Archive for April, 2013

The sun never sets on Sunset’s Bill Lane

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Kevin Starr at the Sunset book launch. (Photo: E. Spencer Toy)

“Bill waited a bit late to start a memoir – he was 88,” said historian Bert Patenaude at the annual “A Company of Authors” event last week at Stanford.  He was speaking about L.W. “Bill” Lane, Jr., and the book for which Bert served as a sort of midwife, The Sun Never Sets: Reflections on a Western Life.  The book traces the story of the late Bill Lane, who was not only longtime publisher of Sunset, but also a pioneering environmentalist and U.S. ambassador.  He died in 2010.


Lane’s late labor (Photo: E. Sunny Toy)

Bert began the project with a series of audiotaped interviews conducted at Lane’s home in Portola Valley and at his summer home at Lake Tahoe.  They were augmented with an oral history for Berkeley’s Bancroft Library in the 1990s. The book was just published Stanford General Books, an imprint of Stanford University Press.

Sunset, as the introduction notes, has played a significant historical role in Western life, especially for those of us transplanted from other climes.  Kevin Starr read from his introduction:

When Laurence W. Lane, Sr., stepped off the ferryboat at the foot of Market Street in mid-October 1928 after a long train ride from Iowa, a parade was in progress and the music of a great brass band filled the Ferry Terminal.  All this was for Columbus Day, of course, but it might have been for Larry Lane as well, since a process was being set in motion – for the new publisher of Sunset, his wife, Ruth Bell Lane, and the two Lane sons, Laurence W. “Bill” Junior and Melvin Bell Lane – that would eventually present the Far West with its most successful magazine publisher and its most successful book publisher, from whom millions would learn how best to live in this still-new region.

I never had the opportunity to build a house of my own, but if I had, it would have been a hacienda like the Sunset offices in Menlo Park.  And if I had ever had any kind of a green thumb, I would have created something like the heavenly garden that surrounds it.  These photos don’t quite do them justice – no fault of photographer Spencer Toy, but the massive Spanish doors and tiling aren’t in the shots of the event. And the gardens … well, nothing could do them justice.

I once knew Sunset well – I lived a stone’s throw away, on the Palo Alto side of San Francisquito Creek.  I hadn’t been back for 25 years, however.  So it was strange and familiar to attend the launch for the book a few weeks ago.

But it was the gardens, in particular, that caught my attention during the visit.  The last time I had visited them was (and this is a confession) when I trespassed onto the property in the early evening hours of March 3, 1988, very nervous and worried.  I knew the beauty of this place would be soothing and healing, for the next day, I knew, would be one of the hardest days of my life.  I didn’t yet know it would also be the best day of my life:  I gave birth to a perfect 9 lb., 9 oz. daughter, who remains perfect to this very day.


Landmark gardens of Sunset (Photo: E. Spencer Toy)

More on the man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski’s visit to Stanford

Friday, April 26th, 2013

photo(1)On Wednesday, we wrote about the Polish hero who tried to stop the Holocaust, Jan Karski.  No sooner posted than we got a letter from the former director of the Hoover Archives, Elena Danielson, who remembered one of his visits to Stanford (she’s pictured at right with Karski).  “Most of all, I was impressed by how gracious he was to us lowly archives staffers who brought him cardboard boxes full of the history he had saved half a century earlier,” she recalled. “He made us feel like keepers of the flame. His concern for human dignity was not just theoretical, it was part of his approach to life.”  The Jan Karski Papers collection was established at Hoover in 1946.

A story on Karski’s longstanding relationship with Hoover is here.  It begins: “A letter dated April 16, 1945, and signed by Stanford University president Donald Tresidder, formalized a relationship between Jan Karski and the Hoover Library (now known as the Hoover Institution) on War, Revolution and Peace that was to last until the end of Karski’s life. The letter confirmed a temporary appointment ‘to collect materials relating to political, economic, social, and other developments in Poland and other areas in Europe which have been attacked and occupied by Axis forces.'”

From Elena’s email:

Jan Karski was already a hero for those of us on the Hoover Archives staff when the East European curator Maciej Siekierski organized the visit by Jan Karski, seen in this photo from the mid-1990s [photo by Zbigniew Stanczyk]. Karski began working directly with Herbert Hoover back in 1945 to document the history of Poland in World War II. As a result, the Hoover Archives hold the largest collection of 20th century Polish archives outside of Poland, and the heart of the documentation is concern for human rights.

Hoover’s own interest in Poland went back to his humanitarian relief work there in World War I. Starting in 1945 Karski traveled to  London, Paris, and Rome, as well as Switzerland to coordinate the collection of documentation on the Nazi horrors in central Europe as well as the Soviet crimes. Those documents at Hoover preserved the truth about the Katyn massacre and the Gulag, information suppressed in Russia until 1992.  Karski used the same discretion, tact and diplomatic finesse to save the Polish embassy files abroad that he had used in his secret missions during the war.

jan_karskiThose skills were still evident in old age when I met him. He dressed meticulously, spoke in carefully chosen words, and conveyed the seriousness of his work to preserve the truth about the war. His sense of humor showed in ironic flashes. He told a story, now I’m retelling it from memory so I hope I have this about right, from 1942. He was in Switzerland conferring with OSS chiefs about his trip to the U.S. to see Roosevelt. He persuaded the OSS that they had to buy  him better shoes if they wanted him to be taken seriously by the president of the United States. Something like that. Most of all, I was impressed by how gracious he was to us lowly archives staffers who brought him cardboard boxes full of the history he had saved half a century earlier. He made us feel like keepers of the flame. His concern for human dignity was not just theoretical, it was part of his approach to life.

The man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski remembered in San Francisco – tonight!

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013


Never heard of him?  You should.  He got a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.  Now you’ll get your chance to learn more about him tonight at the University of San Francisco.

In 1942-43, Jan Kozielewski, using the pseudonym Jan Karski, reported to the Polish government in exile and the Western allies about the Nazi-German extermination camps in occupied Poland.  Churchill and Roosevelt didn’t believe him.

So why haven’t you heard of him?  As I wrote here in a post about Captain Witold Pilecki (the man who had the distinction of being the only known person to smuggle into Auschwitz, so he could report back to the Allies about the conditions there):

The Communist government was anxious to bury the stories of Polish wartime heroes – it’s one reason, for example, the name of Irena Sendler, the woman who saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto, did not become known until after 1989.  (I’ve written about her, oh, here and here and here and here and here and here.)  Or the name of Jan Karski, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom last month.

But there’s more to it than that: in 1978, French film-maker Claude Lanzmann recorded Karski’s testimony for the 1985 film Shoah, but Karski’s footage wound up on the cutting room floor.  After the 1994 biography Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust Lanzmann released a documentary, The Karski Report consisting of the previously unreleased second half of his interview with Karski.

Tom Wood, coauthor of Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust, will discuss Karski’s life and legacy and sign books afterward at 6.30 p.m. tonight the University of San Francisco’s McLaren Conference Center 251.  (Wood coauthored the book with Stanisław Jankowski.)  The event is free and open to the public.

The_Mass_Extermination_of_Jews_in_German_Occupied_.pdf“Karski is a story of incredible valor, a story of personal courage and uncommon determination to bring to Allied leaders the awful truth about the mass murder of the Jews of Europe. It is the story of a man who understood the poisonous effects of bigotry and hatred. His fight against Nazi oppression came to an end in 1945. His fight against anti-Semitism has never stopped,” according to Miles Lerman, Chairman, United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

Interviewed in 1995, five years before his death, Karski had this to say about the Holocaust:

It was easy for the Nazis to kill Jews, because they did it. The allies considered it impossible and too costly to rescue the Jews, because they didn’t do it. The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies, but thousands of Jews survived because thousands of individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland helped to save Jews. Now, every government and church says, “We tried to help the Jews”, because they are ashamed, they want to keep their reputations. They didn’t help, because six million Jews perished, but those in the government, in the churches they survived. No one did enough.

A poem for Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and South America today…

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

A poet for troubled times…

It’s been a grim week with grim news every day – we can’t see the end of it too soon.  So let us finish off the week on a better note – here’s John Clare‘s “Autumn,” read by Richard Burton (with a hat tip to Morgan Meis of 3quarksdaily for bringing it to our attention).   It’s a dandy poem, one of the group written while Clare was confined in the Northampton County Asylum from 1842 until his death in 1864 … well, Clare had a few troubled times of his own. Biographer Jonathan Bate wrote that Clare was “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self.”

As for Burton’s reading, this is the way a poem should be read – listen to the short clip, and see if you agree.  Patrick Stewart is also a wonderful performer – you can compare Stewart’s reading to Burton’s, and see some of the the working-class poet’s Northamptonshire home.  Only … it’s not the same poem.  “Autumn” and “To Autumn” are two different poems.  Both are splendid, and well worth a few minutes of your time.

I know what you’re thinking…  It’s May.  It’s springtime.  Yes, but not for the Book Haven’s southern hemisphere readers.  They’re deep into autumn on that side of the equator.

So to those of you in Christchurch, Buenos Aires, Cuzco, Johannesburg, Melbourne, and elsewhere today:

The thistledown’s flying, though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot;
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot.

The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead.
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed,
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed.

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.

Carl Proffer honored in Ann Arbor. So far, no statue in the former U.S.S.R.

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Joseph Brodsky with Carl and Ellendea Proffer

To my best knowledge, I am the only person to have dedicated a book to Carl Proffer – that would be Joseph Brodsky: Conversations.

At the University of Michigan, my path crossed all too briefly with the heroic Carl and Ellendea Proffer, the founders of Ardis Books, the small publishing house that during the 70s and 80s was the largest and finest publisher of Russian literature in the West.  The Proffers produced about 40-60 books and journals a year from their Ann Arbor basement … well, I told that story here (“Joseph Brodsky and the courageous couple who brought him to America – Carl and Ellendea Proffer”) and here (“Joseph Brodsky: How the 15-year-old dropout became a university professor”).  It’s unlikely that the Russian Nobel laureate would have emigrated to America if Carl had not intercepted him in Vienna, after he was kicked out of the U.S.S.R. in 1972.  So it seemed fitting to dedicate my book to the memory of Carl, who died at 46 of a particularly brutal and fast cancer.

Now the University of Michigan is honoring the Proffers’ extraordinary legacy with a symposium September 20 and 21 – read about it here. From the website:

brodsky2The symposium will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the birth of U-M Professor Carl R. Proffer (1938-84), an outstanding scholar renowned for his books on Gogol and Nabokov. In his brief 46 years Carl Proffer not only contributed tremendously to the field of Russian literature as an author, translator, editor, and publisher, but also put Ann Arbor on the map of Russian literature in perpetuity. In 1971 with his wife Ellendea, also a scholar, author, and translator, he co-founded Ardis which became the foremost Western publisher of Russian and Soviet literature, including reprints and translations of classics as well as works banned by the Soviet authorities. Symposium presenters will explore Ardis Publishers’ consequential role as a citadel of Russian literature and U-M’s rich legacy as a center for the study of dissent in the Soviet Union and as a refuge for Soviet writers, artists, and political dissidents (including Joseph Brodsky, poet-in-residence at U-M, 1972-81).

Carl’s New York Times obituary is here.  You are welcome to add your facts, citations, stories, anecdotes, whatever to the new wikipedia entry for Carl here (and the Ardis entry is here).  From the wikipedia site:

Ann Arbor became a stop on the Russian literary underground railway, as a stream of prominent writers came to visit Ardis or teach at the university. Proffer mentored numerous émigré writers, arranging for them to go into academia. Proffer made yearly trips to the Soviet Union until 1979, when the publication of the politically controversial anthology Metropol caused him to be banned from the Soviet Union. Diagnosed with cancer in 1982, he would never see Russia again; he died in 1984, at the age of forty-six. He is survived by his wife and four children—Andrew, Christopher, Ian and Arabella.

I didn’t know, however, that Carl’s struggle had been filmed by CBS.  The segment is below.  And below that, a video on Ardis for any Russian-speakers among the Book Haven readers – Ellendea is featured beginning about 4.45 minutes in.

Someone once said that there oughtta be a statue for the Proffers in Russia – no statue to date, but Ellendea was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1989.

Stop the presses! Orphan Master’s Son author Adam Johnson gets Pulitzer Prize for Fiction!

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Pulitzer”What should I say?  What should I say?” asked Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son when we cornered him in Moscow, Idaho, to ask him about his spanking new John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.  So we won’t try to find him now that he’s just won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his (very timely) novel about life in North Korea.  For one thing, we’d have to get in a queue to find him.

Nonetheless, it’s cheering, stop-the-presses news.  Let us add our congratulations, and quote the New York Times‘ Michiko Kakutani, who called The Orphan Master’s Son a “daring and remarkable novel” (whole thing is here):

Set in the recent past, when the country’s eccentric strongman Kim Jong-il (who died in December) still ruled with an iron whim, the novel conjures an Orwellian world in which the government’s myths about the country — its success, its benevolence, its virtues in taking on the evils perpetrated by the United States, South Korea and Japan — are not only tirelessly drilled into the citizenry through propaganda broadcasts but have also become an overarching narrative framing everyone’s lives. As Jun Do learns, people’s identities are subordinate to the roles the state expects them to fulfill, and even words or acts that inadvertently cast doubt on the greatness and goodness of the government can lead to death or prison or torture.

“Where we are from,” says one character, “stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

In doing research, Mr. Johnson read firsthand testimony from defectors and traveled to North Korea himself; he then used his sharp sense of the absurd and adrenalin-laced language — the same gifts on display in Emporium, his 2002 collection of short stories — to transform that research into an operatic if somewhat long-winded tale that is at once satiric and melancholy, blackly comic and sadly elegiac.

Author, author! (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Can the Nobel be far behind? (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In both Emporium (set largely in America) and The Orphan Master’s Son there is a heightened apprehension of the precariousness of life, the randomness of fate, the difficulty of emotional connection. Because the hardships of real life in North Korea, described by defectors, can be Kafkaesque in their surreal horror, it’s harder to tell in these pages where Mr. Johnson’s penchant for exaggeration leaves off.

Like many works of fiction to emerge from troubled or repressive parts of the world, The Orphan Master’s Son employs the techniques of magical realism to create a hallucinatory mirror of day-to-day circumstances that in themselves dwarf the imagination. The real-life Kim Jong-il, after all, was often described in terms befitting a comic-book villain: known as “Dear Leader” in North Korea, this dictator, who wore elevator shoes and oversize sunglasses, allowed untold numbers of people to die of starvation during recurrent famines while pumping huge sums of money into the country’s nuclear programs; he banished citizens deemed disloyal to prison camps and sent assassins after defectors.

Or you could read what we’ve written about him here and here and here and here, among other places.  Meanwhile, we’ll await the announcement of a Nobel in October.

Update: The Los Angeles Times announces Adam’s honor here, and Abebooks celebrates Adam’s win here