Michelle Huneven discuss and sign We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop at Book Soup at 7 PM.
  • Boys & Girls Clubs of America honors Earvin "Magic" Johnson at its Heroes & High Hopes Award at the Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles at L.A. Live.
  • Bonnie Nadzam will read and sign her debut novel, Lamb, at Skylight Books at 7:30 PM
Friday, October 21, 2011
  • LA Fashion Week starts today at the Sunset Gower Studios.
  • Thad Nodine will read and sign his debut novel, Touch and Go, and Andrea Portes will read her novel, Hick, at Skylight Books, starting at 7:30 PM
  • GLSEN-Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network honors Chaz Bono and Rob Reiner at its Seventh Annual Respect Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. 5:30 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- October 20, 2011" »

October 14, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 14, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

  • Congresswoman Karen Bass discusses Obama's Job Package at the Urban Issues Breakfast Forum of Greater Los Angeles in the North Campus,Crystal Ballroom of the West Angeles Church of God In Christ, 3045 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 7:30 AM
  • William Shatner signs his release of his new space-themed concept album, "Seeking Major Tom." at Amoeba Music in Hollywood. 7 PM
  • American Cinematheque honors Robert Downey, Jr. at its 25th Annual Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Starts at 6:30 PM
  • ArtNight starts in Pasadena at 6 PM

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- October 14, 2011" »

October 6, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- October 6, 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011

  • PEN USA and The Paris Review host a party featuring insights from Ann Louise Bardach, David Kipen, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Lutz, Mona Simpson, and Michael Tolkin in the Cactus Lounge of the Standard Hotel. 7:30-10 PM
  • The Drucker Business Forum hosts Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner for a look at "Keeping LA Competitive in the Global Economy" at Crawford Family Forum, 474 S Raymond Ave, 3 PM
  • LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne discusses cars, freeways, & getting around LA as part of a series on "Transportation & Living Streets" at Occidental College
  • Documentarian Aron Ramen screens his documentary "Pwer & Control: LSD In the 60's" at Beyond Baroque , 681 Venice Blvd, Venice 5 PM
  • LA artists Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston & Betye Saar reminisce at Natural History Museum as part of Pacific Standard Time. Natural History Museum, 900 Exposition Blvd
  • Aloud presents criminologist David M Kennedy in conversation with LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck at 7 PM.Taper Auditorium, LA Central Public Library, Downtown LA
  • "The Hollywood Librarian" documentary screens at CSULA, U-SU Theatre, Cal State Univ, 5151 State University Dr, LA. 6 PM
  • Harry Gamboa, Jr. & Willie Herrón lead a tour of the exhibition "Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987" at 7 PM at LA County Museum of Art

Friday, October 7, 2011

October 4, 2011

A Hot Date with Libros Schmibros

The hottest literary ticket this month isn't LA Aloud or Arianna Huffington's salon or a poetry slam at some Johnny Depp-owned dive in darkest Hollywood.

It's hanging out at Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights or the second, pop-up Libros that is now temporarily ensconced in the lobby of the Hammer Museum in Westwood.

For those who haven't yet heard, Libros Schmibros is a lending library and used bookstore in Boyle Heights dreamed up by critic, literary flaneur, former NEA bigwig and all-around book geek David Kipen. Can we clone him, please?

Recently, some brilliant minds at the Hammer got the idea to replicate Kipen's eclectic Boyle Heights set-up at their museum for six weeks. The functional yet conceptual art installation has been such a success with staff, museum visitors and area neighbors that the Hammer has extended Libros Schmibros West til November 5.

Initially, Kipen wondered how he would staff two bookstores at the same time. So he sent out a literary SOS to LA's community of writers. Would authors be willing to spend a few hours hanging out in either the Boyle Heights and the Westwood pop-up store as artists-in-residence.

Our mission: to shelve books, explain the Libros Schmibros philosophy to anyone who wandered in and generally hang out. Think Les Deux Magots without alcohol.

Here's how Libros works:

Every book in the library is for sale at half its listed price. Browsers may also borrow a book for three weeks on the honor system, leaving only an email address or phone number as collateral.

The city's scribblers responded to Kipen in droves, so that on any given day, you're liable to run into Mona Simpson, Jonathan Gold, Hector Tobar, Jervey Tervalon, Aimee Bender, Louise Steinman Sarah Bynum, Richard Rayner, DJ Waldie or Gary Phillips shooting the breeze with whoever wanders in.

Libros Schmibros has also hosted several nighttime events, including a standing-room only marathon reading of Jack Kerouac's On The Road and author Mark Z. Danielewski and guests discussing Thomas Pynchon's LA Trilogy. On Oct. 8, the Boyle Heights store will host a post-Yom Kippur feast with Jonathan Gold.

Last week, it was my turn at the Hammer's pop-up store. J. Michael Walker, artist and author of "All the Saints of the City of Los Angeles" was there too. (A gifted interpreter of LA culture, mythology, history and art, he also created the illustrated LA cultural map on the back wall of Libros West).

Michael and I hung out and chatted with visitors who came and went.

"You're Denise Hamilton?" asked one bemused visitor. "I've been meaning to read you!"

The visitor bought one of my books, which I happily autographed. Then I autographed four more for other people.

Soon Mike the Poet dropped by with some book donations and serenaded us with a brand new poem that Suzanne Lummis of the L.A. Poetry Foundation had commissioned for the Night and the City LA Poetry Festival this month.

The books for sale or borrow are wildly eclectic and include many that Kipen amassed in his years as book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. There are first editions, paperback classics, gorgeous coffee table art books and noir paperbacks. In a poignant twist, the bookshelves at Libros Schmibros West came from the much lamented and recently closed Mystery Bookstore in Westwood.

Which incredulously, leaves exactly zero bookstores in the cultural hub of Westwood, (except for UCLA's) except this modest pop-up whose lights will go out for good on Nov. 5.

So come on down to Libros Schmibros at its original Boyle Heights location or the temporary Westwood digs at the Hammer. I'm about to sign up for a second gig myself. You never know what interesting people I might run into.

david-kipen.JPGDavid Kipen with visitor at Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights. Photo: Marianne Williams.

September 27, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- September 27, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

  • Los Angeles Philharmonic's gala "Rhapsody in Blue" expects about 650 guests at Disney Hall.
  • Chris Salewicz discusses his book, Bob Marley: The Untold Story, at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 7PM
  • Aloud at Central Library presents Adam Winkler, the author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America in conversation with UC Irvine School of Law founding dean Erwin Chemerinsky. Richard J. Riordan Central Library, 630 W. 5th St., L.A. 7 p.m. Free.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
  • Jaimy Gordon: The National Book Award-winning author of The Lord of Misrule will read and discuss her work at Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., L.A. 7:30 PM
  • Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles honors Connie Rice at its Angel of Peace Award Luncheon at the offices of the California Endowment.
  • Amor Towles signs his new novel, Rules of Civility, at Diesel Bookstore, 225 26th St., L.A. 7 PM
Thursday, September 29, 2011
  • Joachim Sauter, Art Center alumna Rebeca Méndez and Christian Moeller discuss digital media in a built environment at Art Center in Pasadena 7 PM, as part of the school's 3X3 series: "Get Physical, New Media in Space."
  • Author Mark Z. Danielewski ("House of Leaves," "Only Revolutions") will give a talk on Thomas Pynchon's three Los Angeles novels, not counting Gravity's Rainbow. Libros Schmibros, 2000 E. 1st St., L.A. 7

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- September 27, 2011" »

September 23, 2011

Q&A: April Dammann on Earl Stendahl and the early LA art scene

porch.jpgPacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980 -- that Getty-supported initiative documenting the origins of the area's contemporary art scene currently on display at various cultural institutions across the Southland -- provides Angelenos with unprecedented opportunities to peep into hitherto hidden private collections and galleries all over town. One such treasure is the Stendahl Galleries in the Hollywood Hills. It is the legacy of legendary art dealer, Earl Stendahl, who played an important role in incubating a market for Modern art in Southern California in the early 20th century.

Continue reading "Q&A: April Dammann on Earl Stendahl and the early LA art scene" »

September 8, 2011

Angeleno Datebook- September 8, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

  • Zócalo at the Hammer: Randall Kennedy ponders "Is Obama Erasing the Color Line?" at Hammer Museum at 7 PM.
  • Taschen Beverly Hills hosts a tasting and book party for Jim Heimann's Menu Design in America from 7-9 PM. Reservations required. Call 310 274 4300.
  • MAK Center Exhibition Opening Reception for "Final Projects" 7:00 PM
  • Fashion Night Out events all over town

Friday, September 9, 2011

Continue reading "Angeleno Datebook- September 8, 2011" »

August 30, 2011

Diesel Books returns to Malibu!

diesel books returns to Malibu!

It's official -- Diesel, a book store, Malibu's beloved indie bookstore, is coming back. Owners Alison Reid and John Evans, who finalized a lease at the Malibu Country Mart on Aug. 30, expect their new location to be up and running by mid-October.

The new store, in the Malibu Country Mart's interior courtyard, will be roughly the size of the Brentwood location, which opened in December 2008. The couple, who opened their first bookstore in 1989, also own a shop in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland.

John and Alison have been working to re-open in Malibu almost from the instant they realized last February that they would have to close their seven-year-old store in Cross Creek. The Country Mart location, while a bit smaller than the previous Malibu iteration, has a far better vibe. It's a light-filled space with soaring ceilings, a beautiful wood floor, and a great view of the neighborhood's new hardware store across the street.

Added bonus -- the courtyard location offers ample space for Diesel's popular events and readings. (And for anyone worried about Malibu Shaman, a specialty book seller in Malibu since 1983, shoppers looking for books on the metaphysical will instead find a sign directing them to owner Scott Sutphen's store upstairs.)

Congratulations, John and Alison! And to the many devoted friends of Diesel Malibu who have phoned with questions and encouragement -- your calls have been answered.

July 25, 2011

Sunday afternoon with books and Mr. Hearst

I love books. I also love historic architecture and gossip, especially gossip involving historic architecture. So I was delighted to mix all my obsessions at a reception celebrating the publication of George Snyder's novel, On Wings of Affection, in William Randolph Hearst's two-story, customized suite at the historic Los Altos apartment house near Hancock Park.

The novel is about a well-connected Angeleno immersed in the West Hollywood substance abuse-recovery scene who struggles to keep his social circles from intersecting when his young ward befriends a notorious gigolo kept by a Beverly Hills interior decorator who turns up dead. It's a sexy read and well-written.

Continue reading "Sunday afternoon with books and Mr. Hearst" »

June 6, 2011

LA Public Library honors Walter Mosley on June 12th

Library devotees honor Walter Mosley at the upcoming Los Angeles Public Library Awards Dinner, scheduled for Sunday, June 12, at the
Richard J. Riordan Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles.

Get your tickets now.

May 26, 2011

Peeping in on L.A.'s literati

The Los Angeles Review of Books Matthew Specktor shares his Los Angeles Cultural Diary on The Paris Review Daily blog this week. He covers a lot of ground in a brief amount of time.

It's a fun read with literary stops at David Kipen's Libros Schmibros lending library, Skylight Books for a Bret Easton Ellis reading and drinks at Musso & Frank's where he meets a struggling novelist who squats at an old folks home. That's intriguing...could the squatter live at the lovely old Montecito on Franklin or the Knickerbocker? I guess we will have to wait until the kid's novel comes out, eventually...

May 11, 2011

In praise of The Barn and Valentino

the-barn-hollywood.jpgThe Hollywood Heritage Museum, known to many simply as "The Barn," is the oldest surviving studio structure in Los Angeles. Originally situated at the corner of Selma and Vine, it was already twenty years old when it became Cecil B. De Mille's headquarters for directing his first feature, "The Squaw Man," in 1913. Paramount grew up around the building and when the studio moved to its current Melrose location, they took the barn with them.

Even though it was designated a California landmark in the mid 1950s, it sat for a while in an empty parking lot before Hollywood Heritage took it over in 1985, preserving it and moving it to Highland Avenue, right across from the Hollywood Bowl. Since then, the non-profit, member-supported group has developed it into a real little treasure of a museum, with historic props, cameras and photographs of the silent days. What makes it all the more amazing is that it is run by an all volunteer staff with a fabulous little gift shop and a variety of programs unavailable anywhere else in town.

valentino-in-blood-and-sand.jpgOn Wednesday night, Donna Hill, the author of "Rudolph Valentino, The Silent Idol: His Life in Photographs," will be celebrating the star's May birthday with a presentation of rare photographs and a screening of "Blood and Sand." On Sunday, June 5th, there will be a signing of the new book "Hollywoodland" and a tribute to June Withers will be held on June 8. One of my favorite events is "Silents under the Stars," presented by The Silent Society, an offshoot of Hollywood Heritage, with films screened outdoors at the old Paramount ranch. This summer they are featuring Harold Lloyd's 1923 comedy, "Safety Last" on July 17 and Tom Mix's "The Great K & A Train Robbery" on August 21.

The Barn is open five days a week, Wednesday - Sunday from noon until 4:00 pm and if you have never been, you owe it to yourself plan a visit. I guarantee you will learn something and have a new appreciation of the Los Angeles that was. For more information on Hill's book, go to www.rudolph-valentino.com and for information about the Barn, their programs or joining Hollywood Heritage, www.hollywoodheritage.org.

Photo: Valentino in "Blood and Sand"

May 2, 2011

My LA Times Festival of Books Top/Bottom 10

My LA Times Festival of Books Top 10

1. Chatting with Patti Smith in the Green Room and trying not to go all fangirl as I raved about her music and her awesome memoir "Just Kids." She told me she loves detective fiction. Who knew?

2. Hanging out with all the author friends I haven't seen since the last LATFoB.

3. The food at the LA Times Book Awards reception Friday night, especially the braised brussel sprouts.

4. Funny astrophysicist Gregory Benford, who introduced the Science & Technology Award. More Strangelovian presenters, please.

5. Meeting my new Facebook Friend Olga Grushin, who writes gorgeous novels about Moscow under Communism.

6. No heat wave.

7. Chocolate and cookies that several readers brought me when I signed their books. Y'all are sweet.

8. Shorter commute, as I live on the Eastside.

9. Listening to Mississippi Man Tom Franklin, winner of the LA Times Mystery Book Award, tell grisly tales about deer, knives and toxic waste.

10. Having an author escort recount how he stood guard over a NY Times Best-selling male author who looked in vain for a bathroom, then ended up 'watering the bushes' because he was late for his panel.

10. Being surrounded by 100,000 other people who luurrrvvee books.


My LA Times Festival of Books Bottom 10

1. No Mystery Bookstore Booth because the store closed. I miss the military precision with which the staff lined up 10 authors an hour, elbow to elbow, to autograph books, then kicked us out for the next wave.

2. Having to navigate a brand new campus just when I'd figured out UCLA and the giant booth sprawl.

3. When author Stewart Woods told the three female authors on my panel to relax because we revise and spend too much time writing. He told us he writes 1 hour a day and puts out three books a year. Naturally, this made us even more tense.

4. No time for café con leche with Cuban-American detective writer and real life PI Carolina Garcia Aguilera. The chica had our panel in stitches with her Miami stories.

5. Frantic searching for bathrooms between panels and signings. Unlike big macho male NY Times bestselling authors, we ladies have a harder time.

6. But not impossible. I stood guard this weekend while a desperate female hiked into the shrubbery between buildings and watered the bushes.

7. Having to skip all the panels and author signings I wanted to see because of my own panels and signings.

8. Missing the Granta party Saturday night because I was too tired and wimped out.

9. Not being able to wear high heels cuz of all the walking.

10. No Happy Hour booze in the Green Room. Maybe next year.

April 18, 2011

"The Bad Mother" vs a Bad Mother

Most writers have someone to whom they show their works in progress. Mine is Victoria, the lady that works the cash register at the donut shop. Victoria is maybe 5-foot-nothing in the 6-inch mules I have never not seen her tottering on behind the counter. She is also always, by seven in the morning, in full make-up, her processed blond hair rippling like a mermaid's to her waist. Victoria and her husband, who makes the donuts, moved to Portland from Mexico; they have seven children and own three businesses and work seemingly all the time. Despite this, Victoria is perennially cheery and a big reader, something I learned when I used to pick up the donuts every morning for my husband's coffee business.

As wives will do, we discussed our lives. When Victoria learned I was a writer, she asked to see some things I had written. I brought her two features I wrote for the LA Weekly. When I stopped in a few days later, she took my hands and said, "I need more." I brought her more. And more. She wanted to see everything, she professed to love the way I wrote and the topics I chose. How can this not be the best things a writer can hear?

Two years ago next month, I began to write about Amanda Stott-Smith, after she dropped her two young children from a Portland bridge at 1:43 AM, killing her four-year son. Her seven-year-old daughter survived for an hour in the 45-degree water and essentially saved her own life by screaming so long and so loud that two residents along the river motored their boat into the darkness and found her. I knew almost immediately the writing would become a book, if not how long it would take to get members of the family to trust and speak with me.

Victoria, who I would see every two weeks when I paid the donut bill, and I talked about Amanda, about the children. She asked when the book would be out; I told her, not for years. She said, she could not wait that long. And so last December I gave her the book in progress, about sixty pages. When I next saw her, she said, "I need more." I promised her that more would be forthcoming.

It was not, not for lack of material, but because The Bad Mother, a novel I finished writing in March 2009 -- two months before Amanda dropped the children from the bridge -- was slated to be published. I found this out in late December; there was editing to do, and once it was published, in March, pushing the novel into the world, what a writer friend refers to as, "rolling that log." There was and is travel, and appearances, things one does not anticipate, or that I did not anticipate, that make you portage from one writing stream to another.

When the novel was released last month, I brought a copy to Victoria.

"My god," she said. "You wrote it so fast!"

I explained, as I would wind up doing with many people, that the novel was not the book about Amanda, and that while I understood why people would, from the title, imagine it to be about a mother who drops her children from a bridge in the middle of the night, it was actually about homeless kids in Hollywood. That the confusing coincidence of the titles was just that, coincidence, and that the book about Amanda is called, "To the Bridge."

Last Thursday, I stopped into the donut shop. I had not seen Victoria for a month, as I had been out of town on readings. She was interested in these, saying, "I bet when people hear you read it, it changes their opinion about what happened."

I told her, that was true. That some people read the book and are scared of what happens to these kids and the dangers they are in. But when they hear me read it, they understand I feel only tenderness for these kids. Victoria nodded.

"You are also showing that the mother is a human being," she said. "That they didn't get the whole story in the newspapers."

Victoria had another customer, and so I had about two seconds to tell her, it was the novel I was doing readings for, not "To the Bridge." She looked puzzled, as though the overlaps in the stories were causing vexation, and it put me in mind of something my mother often asks: why are you always writing about dead children?

I left the donut shop thinking about this, as well a question I receive at each reading of The Bad Mother: was the novel inspired by your experiences as a journalist in Hollywood? I answer that, while it makes sense this is the case, it is not. That the characters are made up; that I have never interviewed a homeless or dying teen; that it must be the osmosis of driving through Hollywood every day for eighteen years that created the book.

I was pressing the clicker that opens my car door when I realized the genesis of the work is quite the other way: that I began writing nonfiction books and articles about murdered children after I began addressing them as fiction. That "To the Bridge," in fact, grew from The Bad Mother.

Nancy Rommelmann reads from The Bad Mother at Book Soup on June 30.

April 15, 2011

Noticing National Library Week

Have you hugged and thanked your neighborhood library employee for his or her dedication and service yet?

I've just received an email from the Library Foundation of Los Angeles informing me that National Library Week comes to an end on Saturday, April 16th.

Since library hours have been reduced following budget cuts, the libraries of the city of Los Angeles need your warm presence and support more than ever. As the late, great Miv Schaaf, a Los Angeles Times Sunday Edition columnist and public library booster, once wrote, "When life seems not worth living, ten minutes in the library proves otherwise."

Since voters approved Measure L last March, perhaps there's hope that lost services will be reinstated in July. Martín Gómez, the city librarian, told Library Journal, "Starting in July, we will add back a sixth day of service, probably a Monday, and in the second year we will add back two more evenings, and in the third year we will provide seven days of service at nine locations."

Time will tell if these predictions come to pass. In the meantime, consistently support your neighborhood library NOW with donations, bequests and the commitment to keep advocating for the financial health of our public libraries. Just because Measure L was successful does not mean that the struggle to safeguard our library system from erosion has ended. Complacency is no longer an option.

March 21, 2011

Life Imitates Art

I was visiting a mentoring and art center for homeless teens in Portland last week when my cell phone rang. It was Gordon (not his real name), calling from Orange County. I went to grade school with Gordon, and had not had contact with him since 1980. Earlier in the day, I had received a Facebook message from a fellow schoolmate, asking whether Gordon had also contacted me saying he needed $2500 or would be evicted by 3 PM. I told the classmate no; that I was sure it was SPAM, and that he should contact Gordon to let him know.

Standing yards away from a dozen homeless teenagers, two of them in wheelchairs, I asked Gordon if that was why he was calling, to let me know, the SPAM was not from him.

"No," he said. "I actually do need $2500 or I will be evicted."

I processed this, looking at the kids who come to the center each day for two meals, to make art and to read and use the computer until 2:30, when, rain or shine, the center closes and the kids are back on the street. I was visiting because the week before, I published a novel, The Bad Mother, about homeless teens in Hollywood. The kids at the center had found out about the book, they wanted to read it and to meet me. One girl told me she'd essentially been on the streets since age five, and then followed me around like a puppy, telling me her story, not with self-pity, just the facts, which included that she is, with the assistance of the center, renting a studio apartment and attending community college classes to become a CPA.

And here was Gordon, if it was Gordon, on the phone. We attended private school together in Brooklyn; last I heard, he had a white-collar job and was living in Southern California. I told him, his request had the sound of a common scam, and how did I even know it was him? I asked him what he called me in 7th grade. He got the answer right, and even sang the little ditty he'd sing when he said it.

I asked Gordon, what was going on? How did he find himself in this place? He said something about his business having lost clients, some bad financial decisions. He said he needed money and that he needed it today or would be out on the street. I asked him about his wife and children; he said they were with him and fine. He sounded cavalier. I told him, I was not going to give him money, and that his reaching out to people he had not seen in 30 years was very suspect.

"I appreciate you saying that, Nancy, but I always thought, once a Saint Anner, always a Saint Anner," he said, referring to the name of our school. "And if it was you calling me for money, even thirty years later, I would give it to you."

I told Gordon, I had to go. I might have added, take care, or get help, but did not. I have, as have nearly all of us, been around the block with people and their addictions, to drugs, booze, gambling, lying. We have learned that throwing money at the problem does not help.

I walked back into the center, thinking how bizarre it was to get this call here. I thought about the characters in my book, without homes, often without hope. And I met E, who was playing around on an espresso machine donated to the center. He told me he was learning to be a barista; that he didn't know a lot yet about coffee but he loved it. I told him, my husband was in the coffee business.

"Really?" he said, his face becoming both bright and shy. "Do you think I could meet him?"

I told him, I would be happy to help.

January 11, 2011

Grim-Lit Serial Killer Strikes Again in Westwood!

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Police said the predator glides invisibly through crowds, disguised by his very ordinariness.

"He looks exactly like you and me," said LAPD Detective Margaret Millar. "He's smart, bookish. He likes a bargain. Maybe he wears glasses and has a ratty paperback crime novel tucked in his back pocket. At this point, we're not ruling anything out."

The most recent victim is Broxton's Mystery Bookstore, which suffered a fatal blow on January 11, 2011, and will expire at month's end.

Continue reading "Grim-Lit Serial Killer Strikes Again in Westwood!" »

January 10, 2011

It's never too late

louiecover.jpg

This morning I opened the Los Angeles Times -- which I've frankly been doing more often lately (web overload?) -- and was rewarded by discovering a very nice review of a book I co-authored almost ten years ago.

DEVIL AT MY HEELS is the autobiography of Louis Zamperini, whose story has lately received much notice because Laura ("Seabiscuit") Hillenbrand's biography of Louie, "Unbroken," is everywhere, including at the pole position on both Amazon and the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list.

Universal Pictures bought the rights to Louie's life in 1956, on the heels of the same-titled, first book version of his life, with plans for Tony Curtis to star (it didn't happen). Now they plan to give the movie another try.

I'm glad that the Los Angeles Times graciously acknowledged Louie's own book -- especially eight years after publication! -- when, in the flood of publicity and praise for "Unbroken," the paper could have easily acted as if Louie's own words didn't exist at all.

Louie's going to be 94 later this month. He's lived an incredible life and I'm thrilled that it's finally getting the wide recognition it deserves. He's a great guy, too, a constant inspiration, and I'm fortunate to still have him in my life.

Here's the Times story link.

December 1, 2006

Farewell, Autumn for Ray Bradbury

It was the early 1970s when Ray Bradbury and I met at Saint Patrick's Elementary School Library in North Hollywood. We were introduced through a dog-eared, much-underlined, yellowing paperback called "Dandelion Wine" and I promptly fell into puppy love. Ray was already ancient then, with graying hair and horn-rimmed glasses, or so it seemed to an 11-year-old, but I didn't care. I promptly read all his books on the shelves, sneaking in at odd hours since our little library doubled as the teachers' lounge. I recall pouring over "The Illustrated Man," "M is for Melancholy" and "The Martian Chronicles" at recess and lunch with the ardor that my school chums reserved for Tiger Beat Magazine. Ray's books transported me to shimmering far-off worlds. As you might imagine, my solitary obsession made me very popular with my David Cassidy/Bobby Sherman swooning peers.

Back then, I had no idea that Ray lived in Los Angeles, less than 20 miles from me. I realize now that he probably gave talks at bookstores and libraries and schools and generally swanned about town the way famous authors do. However, this literary largesse did not trickle down to my part of the Valley, and if it did, my family wasn't aware of it. While we were all very bookish, we were insular, bringing home booty scavenged from rummage sales and used bookstores. It would have been frivolous for my cash-strapped parents to spend good money on a new book when there were so many perfectly good used ones out there.

In college, Ray and I broke up. He'd become a bit of an embarrassment to me, proof of what a rube I'd been. I spurned his simple prose, his dated science. I was in love with more sophisticated, demanding and transgressive writers. Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Jean Paul Sartre, Laurence Durrell, Thomas Pynchon, Feodor Dostoevsky. Ray was the freckled hometown boy in overalls who lacked the glittering allure of my edgier, faster crowd.

Then I must confess, I forgot about him altogether. I became a journalist, traveled the world, wrote my own novels, read many other things, had babies. Then my babies began to grow out of picture books. Browsing in my home library one day, I pulled out a dog-eared, much-underlined yellowing paperback copy of "Dandelion Wine" and all the fond spooky memories came rushing back. I began to read the book out loud to my oldest son each night, savoring the exquisite moods, the evocations of terror, of joy, the unbearable lightness of summer and the dark that lurked at the edges of things. It was a double pleasure to rediscover him as an adult, a triple pleasure that my son liked him too. Next came the "Martian Chronicles." Then "Fahrenheit 451." Bam, another generation was hooked.

Two weeks ago, Ray Bradbury came to a small independent bookstore in Glendale. He's 86 and in a wheelchair now, with a leonine mane of pure white hair, a kind of living time capsule, a character beamed out of one of his own Mobius Strip stories.

I told the kids we were going. After all these years, I would finally meet Ray. And the kids would see this literary legend in flesh and learn that even famous writers are just plain folks. It was glorious to see four generations of people crammed into the aisles of Mystery and Imagination Books ' hundreds of them, all holding cherished copies of old books and brand new ones.

My kids studied Ray. "He's old," my 8-year-old said. They were shy when we got to the front of the line, though we did get our picture taken with him. I had so much to say, it would have taken a whole book's worth of words. Ray was the first man whose writing I fell in love with, whose photo I recognized, whose words I emulated when I took my own baby steps at writing stories.

I settled for telling him that I was reading "The Illustrated Man" to the boys, one story a night. They'd found "The Veldt" especially unsettling. Ray twinkled fiendishly and said that was wonderful. He signed our books, including his newest, the sequel to "Dandelion Wine" that had been 60 years in the making. It's called "Farewell, Summer."

There was a certain melancholy to finally meeting him, in the late autumn of his life. There's the awareness that he's not going to be around forever, that it will be his words that survive the ages, not his flesh. So it goes for all of us. I hope my kids remember their afternoon with Ray long after he's gone. Maybe even after I'm gone. I hope that one day, they'll pull a dog-eared, much-underlined yellowing paperback of "Dandelion Wine" from their own shelves and read it to their children and that its themes will still resonate, regardless of what future they live in.