Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Kevin Starr: The Examiner Years

Boom California just published a piece I wrote about Kevin Starr's work as a columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. This wasn't an easy one to write, but I think it's important. Especially if you've ever wondered why Harvey Milk's most famous speech portrayed Kevin Starr as a bigot. Or why Kevin's eight-volume series, "Americans and the California Dream," skipped the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

Some of these columns may surprise Kevin's fans. The tone is quite different from what we see in his books. This by itself isn't so surprising; writing a column for a Hearst newspaper isn't the same as writing books for Oxford University Press. Nevertheless, some of Kevin's opinions from those days haven't aged well. I also chart some of Kevin's moves after leaving the Examiner: his unsuccessful bid for San Francisco supervisor, his stint at the California State Library, and his academic appointment at USC.

The whole idea here is to better understand Kevin's evolution as a writer. I don't think the Examiner material is Kevin at his best, but I don't think it diminishes his other contributions. I also think the best way to honor writers is to take what they write seriously.

On a more personal note, I think Kevin's role at the library helped make him the ultimate cheerleader for research on California. He didn't know me from Adam, but when I had a proposal for the Carey McWilliams bio, I sent it to him blind. One day I found a telephone message from him; he had forwarded the proposal to Jim Clark, director of the University of California Press, with his recommendation. That got me a meeting with Jim, which never would have happened otherwise. He was great on that kind of thing, which endeared him to many authors and would-be authors. That was above and beyond everything he did with his own writing.

Kevin also had a good sense of humor. I gave the Bonnie Cashin lecture at UCLA one year, and I began with a dream I had while working on the McWilliams bio. I won't try to summarize the dream here, but it was pretty funny, and Kevin appeared in it. He was shouting at me from a rooftop. When the lecture appeared as a pamphlet, I learned that UCLA's librarian, Gary Strong, had persuaded Kevin to write the foreword. Kevin began several paragraphs by referring to the dream and what he was probably shouting at me. It was only later I realized how weird that was--the author of the dream series appearing in my dream and commenting on it later.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Pet Peeve Department

It's hard to footnote books accurately, but I have no patience for authors who swipe my carefully sourced quotations without attribution and then screw them up. Today I found a beauty in Will Swift's 2014 book about the Nixons and their marriage. Swift quotes Carey McWilliams, who described Nixon in 1950 as "a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice." But Swift doesn't mention McWilliams, and he attributes the quote to The New Republic, not The Nation, where it actually appeared.

It's possible but unlikely that Swift found the quote somewhere besides my writing. If you search on the quote, you find only my stuff and his.

Not the end of the world by any means. But it's made worse somehow by the fact that the book was published by a right-wing imprint (Threshold Editions). That's the outfit that signed Milo Yiannopoulos for a $250k advance and then canceled the deal. It also published The Embassy House, which had to be withdrawn in 2013 when U.S. officials refuted the author's eyewitness account of the Benghazi incident. Most of the major trade publishers have right-wing imprints now, and I've seen some really dreadful stuff from that quarter.

Swift's book, however, received a positive review in the New York Times, where conservative author Thomas Mallon called it fair-minded and thorough. That may well be true, but I wonder.

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Friday, January 25, 2019

The Return of C-Mac

The University of California Press has published a paperback edition of my Carey McWilliams biography--this time with a fabulous foreword by Mike Davis. An advance copy of American Prophet appeared in my mailbox last week. The official publication date is March 5, but you can buy it here now.

My respect for McWilliams hasn't diminished a bit since I began the research more than 15 years ago. His brains, range, versatility, and classic prose style still floor me. And as I research Hunter Thompson's literary formation, McWilliams once again looms large. It was McWilliams, of course, who gave Thompson the idea for his story on the Hells Angels. After McWilliams ran it in The Nation, Thompson parlayed it into his first bestseller.

The good folks at Truthdig ran a Q&A on McWilliams and my longstanding interest in his achievement--often in the face of fierce resistance from formidable adversaries.

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Zodiac Killer Podcast

Some far-flung friends and former students have contacted me after listening to "Monster: The Zodiac Killer." It's a 15-part podcast from iHeart Radio. The production team taped the interview here at the house toward the end of last semester; next thing I knew they had it wrapped up. Their last podcast, on the so-called Atlanta Monster, was downloaded 36 million times.

They asked me to set the stage a bit in Episode 1--what was happening in the San Francisco Bay Area when the Zodiac killer first struck. In Episode 6, I get a few more words in edgewise (starting at the 17:30 mark) on the role of the media.

They also interviewed Duffy Jennings, who was working at the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. As noted earlier, Duffy actually took one of my classes at San Francisco State University. After a long career in journalism and public relations, he came back to finish his degree. Duffy's memoir, which I read in manuscript, is due out soon. Here's the go-to spot for All Things Jennings.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Media Roundup

Deutschlandfunk Kultur interviewed me about Bay Area student protests in the 1960s. Here's the radio piece and website summary; Scott Saul and I get a few words in during the last nine minutes or so. Naturally, my remarks sound smarter in German.

I was also interviewed for a 15-part podcast on the Zodiac killer. The first two episodes are available now. Here's a Hollywood Reporter article on the series and its creators. The last time out, this team produced a series that was downloaded 36 million times. For the new one, they interviewed former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Duffy Jennings. Duffy, it turns out, took my course at San Francisco State University when he returned to complete his degree about ten years ago. It's not very often that students bring that kind of experience to the classroom.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Review of Timothy Denevi's "Freak Kingdom"

Truthdig posted my review of Timothy Denevi's new book on Hunter Thompson. Essentially, Denevi follows Thompson's personal and professional life from the Kennedy assassination to Nixon's resignation. That's a canny way to frame Thompson's peak period. As you can see from the review, I enjoyed the book on several levels. Very worthwhile.

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Miriam Pawel's "The Browns of California"

I asked to review Miriam Pawel's The Browns of California and am glad I did. My review ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (Datebook section) a week ago, and Miriam has been making the media rounds both here and elsewhere.

The New York Times review ran two days ago. The last sentence is a doozy: "Jerry Brown’s counterculturally-inflected distrust of government has helped make liberal California the poverty capital of America."

This is skywriting, in my humble opinion. Perhaps the reviewer is especially attuned to the rise of the right and California's role in that. And I think Governor Brown's urge to run budget surplus (again!) can be criticized both from the right and the left. But this last sentence feels like (oversimplified) score-settling re: neoliberalism, not a comment on Gov. Brown's record.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Review of Gary Krist's "The Mirage Factory"

I'm always interested in popular histories of Los Angeles, and Gary Krist's new one caught my eye. He tells the stories of three important figures--William Mulholland, D.W. Griffith, and Aimee Semple McPherson--and does a fine job with each. I wrote a review for Truthdig; its title comes from Carey McWilliams's description of the Owens Valley water caper that preceded and permitted the city's explosive growth. Although the book doesn't come together as the urban history implied in the subtitle, I learned a lot about Griffith and admired the craft.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Review of Barlow's "Mother American Night"

Truthdig just ran my review of John Perry Barlow's memoir, Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times. My interest in the Grateful Dead piqued my curiosity, but tech culture has also become a more important part of my teaching and writing, so I read Barlow's memoir in big gulps.

As I mention in the review, the book sometimes reads like a long turn in a conversation--or rather, an edited transcript. This might have to do with the role of Robert Greenfield, Barlow's accomplice, who has produced several oral biographies. That approach makes for a smooth, quick read.

But I also think that Barlow's anecdotes are meant in part to test the reader's credulity. In the review, I quote several passages that support my hunch, but there are many more. At one point, for example, he says that Deadheads "are hapless and credulous and will believe anything you tell them."

In short, this is a quick, interesting read, but I wouldn't bet the ranch on its veracity.

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Ransoming Pagan Babies

The San Francisco Chronicle ran my review of Ransoming Pagan Babies: The Selected Writings of Warren Hinckle. I worked hard to keep it under 800 words; there's certainly more to say about Warren, his work, and his influence.

Maybe we can fill in some of those gaps at the Bay Area Book Festival. I'll moderate a panel that features this book and Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson? The panelists will be Robert Scheer, Steve Wasserman, and Ron Turner. Bob worked with Warren at Ramparts magazine, Steve published (and co-edited) Ransoming Pagan Babies, and Ron Turner published Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson? at Last Gasp Books.

The festival will be held April 28-29 in downtown Berkeley.

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