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Stranger in a strange land: Reporter is on shaky ground with star-studded memoir

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Ah California! Golden State of American Dreams, Tarnished State of American Nightmares!

California, heaven or hell of a bit of both, remains fertile territory for writers of both fiction and non-fiction. Amy Wilentz demonstrates that again with her uneven memoir, "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen." The veteran reporter's new book, subtitled "Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger," is a reluctant East Coast pilgrim's progress in the land of Voss water and sprinkles cupcakes that features some fascinating pieces and some frustrating missteps.

Wilentz, a native of New Jersey, departs for Los Angeles at what seems a propitious moment in history. The lingering horrors of 9/11 have forever altered life in her beloved New York City and California not only offers a new start for Wilentz and her family, but also the suitably bizarre political rise of Arnold "Terminator" Schwarzenegger.

No wonder the confirmed Manhattanite feels so disoriented. Schwarzenegger is no Mario Cuomo and the sprawling colossus of Los Angeles is no defined grid. The usual California clichés come under Wilentz's scrutiny: the blondness, the sunniness, the logo-fanaticism, the twin biblical curses, earthquakes, firestorms.

"Nature will reassert itself, a reality that no amount of artificiality can mask," Wilentz writes. "Tile-roofed, porticoed, couple-million-buck houses burn for the same reasons that dyed, enhanced, Botoxed and siliconed actors do still eventually die."

Wilentz's sometimes bemused, sometimes dumbstruck reactions to the non-stop parade of California quirkiness is not too surprising coming from an East Coaster who describes herself as "dark, bespectacled, bookish, and both physically and mentally not tan." More startling is how this skeptical newcomer is soon a frequent guest at gatherings of L.A.'s social and political elite.

Wilentz offers no real explanation for her ascendancy, the first of many nagging questions that undermine her narrative. Her family's move is prompted when her "husband had been offered a job as an editor at the Los Angeles Times," but there is no more elaboration, let alone any notation that his position as op-ed editor resulted in invitations to celeb soirees that usually shun journalists.

Nor is there any hint that Wilentz is relying on connections from her own stints as a Time correspondent in Haiti or Jerusalem bureau chief for the New Yorker. This is a needless mystery, but Wilentz is soon hobnobbing with Ariana Huffington, Carrie Fisher and Warren Beatty.

Wilentz's reportorial talents are showcased in her deft portraits of celebrity personalities. Her touch here is a marvelous mix of uber-observation and wry sarcasm. Wilentz attends Fisher's birthday party where the "Star Wars" star is costumed as her Princess Leia character ("weirdly disorienting"), while actress Daryl Hannah is outfitted in fur and skins that "looked as if she were ready to go off to shoot polar bears."

Wilentz's lunch with Beatty is another of her little masterpieces, filled with revelations about the actor (his phone addiction, his picky eating, his e-mail-phobia). Her choicest nugget is Beatty's startling pronouncement: "Anyway, people hate celebrities."

Such marvelous moments in her memoir are short-circuited by Wilentz's recurrent attempts to use Schwarzenegger as its binding element. One-third of the narrative seems devoted to analyzing his rise, then fall, then rise again. The Governator's reign has been critiqued to death and Wilentz's treatment, however engaging at times, often has the stale aroma of old news.

Her attempts to secure a personal interview with Schwarzenegger come across as a tease, since the interview never materializes. So does Wilentz's slight collision with a scam artist-wild man pedestrian in her minivan.

This is a sudden brush with crisis for the writer. A hit-and-run charge is dismissed in court, a negotiation with her insurance company for a payment of $40,000 is discussed and then a lawsuit materializes, but missing in the book's conclusion is any mention of where the lawsuit stands or even what she has learned from the experience.

Wilentz's memoir has its fine moments, but also its disappointing shortcomings.

Wilentz discusses "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at The Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St.; 206-624-6600.

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