A Week in Culture: Carolyn Kellogg, Book Reporter and Blogger


The Culture Diaries


6:15 A.M. After the heat wave of late September, Los Angeles is experiencing a cold and rainy snap. I’m discovering that my new apartment, which is big enough for lots of books, is also drafty and uninsulated in the special way of LA buildings from the 1920s. So when I wake up, staying in bed seems like a very good idea; I read about eighty pages of Antonya Nelson’s Bound before forcing myself up, into the day. I wasn’t sure about the book at first—it’s a little slow to start—but I was very sorry to have to put it down. I leave it on my bedside table.

9:00 A.M. I’m up and blogging about a poetry festival I won’t go to, because it’s tomorrow, and three thousand miles away.

11:00 A.M. I get an invitation to moderate a conversation between Dennis Lehane and Tom Franklin. Hell, yes! I’ve moderated panels and done some onstage interviews—Richard Russo, James Ellroy, John Waters—and what I love is the possibility for serendipity and detour, the moment that could only have evolved from that particular strand of conversation. I saw Lehane at the Brooklyn Book Festival; he’s smart and funny onstage, fast. And I liked the beginning of Tom Franklin’s book, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which I stopped reading because someone else was reviewing it. My first thought is all the reading I’ll get to do to prep for the discussion. My second thought is, What will I wear? Because scooting into a high director’s chair in a dress can be tricky.

6:00 P.M. After several hours at the office, I head to Book Soup to see Ben Greenman read from Celebrity Chekhov. Book Soup is one of LA’s major independent bookstores, right on the Sunset Strip, with bookshelves crammed under high ceilings and a robust selection of literary fiction and art/film books; they don’t waste much room on pap. It also has a strange, L-shaped reading area. The author stands in a corner, with ten chairs in front of him, in five rows of two; off to his right, a similar setup. Ben does fine; no celebrities have shown up to protest the Chekhovian inner lives he’s given them. Afterward I try to prove to him that LA is not weird and drag him to Musso & Frank for a drink. In the spirit of his book, we riff on rock-star corollaries of contemporary writers: William T. Vollmann = Sonic Youth, David Foster Wallace = Kurt Cobain. Ben isn’t satisfied with my Bono counterpart, Dave Eggers. Suggestions are welcome.


3:40 A.M. Alarm #1 goes off.

3:45 A.M. Alarm #2 goes off.

Happy Nobel Prize in Literature day! It’s so early my body hurts. I drag myself into the living room: couch, laptop, streaming from Sweden. The tech is way better this year than last year. The new laureate is, as everyone now knows, Mario Vargas Llosa, who I haven’t read but whose name I at least recognize. I spend the predawn hours researching him—significant, yes, problematic, also yes—so I can write a newsy story. There’s a long profile of him from 1997 in the LA Times archives. It’s a great piece, but it throws two things about newspapers into sad relief: how few stories our international reporters get to write about cultural figures now, and how little space there is for all stories today. The Vargas Llosa piece is twice as long as the features I write. I have plenty of time to contemplate this, because after the sun is up, I discover that someone else is writing the Nobel story after all.

11:00 A.M. Our newsroom is made up of vast rows of desks under bright lights, like those in All the President’s Men and The Wire. In Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times (the book accompanied a PBS documentary) former LA Times staffer Bill Boyarsky—who admirably gave police chief Daryl Gates hell in the paper’s pages—describes the evolution of the paper, including its significant ambitions during the sixties and seventies. The furniture and typing machines have changed, but the architecture remains the same. Tour groups come through—mostly teenagers and retirees—to look at journalists in action, which can’t be all that exciting. The one exception is the test kitchen, which has a big glass window overlooking sleek new counters, large stoves and white-jacketed chefs. The book section, where I sit, is between the test kitchen and the elevators, so the tour groups bunch up nearby. They whisper about our fantastic stacks of books with envy and wonder (at least, that what I’d like to think they’re whispering).

6:00 P.M. I head to the LA County Museum of Art for a hybrid performance, part of the Angel City Jazz Festival. Images by Ed Ruscha, music by Nels Cline, and poetry by David Breskin. Breskin uses a form called a ghazal, which is new to me, and for my taste it’s a little too rhythmic and rhyme-y. Or at least, it is in part one; by part two, I’m struggling to stay awake. But I am certain that Cline’s music is terrific.


6:00 A.M. Yikes, another Nobel to another literary figure. The Peace Prize has been awarded to Chinese writer and reform advocate Liu Xiaobo—I hope this means he’ll get out of prison sooner, not later. Blogging ensues.

11:00 A.M. Press preview at the Huntington Library. Henry Huntington leveraged businesses in trains, real estate, and utilities to become one of Southern California’s earliest tycoons. Later in his life, not necessarily in this order, he retired, collected rare books, and married Arabella, an art lover who was the richest woman in America (and also his uncle’s widow). Their home and estate in San Marino, south of Pasadena, is now the Huntington Library, Art Gallery, and Botanical Garden. It’s hard to imagine, wandering through it, what it was like to live in the house and to own so much land. Huntington built his library to house a collection that includes a Gutenberg Bible and a very early complete, gorgeously illuminated manuscript of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, both of which are on display.

Which makes the preview interesting: It’s the unveiling of a new Charles Bukowski exhibit just down the hall.

The not-so-staid-after-all Huntington has been acquiring the papers of twentieth-century writers: Its collection now includes Christopher Isherwood, Jack London, W. H. Auden, and Octavia Butler.

I have mixed feelings about Bukowski, but how I feel isn’t what matters when I meet Linda Lee Bukowski, his widow. The event had mostly wound down: The ham-on-rye sandwiches, set outside in the returned fall heat, had been snapped up by other journalists. Linda stood inside the lobby, talking to two Huntington staffers, one of whom vouched for me as I approached, saying I was from the LA Times. Linda responded with a wry comment about my former editor there, David L. Ulin.

That’s because Ulin wrote in the Times that Bukowski was “a hit-or-miss talent, capable of his own brand of small epiphany but often stultifyingly banal.” As far as I know, Ulin’s opinion hasn’t changed, but I try to tell Linda that if she met him, she’d like him. Diminutive and with delicate bone structure, she bounces energetically and raises her fists. “Maybe after I give him a punch in the nose,” she laughs.

Carolyn Kellogg is a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of Kellogg’s culture diary.