Tag 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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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.”


Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Cars, 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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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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Making a Bow and Arrow: Boys’ Rite of Passage?

More from The Dangerous Quest: “At some point,” says The Dangerous Book for Boys on page 35, “you may consider making a bow and arrow.” Actually, in all my life I have never considered making a bow and arrow until now, until I began this rather strange quest with my sons.

After reading the book’s instructions on how to make a bow and arrow (they go on for four pages, with illustrations), I was so utterly stumped that I felt that, in my heart of hearts, there was no way I was going to be able to do this thing. Not just make a bow and arrow, but every hard task in the book-building a tree house and making a go-cart and tanning a skin and all the rest of it.

Nevertheless I have not given up—not yet anyhow—and I recently read a couple of excellent young adult novels that have given me a new perspective on what making a bow and arrow might mean to my sons. One of the books was Blood on the River, an historical novel about the settling of the Jamestown colony. The author Elisa Carbone has won awards for her writing and deservedly so, for she tells a wonderful adventure story grounded in the actual events and people of the Virginia settlement. Mrs. Julie Seymour, Hank’s fifth grade teacher, assigned the book to all her students, and after Hank was done with it he recommended it to me and I read it.

A boy, Samuel Collier (a real-life personage), narrates the story. Samuel is the page of Captain John Smith and travels with him by ship to the New World where he, Smith and the other colonists encounter Native American tribes that are both friendly and not so friendly. (Pocahontas belongs to the former group.) Samuel lives for a time in the village of the Warraskoyack Indians and learns, among other useful skills, how to make a bow and arrow.

“Kainta teaches me how to peel the bark off the sapling,” writes Carbone in the voice of Samuel, “cut notches for the bowstring, and string it with strong gut. We make several arrow shafts from straight, thin wood. He shows me how to make an arrowhead, chipping a piece of rock until it is in the right shape. It is a slow process…but finally I am able to make my first arrowhead. Then I tie it to a shaft and balance the shaft with feathers so that it will shoot straight.”

Samuel talks about the power and pride he feels in doing this, and similar to what the Iggulden brothers recommend in The Dangerous Book for Boys, he uses his self-made bow and arrows to hunt a rabbit. “The next day the three of us go hunting,” Carbone/Samuel writes. “We walk quietly through the white forest, stalking rabbits…They [his Warraskoyack guides] want me to shoot, to have a chance to make my first kill. Silently I pull out an arrow and string it on my bow.” Then, to paraphrase Chick Hearn’s famous radio announcing call for the Lakers, he shoots and scores! And they have rabbit stew for dinner.

Making a bow and arrow-and then shooting, gutting, skinning and eating this wild game-is clearly a rite of passage for young Samuel, as it is for 13-year-old Brian Robeson, the protagonist of another superb young adult novel, Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. After seeing me read one of Hank’s books, his younger brother Gabe recommended one of his favorites, Hatchet, to me. I read it too, being struck by the fact that late in the book the fictional Robeson makes, yes, a bow and arrow.

“He had sat a whole night and shaped the limbs carefully until the bow looked beautiful,” writes Paulsen. “Then he had spent two days making arrows. The shafts were willow, straight and with the bark peeled, and he fire-hardened the points and split a couple of them to make forked points, as he had done with the spear.”

Traveling to see his father, the 13-year-old Robeson is in a small airplane that crashes in the Canadian wilderness. The pilot dies, and the boy must fend for himself in the north woods without food or survival gear. He builds a shelter, learns to make a fire using his hatchet, and shoots a fish in a lake using his self-made bow and arrow. “With his bow, with an arrow fashioned by his own hands, he had done food, had found a way to live,” writes Paulson. “The bow had given him this way and he exulted in it, in the bow, in the arrow, in the hatchet, in the sky.”

So this is what I am contemplating doing with the boys: making a bow and arrow and possibly going out to hunt with it. I was talking about this at dinner the other night, and I mentioned how hard it would be to do this. “But if we get stuck,” I said, “I know where there’s a bow and arrow shop in Martinez.”

Gabe brightened immediately. “We can go buy one,” he said. “Yeah,” added Hank, “and say we made it.”

“Right,” said Jennifer, listening patiently to this conversation. “I think that’s the spirit they’re going for in the book.”

Need to catch up on the latest adventures in our Dangerous Quest? See the entire quest to date, archived for your entertainment pleasure right here.

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Magazine Excerpt of Operation Bullpen

Autograph Magazine is running an excerpt from Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History in its current issue. Read it here.

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