Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Tortilla Curtain and Crash

We finished the California Culture class with T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain. It seemed to be a good way to conclude. To create dramatic conflict, Boyle pits different aspects of the California Dream against one another. For example, the illegal immigrant's dream of economic opportunity threatens the Anglo nature writer's dream of suburban comfort with easy access to "wilderness."

Along the way we hear echoes of earlier California writers, especially Muir and Steinbeck. Boyle throws in some Continental references for good measure; the illegal immigrant is named Candido, and his ordeals easily match those of Voltaire's hero. I'm glad we also watched Real Women Have Curves, if only to balance the depiction of the immigrant experience. Because we also read Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory, I don't think anyone will leave the class thinking that this complex social phenomenon can be represented simply, but some interesting patterns emerged from those three works.

Our last film was Paul Haggis's Crash. It's an adroit film, and I was moved (again) by one scene, but many have challenged its depiction of race relations in Los Angeles. I wonder if that response isn't partly due to the film's high Hollywood finish. Crash is about collisions, but the plot is very tidy, and each character receives a carefully rationed moment of epiphany or redemption. Still, I think it might be a keeper for this class.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

EPHS Tonight

I'm talking to the Echo Park Historical Society tonight about Carey McWilliams, one of their notable residents. He really loved his house there, perched on a high, narrow ridge on North Alvarado Street. He lived in it for five years or so, then rented it for decades. He considered moving back after he retired from The Nation, but by that time Iris wasn't driving, and they had a rent-controlled apartment in New York City. He rented an apartment when he taught at UCLA in the late 70s.

The talk is at Barlow Hospital library at 7:00. Here's the link:



Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sam Quinones at Huntington-USC

I attended a talk by the LA Times' Sam Quinones today at the Huntington Library. He spoke with great enthusiasm and candor about the stories he has discovered in Mexico and on "the border," which he treats more as a state of mind than a geographical fact. Completely fresh and unpredictable. My favorite story today involved his being run out of a Mexican town by a community of Mennonite drug dealers.

When I called my friend Adrian Maher, I discovered that he and my good friend Mark Ettlin were Sam's compatriots in the Berkeley co-op scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Now it all comes together.

Here's the link for Sam's latest book:


I also saw Bill Deverell, whose Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West does a great job with these events.

Paying the Toll

I'm reading the manuscript for Louise Dyble's Paying the Toll: Power, Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge, 1923-1971. Louise is especially concerned with the creation, administration, and survival of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District. Like many special districts, it was supposed to transcend the clamor of special interests and "politics." I'm only a couple of chapters into it, but I can already appreciate Louise's claim that the district was, from the moment of its conception, always already political--often in unhelpful ways.

I'll have more to say when I finish reading the manuscript, but her description of an early encounter with the district indicates her skill as an author:

[When] I explained my interest in the bridge's history and asked to view a selection of early records and files, the full-time public relations officer met my request with prohibitive insurance requirements, claiming that the district could not accept the liability for my presence at their offices. I was informed that the bridge's history had already been written, and it was available at the toll plaza gift shop.

Imagine how many dissertations could have been averted by a well-stocked gift shop!

I've added Louise's new blog, Paying the Toll, over there on your starboard. The book will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press--soon, I hope.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Warriors

The Warriors are doing well against the Dallas Mavericks, and everyone is psyched about their playoff prospects. But fanatical readers of this blog may not realize that this outcome was foreshadowed a couple of years ago when I planted myself near Chris Mullin on a flight to Los Angeles.

He was reluctant at first to talk about the Warriors, even after I praised the Baron Davis trade. For an executive v.p. of basketball operations, it probably looked like another boring conversation with someone who didn't know the business--a bit like my encounters with strangers who tell me their great book ideas. But he lit up when I asked him about his playing days with Don Nelson, and we ended up talking about even more interesting topics.

I didn't realize at the time that his response prefigured his decision to bring Nellie back. The Warriors haven't made it to the playoffs since the last time he was here. So let's give it up to Chris for making that happen.

By the way, when the camera picked up Chris at the team's moment of triumph, he was comforting his sleepy daughter. You don't see that often, and I found it refreshing.