Fragrant Dulce


Another day in the life of a dog owner as told by Isabel:

Willie went to the 50th reunion of his Hastings Law School class – I realize I am married to a very old man – and came home at midnight. Our dogs Dulce and Olivia needed to pee, so Willie opened the door and they ran into the garden. Unfortunately there was skunk digging peacefully up our lawn. Dulce tried to attack it, thinking it was a squirrel, and got sprayed in the face. Now, you have to understand, Dulce may be an ordinary little mutt, but she has a refined soul and is very allergic. She ran screaming into the house, her eyes shut, her muzzle crimson, and rubbed her body on the rug, the couch and finally on our bed before we could catch her. We had heard that tomato sauce is the answer to this kind of crisis but it only made things worse. Finally Willie got in the shower with her while I tried to clean up the mess and ventilate the house. Willie’s sense of smell is almost nil, so he didn’t suffer much, but I pride myself of having a hound’s nose. I will be camping on somebody’s couch for a while with Olivia, while Willie stays with Dulce in the house. Does anybody know how long it may take for the skunk smell to dissipate or for human to learn to appreciate it?


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States of Grace

If you can get a ticket, you must see States of Grace by Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman, which chronicles Dr. Grace Dammann and her remarkable recovery following a near-fatal head-on collision on the Golden Gate Bridge. Grace is a dear friend of Isabel’s—she’s more like family, actually—and the documentary will leave you with renewed faith in the human spirit. We just saw it at the Marin Film Festival and it is slated to show in January (we will keep you posted as to where and when) at theaters on both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge once the movable barrier is installed—a barrier that would have prevented the collision that left Grace, a pioneering San Francisco AIDS specialist, crushed and forever changed. The film documents the struggles that Grace and her family are working through to this day. If you’re able to see the movie, look for Isabel’s interview. 

States of Grace

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Isabel needed to renew her driver’s license. She was so scared of the test, that I had to help her to memorize all those complicated rules. Fortunately she passed it brilliantly and didn’t have to go behind the wheel, (she is not my favorite driver), The driver’s license came promptly in the mail, but it had a small error: she was a male. We went back to the DMV to have it changed. She had the following exchange with the guy at the desk, who was probably overworked and underpaid.

Isabel – There is a mistake, I am a female, not a male.

DMV – Prove it.

Isabel – Well, you can see that I am a woman.

DMV– Nowadays you can never be so sure…

Isabel suggested that she could undress, but he didn’t think it was funny and demanded her passport. We rushed to her house to get the passport. An hour later she handed the passport to the guy, who examined it thoroughly, then asked for the old driver’s license and then… You won’t believe this! It also said “sex: male“. When he checked for old records in the computer, he found out that Isabel has been a male for 25 years and no one ever noticed, not at airports, when opening a bank account, when buying or selling property, when paying with credit cards, not even when she got a traffic ticket (which happens quite often).


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Writing Away


Isabel just the other day, writing away.

Isabel is busy writing. Very busy. Now that she is locked away in the “cone of silence,” we have not had the “privilege” of having her sneak up on us at the office and surprising us.

It seems the book is going well and, barring any technical difficulties, I think another book should be rolling out of the Allende workshop sometime next year. As her part-time research assistant I can hardly wait to find out what the assignments I was given have in common. Some of the topics Isabel asked me to look into include Japan, silk, debutantes and bone marrow. Hmm…should be good. I sure hope there is some romance thrown into the mix. And while I am wishing, I might as well hope for some lust, too.

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Just as we had our tremor in Napa, California, I got this letter from Isabel who is in Chile visiting her parents:

Dear ones,
The latest earthquake, (6.4) hit near Santiago when I was with a friend in the tiny elevator of my parent’s old building. The building suffered some damage in the 2010 earthquake, one of the biggest ever recorded, that also provoked a spectacular tsunami. The building is a little slanted, just a little, but enough to alter the alignment of the elevator. Imagine the scene: no electricity, pitch dark and we, stuck in the elevator screaming for help, while it rattled against the walls with terrible noise. It was like being inside a tolling bell. In the meantime, my parents – 94 and 98 years old – were alone in their apartment in total darkness. Chileans keep calm in geological catastrophes, I think they even enjoy them. Nobody panics, everybody helps… we love drama! My parents held hands and prayed, while all the males in the building volunteered to rescue us. There is no emergency device for this prehistoric elevator, so they had to move it manually from the top and finally, when it reached the fourth floor, they could open the door a foot or so. It was high, but we crawled out and fell in the strong arms of our heroes. All this was achieved in only half an hour with one flashlight and two candles. Now I take the stairs. This is my workout: eight floors up and down the stairs several times a day.


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Amy and Isabel

Isabel and Amy at the Americas Society in New York City, April 15, 2014, just before Isabel received the Gabriela Mistral award. Photograph by Elsa Ruiz, courtesy of the Americas Society.

Isabel and Amy at the Americas Society in New York City, April 15, 2014, just before Isabel received the Gabriela Mistral award. Photograph by Elsa Ruiz, courtesy of the Americas Society.

We all love Amy Goodman and the folks at Democracy Now!, a progressive and independently syndicated daily newscast, which airs on Pacifica Radio here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Focusing on topics largely ignored by the mainstream media, the nonprofit Democracy Now! starts with a 15-minute wrap-up called the “War and Peace Report,” which is translated daily into Spanish. Amy is the host and executive producer of the award-winning program.

P.S. Democracy Now!’s website is also available in Spanish.

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The Next 20 Years

from the left: Nicolas Frias, Elizabeth Share, Isabel Allende, Sarah Kessler, Chandra Ramirez and Lori Barra in the front row

The Cast of The Isabel Allende Foundation—from the left, back row: Nicolas Frias, Elizabeth Share, Isabel Allende, Sarah Kessler, Chandra Ramirez and Lori Barra in the front row

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Isabel Allende Foundation, which Isabel launched in honor her daughter Paula, who died in 1992 at age 28. Twenty years is a big deal, and Lori, who runs the Foundation, thought now might be a good time for all of us at the office to sneak away for a Calistoga weekend retreat with Isabel to discuss what the Foundation’s next 20 years will look like (well…at least the next few years). It’s all very exciting, especially when you realize that the Foundation’s grant awards have grown 1,000 percent over that almost-20-year period. One thousand percent! Pretty impressive…

People are always asking Isabel about Paula (her daughter), Paula (the memoir) and the Foundation, so before we head out of town for our retreat, I wanted to post a response she gave during a recent Q&A:

Writing Paula, a memoir about my daughter, kept me from going crazy after she died. I cried a lot while writing that memoir, but my tears were healing; writing was my way of mourning. After the book was finished, I felt that my daughter was alive in my heart, her memory preserved. And the response of the readers worldwide has been incredible; I receive messages almost daily from people who are reading the book. Paula touched people all over the world, and it was a very successful book. But from the beginning I kept all the income from the book separate from everything else. I knew I wanted to use the money to honor Paula; I just wasn’t sure how. Three years after writing the book, I came up with the idea of establishing a foundation in my daughter’s memory. Paula was passionate about helping the disadvantaged, particularly women and girls, and the Isabel Allende Foundation is guided by our shared vision of a world in which women have achieved social and economic justice. Of course, social and economic justice for all is easier said than done. Although the foundation has grown in scope over the years, the world is filled with hardship and deprivation, and what we do is just a drop in a vast ocean of need. As a result, over the years I have learned that it is most effective to focus our efforts on specific, achievable goals, and so the foundation supports nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing women and girls worldwide with reproductive self-determination, healthcare, and education, as well as protection from violence, exploitation and discrimination.


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Perfect, Sarah, You Are A Genius!

Isabel in one of her debutante dresses, getting her high school degree.

Isabel in one of her debutante dresses, getting her high school degree.

I made the title of this blog “Perfect, Sarah, You Are A Genius!” because ordinarily when Isabel speaks to me, even in email, it goes more like: “Sarah, you look like a hippie! At least make an effort!”

Here is why I am a genius, at least according to Isabel. During a recent research mission, Isabel asked me to find out about debutantes in San Francisco, circa 1950. After Googling the subject and making a few phone calls. I dug up some vintage photos and a fine place to hold a ball—both in terms of history and style—and it made her happy. Not my appearance, mind you, but my work. That was a nice moment. Perhaps to reward me, Isabel included this debutante story:

I was a debutante once. I am not kidding. And I had the most gorgeous white satin gown. For my second ball I had an aquamarine gown with rubber lining for fake breasts because mine were too small. When dancing, the boy held me tight and the rubber things were pushed in and became concave. I looked at my chest in horror. I took a deep breath, trying to push them out. And out they came—with the most embarrassing POP!

Occasionally you need to pat yourself on the back. I learned this from hanging around my daughter’s third grade classroom. When the kids know the answer to a question, they pat themselves on the back to acknowledge their feat, all without interrupting the lesson. I know I am interrupting myself here, but oh well…At least you get a charming story from Isabel that otherwise would not have been told!

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Sweet Guest Blog

Today I have a treat for you: a blog post written by Isabel’s new assistant, our very own Chandra Ramirez! Chandra recently spent a day in San Francisco with Isabel, who was filming an introduction to Dulce Rosa, an opera based on one of her short stories. After they returned to the office and Chandra began to fill us in on the day’s events, I had an idea: “That sounds like a blog post, Dapper Dan!” Here, then, is the story of their adventure, direct from Chandra:


As you may remember, an opera based on “Una Venganza” (“An Act of Vengeance”), one of Isabel’s short stories, saw its world premiere May 17, 2013, at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Entitled Dulce Rosa, the two-act opera by composer Lee Holdridge and librettist Richard Sparks was directed by Kenneth Shapiro and—very exciting!—conducted by Placido Domingo. (Read about Isabel and Willie’s attendance at the opera’s premiere here.)

After Dulce Rosa’s three-week run, the producers requested that Isabel film an introduction to the opera that they could take on the road. (Think Laura Linney introducing Downton Abbey on PBS.) So a couple of weeks ago Isabel and I were picked up in a fancy black town car and driven across the Golden Gate Bridge to a very hip film studio in San Francisco. There was a green screen, a best boy, a gaffer, sound guys, camera people, etc. You get the picture: a whole lot of running around and yelling of action, cut and the like.

There was also Miles Berdache, Isabel’s make-up artist of choice, whom I got to meet for the first time. He is brilliant with his brushes, pots and potions, but more important, he is a genuinely nice guy. Not only is he active with the Soroptimists, an organization that helps women and children around the world, but he also volunteers at a local hospital by giving free massages to oncology patients. Miles was on the ready the whole afternoon, dashing in to take the shine off of Isabel’s nose or freshen her lipstick. As you can imagine, Isabel adores him. If you have an event coming up and need some fancy make-up done, check him out here

That is Miles taking off the shine. He's a sweetheart.

That is Miles taking off the shine. He’s a sweetheart.

The whole shoot took about three hours and Isabel was as charming and gorgeous as always, summarizing Dulce Rosa on film for people like me who go to the opera and have no idea what’s going on. She did the scenes in both English and Spanish and kept the crew laughing with her self-deprecating humor. Isabel insisted she was not an actress, but those of us in the office know better. She is a consummate performer.

If you’re lucky, Dulce Rosa will be coming to a city near you. We’ll post dates and locations once we know them. 


And here we are Chandra and me enjoying a nice Summer day.



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Isabel’s Summer Reading List

Book Passage, in Corte Madera, Calif., has been Isabel’s favorite bookstore for 26 years. It’s like an extension of her home and office: there she has a mailbox, she does press interviews, she meets readers and other writers, and she teaches at conferences. All her book tours start with an event at Book Passage. The staff knows her well and chooses the best books and audiobooks for her. I try to order books from Book Passage before I look elsewhere—before I look to the “river in Brazil,” for instance. Here is Isabel’s summer reading list, which was compiled with help from Book Passage owners Elaine and Bill Petrocelli.


All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr

After she lost her sight at age six, Marie-Laure’s father made her a scale model of their pre-World War II Paris neighborhood. She learned every nook and cranny with her fingers, knowledge that enabled their escape a few years later when the Germans occupied the city. At the seaside village where she and her father fled, Marie meets Werner, a German officer trained to be merciless as he searches for members of the French Resistance. Their story shows what can happen when good people encounter evil.


Love and Treasure

Ayelet Waldman

As Jack is dying, he shows his lawyer granddaughter a jewel-encrusted pendant and begs her to find the rightful owner. Jack was an Army officer in charge of guarding the so-called Hungarian Gold Train at the end of World War II–a train filled with treasures taken from Hungarian Jews on their way to concentration camps. Grounded in history, this exciting novel is full of twists and compelling characters.



Ruth Reichl

A food critic, memoirist, editor, and now novelist, Ruth Reichl brings us Billie, a young woman who lands her dream job at the revered food magazine, Delicious. When the magazine suddenly closes (remember the day Condé Nast killed Gourmet?), Billie is asked to stay on to answer questions from readers. Exploring the defunct magazine’s library, she finds a trove of old letters from a reader to the late James Beard, famous chef and food writer, and a mystery is unlocked.



Lily King

It’s the 1930s and Nell Stone, who has already written a famous book on the erotic habits of the children of a New Guinea tribe, returns to the island continue her research. The fictional characters are loosely based on Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson. Anthropology, sex, a bullying husband and an irresistible lover make King’s Euphoria a treasure.


We Are Called to Rise

Laura McBride

Contemporary Las Vegas is the setting for this outstanding first novel told in the very different voices of two women, an immigrant boy in elementary school and a damaged veteran of the Iraq war. A marriage falls apart, the boy’s Albanian family can’t figure out how to exist in an alien environment and the veteran must confront his demons. These unforgettable characters refuse to go away even after you finish the book.


China Dolls

Lisa See

As World War II begins, three friends find themselves competing for one showgirl role at San Francisco Chinatown’s exclusive nightclub The Forbidden City. Ruby is Japanese and desperate to pass as Chinese so she won’t be sent to a Japanese internment camp, Grace has fled her abusive Mid-western family, and Helen, who grew up in Chinatown, hides her own secret. The author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan beautifully explores the intricacies of friendship.


We Were Liars

E. Lockhart (written for teenagers but adults are loving this gem)

A distinguished family is vacationing on a private Massachusetts island when something happens to the teenage daughter. Each morning when she wakes up, she can’t remember anything that happened before. One thing becomes clear: this family is living in its own mythology. We Were Liars is mystery page-turner that will keep you up all night.


Under the Egg

Laura Marx Fitzgerald  (For 8 to 12 year olds but adults will enjoy it too)

Theodora lives in a 200-year-old townhouse with her fragile mother and her grandfather’s legacy: $463 and a rather mundane painting of an egg. When Theo discovers that there is a masterpiece hidden behind the picture of the egg, she realizes grandfather, who was a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wasn’t who she thought he was. This adventure into the secret world of art will fascinate kids and make them want to take you to the museum.


Cathedral of the Wild

Boyd Varty

A story of transformation that inspires a great appreciation for the beauty and order of the natural world. With conviction, hope and humor, Varty makes a passionate claim for the power of the wild to restore the human spirit. A memoir about growing up in a wildlife conservation park in South Africa and in the Varty family, who are as wild as the wonderful animals they protect.

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