Category Archives: Books

More Beautiful People: Wheels of Change Road Trip Comes to Benicia

Some of the world’s most beautiful, intelligent, and well-read people came to Bookshop Benicia in Benicia yesterday to celebrate the publication of my new book, Wheels of Change. What, you think I’m exaggerating? No way. Just scroll down these pictures to see some of the attendees, and I know you will agree.

JaclClaudia Albano, Leyna Bernstein, Jennifer Kaiser, Alison Barnsley

Marti & Joe FuccyMarti and Joe Fuccy

Max and DanMax Lateiner, Dan Crouch

LeongsEric and Colleen Leong with their sons Evan and Riley

Annette & LeynaAnnette Kaiser, Leyna Bernstein

KaseyKasey Kath

Elizabeth JacksElizabeth Jack

Darrell, Devon, HankDarrell Haber, his son Devin Jack-Haber, Hank Nelson

Gabe NelsonGabe Nelson

KatieKatie Lynn

Lance and VickyLance and Vicky Barnett

Brian and ClaudiaBrian Parker and Claudia Albano

Dale & ClaudiaClaudia and Dale Hagen

Sue HutchSue Hutchinson

Tom DalrympleTom Dalrymple

Mike and BeckyMike and Becky Maggart

TrybullsThree of the Trybull family: Jeff, Leslie and daughter Jennifer

Bob BurmanBob Berman

Barnsley-LeeAlison Barnsley, Vernon Lee and their children Aero and Cielo

Christine & JenniferChristine Mayall, the host of this fabulous soiree and the owner of Bookshop Benicia, and the most beautiful person of all, Jennifer Kaiser

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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Cars, Wheels of Change

Where the Beautiful People Meet: Wheels of Change Launch Party

Wednesday night in San Francisco the California Historical Society hosted a launch party for Wheels of Change, attended by forty to fifty connoisseurs of cars, history, and fine literature. I gave a talk, and nobody in the audience threw anything at me so I guess I did okay. Afterward I signed books and chatted with people, which is always the best part of these book gatherings.

Below are photographs from the evening, picturing some of the people at the California Historical Society and Heyday Books who have worked behind the scenes to make this book happen. Please, allow me to introduce them to you:

McNeely and KN

That’s Bob McNeely and me. Bob, the executive vice president of Union Bank in San Diego, is a trustee and former president of the board of the California Historical Society. It was Bob’s idea to do a book about cars because he wanted the historical society to tackle a subject that everyone could relate to. Bob changed my life, and yet I had never met him until Wednesday night. As one might expect, he is a connoisseur of fine automobiles, particularly ones that are low, red, and fast.

Chet at CHS party

What, you think only guys in suits came to the party? Chet hails from a Hayward car club, and the ink on his arms depicts two of his deepest passions: cars and women. He’s not affiliated with CHS or Heyday, but he was out there representin’, and I appreciate it.

Malcolm and Kevin

This is Malcolm Margolin, making a point. Malcolm is the publisher and founder of Heyday Books, which has now published two of my books, Wheels of Change and The Golden Game. He is a friend and supporter of mine, as he is for countless other writers, editors, publishers, and booksellers. Every writer should be so lucky as to have Malcolm Margolin as his publisher.

David C. and Stephen B

Two executive directors of the California Historical Society, past and present: Stephen Becker, left, and David Crosson. Stephen was the head of CHS when Bob McNeely approached him with his idea to bring people together through cars. Stephen said, “Let’s do it.” After Stephen left the organization, David took over his spot, a position he currently holds, meanwhile taking over stewardship of Wheels of Change, which was then still a work in progress. Showing patience and faith, David helped steer the book to its completion. I owe them both a great deal.

George and Jeannine

Here are George Young and Jeannine Gendar, both of Heyday Books. George is a consultant and marketing and publishing guru with decades of experience in the business, and a former hot shoe guy to boot. (Vintage car slang: “Hot shoe” equals hot car.) Jeannine Gendar represents a rapidly disappearing species in the book industry: an editor who actually edits. She worked with me on Wheels of Change, helping turn it into a sleek and sassy Corvette of a book. At the risk of repeating myself, the same sentiment applies equally here: Every writer should be so lucky as to have Jeannine Gendar as his editor.

Lillian and Malcolm

Here, Malcolm hugs Lillian Fleer, the talented and hard-working events and outreach coordinator for Heyday. If you’d like to hear a lively and entertaining speaker who knows cars the way Grey Goose knows vodka, call her at 510-549-3564. I talk at bookstores, libraries, garden and house parties, book clubs, and Rotary and other civic groups. I’m also available for bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, christenings, baptisms, and bachelor parties. I’ll be there for you, and I’ll be representin’.

After rocking the house Thursday at the Oakland Rotary Club, I’m off to my next stops on the Wheels of Change Road Trip: Sunday, Nov. 8, 2 to 4 p.m. Signing. Bookshop Benicia, 856 Southampton Road, Benicia. 707-747-5155. And Tuesday, Nov. 10, 7 p.m. Talk and signing. Clayton Books, 5433 D Clayton Road, Clayton. 925-673-3325. Be there or be square!

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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Hayward, California, Wheels of Change

James Dean’s Last Drive: Correcting the Record

James Dean 75

“God,” said Mies van der Rohe, “is in the details.” If that’s true, then car people are very godly people because they love, and appreciate, and relish in, the details of automobiles. I experienced this yet again the other day when I received a letter from Steve Conlin, an ex-bartender at the Bar at the Hotel Bel-Air, one of Southern California’s most famous see-and-be-seen cocktail lounges.

As Steve says, he has “shaken cocktails for everyone from President Ronald Reagan to O.J. Simpson, from Clint Eastwood to Britney Spears.” Among his interests are automobiles and James Dean, seen above in a photo from Wheels of Change, probably at a race in Palm Springs in 1955, the year he died. Although the book is not out yet (but soon, very soon!), while perusing the Net Steve came across the excerpt from the book about Dean on my website. Enlivened by brisk detail, here is a piece of what he said:

Hi Kevin, Here’s wishing you great reviews and huge sales for your soon-to-be-released California auto book. I was browsing random Internet files when I came across an excerpt, your story on James Dean’s fatal drive in his 1955 Porsche Spyder 550.

As a California native and UCLA alumni you might be surprised to learn that the gas station fill-up photo you referred to as being taken at Blackwell’s Corner was actually snapped at the corner of Beverly Glen and Ventura Blvd., in Sherman Oaks. This was perhaps two blocks from Dean’s home at the time, and where he probably had a credit account. James Dean at gas station

You are correct that it was the last picture of Dean alive [the picture you see here], but it was snapped as his caravan headed from Hollywood through the San Fernando Valley for the drive north on Highway 99.  Photographer Sanford Roth had taken a few action shots of Dean driving along the Hollywood Freeway and along Ventura Blvd. just prior to arriving at the station.

The old station office still stands, although it has been converted to a funky flower shop. The extended roof over what was once the pump bay is newer, heavier, and the two slender support columns that can be seen in the James Dean picture have been strengthened to hold it aloft. Interestingly, the footprints of the three red 1950s gasoline pumps are still preserved on their original concrete island. The fill-up photo you mention was actually taken by Rolf Wutherich, Dean’s mechanic and passenger, with Dean’s own Leica camera. The sturdy Leica survived the accident and Dean’s family had the film developed shortly afterward.

Kevin, most of this information is based on the research of my friend Warren Beath, author of The Death of James Dean.  I can send along a few of my own photos of the station, if you’re interested. Best regards, Steve Conlin, Los Angeles

I thanked Steve for his letter and his desire to correct the record on some of the details about Dean’s fatal last drive. On his way to a race in Salinas, Dean smashed into another car near San Luis Obispo while speeding in that silver Porsche Spyder and was killed. The star of “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause” remains a top Hollywood earner despite being dead for more half a century. The Wall Street Journal said in a piece last week that Dean’s estate netted $5 million in licensing fees for his image.

Steve and I have exchanged e-mails, and perhaps we’ll meet at one of my speaking gigs for Wheels in southern California in November and December. Tomorrow I’m off to The Book Seller to talk about the history of cars in historic Grass Valley. My radio interview with Eric Tomb of “Booktown” of KVMR Radio aired on Monday; if you’d like to listen to it you can find it here on his blog. Just click on the link at the bottom that says “to hear this program.”

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Move over, Sarah Palin: Wheels of Change is Coming After You

Vallejo pic

Sarah Palin’s new book, Going Rogue, is coming out Nov. 17, nine days after the official publication date of Wheels of Change: From Zero to 600 M.P.H., The Amazing Story of California and the Automobile. Is the timing of the release of Palin’s instant bestseller a vast conspiracy to draw attention away from my book? How else can you explain the fact that I’ve been sitting patiently, and fruitlessly, by the phone all day waiting for Oprah to call but then I hear that she has booked Palin to be a guest on her show rather than me?

Oh well, Wheels of Change is not yet in bookstores but we’re starting to get a good buzz going, starting with a nice interview with me in the electronic newsletter of Heyday Books. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Favorite place to eat?
Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank on Friday night hot rod nights. Cool customs and bikes pour in from all over, and the sounds of the engines make your ears hurt. It’s a slice of 1959 in 2009.

Proudest achievement?
Not killing myself when I was a stupid teen driver wheeling around the streets of Hayward and spinning donuts on the lawns of schools.

Scariest moment?
On a trip to Lake Tahoe two winters ago, we drove over Donner Summit on I-80 in the teeth of a howling snowstorm. It was a near-total white-out. We couldn’t see two feet in front of us. Thank God my wife was driving. I was a pathetic, sniveling wretch in the passenger seat.

First car you ever owned?
A British-made Austin America. It was possibly the worst car ever made. If I had to get somewhere fast or on time, it had a built-in electronic sensor that told the engine not to start.

An article about me and the book, entitled “Author Hopes Book Signings Are Standing Vrroom Only,” appeared in today’s Vallejo Times-Herald, promoting my upcoming appearances at Bookshop Benicia (Nov. 8) and the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum (Nov. 14). The photo above accompanied the article, with me sitting in the front seat of a ’57 convertible Cadillac, which is owned by a local car collector who stores it in a warehouse.

Close observers of my interview in Heyday and Rich Freedman’s article in the Times-Herald will notice that I made a similar joke in both forums about that truly awful Austin America. This is what happens to all authors (including Sarah Palin, when she starts hitting the circuit). You find a line, it works for you, and you keep using it. Author talks are sort of performance art, albeit a very, very minor form of it.

I also did an interview Thursday with Eric Tomb, the host of “Booktown” on KVBR-FM in Nevada City, promoting an Oct. 28 appearance at The Book Seller in Grass Valley. The interview was taped at 7:30 a.m., and I believe I did not make the Austin America joke although I’m not really sure because I was half-asleep and unclear about what I was saying most of the time. Eric, who has been the radio host of “Booktown” for ten years, covered for me though, and I was fascinated to hear about the technology he uses.

He called me (he was at his home in Nevada City) on Skype, and recorded the interview into his Mac with Audiohijack software. Using an audio-editing software program called Amadeus, he takes my ramblings and through the miracle of modern technology, turns them into brilliant and insightful analysis of the history of automobiles in California. As of this writing, the program had not yet aired, but when it does, you will be the first to know. Count on it!

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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Hayward, California, Personal, Wheels of Change

The True Story of a Girl Who Shot a Book (1 of 3)

Lillian 1.6.1953 Among the many fascinating things about Lillian Kaiser (pictured here on the year of her graduation from Bryn Mawr), she is the only person I know who has ever shot a book. She did this when she was eleven, in 1942, in the basement of her family home on Summerland Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. The book was The Past Lives Again, by Edna McGuire, and why she chose this book to shoot I do not know. But shoot it she did, one summer day when her brothers were away and her father was sleeping upstairs in the house.

This last fact-her brothers Chuckie and Alfie being gone-is perhaps the most pertinent because they would have never let their younger sister shoot their .22-caliber rifle had they known about it. It was their gun, and many a time Lillian Smith (her maiden name) had sat at the top of the basement stairs watching Chuckie, Alfie and Bruce, her oldest brother, fire away at a metal target. “I would sit at the top of the stairs desperately wanting to take part,” remembers Lillian, but her brothers never let her, although later on Alfie did relent and show her how to break down the gun, clean it and reassemble it. These skills came in handy when her older brothers went off to fight in the second world war and Lillian, shouldering her rifle, walked around the neighborhood with her mother making sure that all the homes had drawn their black-out shades down during air raid warnings. This was serious business for her, her way of helping in the national emergency, and although she did not really need to carry the gun her mother understood and let her do it.

The basement was perfect for target practice because its concrete walls were “like a fortress,” says Lillian. With her father sleeping upstairs, and her mother off visiting Aunt Suzy, and her brothers off somewhere, Lillian stole into the basement, uncovered the gun, and experienced the thrill not only of using a firearm for the first time, but of doing something that was forbidden to her. “The use of the book,” she explains, “was so that the noise of the impact would not wake up my father.” Her father worked nights at Allied Chemical and Dye and slept days, and he would not have liked it, not one bit, if she had woken him up. Nor would her brothers have liked it if they had found out what she was doing with their gun—”surely would have beat the hell out of me,” as she puts it—but she cleaned it afterward and picked all up the casings and none of them was ever the wiser.

The bullet passed through the cover between the words “Lives” and “Again,” and it’s fascinating to flip through the book and mark its progress: small and circular in the front but gradually widening out as if a person took his thumb and pushed down on the paper and indented it and made a hole in the exact same spot throughout the pages. Shot book coverThe bullet eventually slowed and made less and less of an impression as it went along until on page 397, there is no more trace of it. What happened to the bullet fragment? Lillian may have thrown it away when she was hiding the evidence so her brothers would not discover her and punish her for her rebellion.

As interesting as it is to shoot a book, it is not the best part of the story, however. The best part was revealed when we saw Lillian, now in her seventies, at a Mother’s Day celebration when, as part of The Dangerous Quest, she showed her grandsons Hank and Gabe how to wrap a package in brown paper. The package she chose to wrap was none other than The Past Lives Again, and to learn how she did it, please read on.

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Filed under Books, Personal, The Dangerous Quest

How to Wrap A Book: An Expert’s Guide (2 of 3)

While The Dangerous Book for Boys, the bestselling manual for boys that serves as the inspiration and guide for this quest, concedes that “wrapping a package in brown paper and string” (p. 180) is hardly a dangerous activity, it argues that boys will nevertheless derive a hands-on satisfaction from knowing how to do it. Thus I recruited Lillian Kaiser to help me on this challenge, for she used to own a bookshop, Chimney Sweep Books in Santa Cruz, California, still sells books online, and has wrapped many thousands of books for mailing over the years. But after reading the DBFB’s package-wrapping instructions that called for the use of string, she objected strongly, saying string would jam the powerful and fast-moving Postal Service machines that sort and distribute packages. “It would destroy the machines and the Post Office would come and sue you,” she joked.

Having rejected string as being unnecessary and perhaps a tad nostalgic—a trait, it is true, the authors Conn and Hal Iggulden sometimes fall prey to—Lillian set about to show the boys how to wrap a book using only ordinary paper, a brown paper grocery bag, a plastic bag, cardboard, scissors, and two-inch wide mailing tape that can be purchased at any office supply or mailing store. Here are the steps:

1) Fold a regular piece of 81/2×11 computer paper over the cover of the book to protect it. Books are hardy and resilient things but they are also fragile in their way and no one likes to receive a book in the mail that has been damaged. Helping Gabe

2) Place the book with the paper around it inside a plastic bag. Push the book down to the bottom of the bag so there is no extra space, and wrap the plastic around the book tightly.

3) Place a piece of scrap cardboard on each side of the book, front and back-again, for protection. The cardboard should be about the size of the book.

4) Rip the handles off an ordinary brown paper grocery bag. Stick the plastic- and cardboard-wrapped book inside the bag horizontally. As before, all the way down to the bottom of the bag to remove any extra space.

5) Fold the paper bag over according to the size of the book. Then tape it lengthways and sideways with the mailing tape, making sure the package is tight. “Now it can be thrown against a machine at 70 miles per hour and it will not break,” Lillian told the boys. “And no machine can eat it up.” “What about a chain saw?” asked Gabe. “Well,” replied his grandmother, “a chain saw would eat it for sure. But I don’t think the Post Office has any chain saws.”

In Lillian’s practiced hands, the procedure took only a few minutes and her factory worker of a father, if he had been able to see her, would have marveled at her assembly line efficiency. The boys fumbled around a little at first but they picked up the techniques quickly and each wrapped a book. And as I was writing this up a week later, I was puzzling over my notes and unsure about some of Lillian’s instructions. So I called Hank up from downstairs, and he went through the steps and wrapped a book while I watched. He also quickly created a cool bookmark that Lillian showed us how to make, and I will share that in the next post.

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Give Your Books a Little Hat (3 of 3)

Lillian Kaiser, who studied Spanish literature at Bryn Mawr-she much admired Don Quixote, also one of my heroes and another inspiration for this odd, tilting-at-windmills quest the boys and I are now embarked on-likes to read weighty philosophical and religious works with footnotes, indexes and bibliographies. But even if your tastes run to lighter fare, you may find this easy-to-make bookmark useful. Few materials are needed: sheet of paper (white is fine but red, green or another color is a livelier choice), scissors, glue and a round object. This round object can be a roll of masking tape or a drinking glass, needed only for drawing a circle.

First, place the masking tape on its side and draw a circle on the paper. Cut the circle out. Fold the circle in half and fold it in half again, forming a quarter of a circle. Open the paper up and cut out a quarter of the circle. Fold the top right corner over. Put a little glue on the bottom piece and fold it up. In Lillian’s words, “it makes a little hat” that rests on the top right corner of a book page. This little hat marks where you left off reading the book or, as in Lillian’s case, shows the index or footnotes page for easy reference while she’s reading.

After shooting The Past Lives Again and graduating from college in 1953, Lillian Smith married, became Lillian Kaiser and had three daughters. But she never told her daughters the story of how she had shot the book with a .22. She waited more than sixty years until she brought it out on Mother’s Day to show her grandsons how to wrap a package in brown paper. Now Hank and Gabe own the book, and they are talking about taking it to school to share in class.

Celebrating package

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