Nathaniel Philbrick's Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, a Revolution
Denise Kiernan's The Girls of Atomic City
Stephen Dobyns' The Burn Palace
Q&A with Richard Hell
On Detroit, and the abrogation of democracy
On journalist and poet Dana Goodyear
On the persistence of the hate movement
On unions, and the lost PR battle
Scott W. Berg's 38 Nooses
Evan Thomas's Ike's Bluff
Tana French's Broken Harbor
Elizabeth Crane's We Only Know So Much
Peter Pagnamenta's Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890
Buzz Bissinger's Father's Day: A Journey Into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son
Nick Dybek's When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man
Michael Harrington's The Other America
Geoffrey C. Ward's A Disposition to Be Rich
Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular
Thomas Mallon's Watergate.
Thomas Peele's Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist
Wael Ghonim's Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir
On Thanhha Lai and winning the National Book Award with her debut verse novel.
John M. Barry's Roger Williams and The Creation of The American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty
Philip Taubman's The Partnership, about Cold Warriors working on a nuke-free world.
On the folks behind Goodreads.
For Sierra magazine, on an unusual alliance that is helping end coal-fired power in the Pacific Northwest.
Condoleezza Rice's No Higher Honor
"Why We Quit Spending"
William Kennedy's Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes
Richard White's Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America
Noir mystery writer James Sallis
On a law that denies justice to aggrieved families
James O'Shea's The Deal from Hell on the Zell takeover of Tribune
On Obama nominee John E. Bryson
"When fear trumps liberty"
Area 51, and secrets in the desert
A book about lies, and their cultural corrosion
Michael Shermer, the nation's skeptic laureate
On Detroit, and its evaporating population
I look at Stanley Meisler's look at the history of the Peace Corps
On nuclear energy, and asking the right questions
On Nicholas Delbanco's Lastingness
Paul David Pope's The Deeds of My Fathers
Simon Winchester's Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
Author Bill Barich
Of Anne Trubek's tours of dead authors' homes
Mystery writer John Shannon
On John Dower's Cultures of War
On The Wave, about big waves and the people who love them
On Sara Gruen's Ape House
On Gustavo Dudamel gone digital
There's more to Gilroy than garlic
On singer-songwriter Peter Case
On Jon Clinch's Kings of the Earth
On anthropologist Jennifer Perry, and California's Channel Islands
A look at political polemics in hardcover
Of Scott Turow's Innocent for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer
Interview piece with Scott Turow
On Ludlow, and the West Virginia mine tragedy (for the LA Times)
On Mark Twain's image problem
On Terry Teachout and Pops, his new bio of Louis Armstrong.
A look in the LA Times at the launch of Sarah Palin's memoir.
On The Fourth Part of the World, a history of how America got it's name, in The Washington Post
On Barbara Demick's forthcoming Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Short profile of critic Terry Teachout on his forthcoming bio of Louis Armstrong.
Kazuo Ishiguro's short story collection, Nocturnes.
On Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code
Profile of author Maile Meloy.
On AAA baseball in Fresno, the budget alternative to the bigs.
Pat Conroy's South of Broad, not up to his full narrative power.
Of Nick Reding's Methland, exploring the devastating effects of meth on small-town America.
Another version of the Reding review, this in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
A road trip up the California coast -- from brewpub to brewpub.
Elizabeth Edwards' Resilience in the LA Times.
Of J. Robert Lennon's Castle in the LA Times.
Short interview/profile of Reza Aslan, author of No God But God and How To Win A Cosmic War.
Ifill and Asim books on Obama, race and politics.
On Detroit's Focus:HOPE
"It was cool outside. The rain had stopped, but the dampness seeped into our bones with the chill of death."
A piece on eco-friendly travel to San Diego.
Advancing the annual Hatch, N. Mex., chili festival.
An Hour Detroit piece on bipolar disorder and Heinz Prechter's suicide.
Rick Wartzman's book on the burning of The Grapes of Wrath.
Long-shot presidential contender Duncan Hunter.
On the semi-annual opening of the Trinity site - where the first atomic bomb was detonated
May 10, 2013
The Los Angeles Times
today carries my review
of Nathaniel Philbrick
's new "Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution
, a very good and, as the headline says, "on the ground" recreation of the start of the American Revolution.
And like most things historical, the subtleties tell us a different story from the commonly held beliefs of what was going on in the minds of the revolutionaries.
As I quote Philbrick in the review:
"To say that a love of democratic ideals had inspired these country people to take up arms against the [British] regulars is to misrepresent the reality of the revolutionary movement," Philbrick writes. "The patriots had refused to respect the rights of those with whom they did not agree, and loyalists had been sometimes brutally suppressed throughout Massachusetts."
In fact, the "revolution had begun as a profoundly conservative movement," he writes. "The patriots had not wanted to create something new: They had wanted to preserve the status quo — the essentially autonomous community they had inherited from their ancestors — in the face of British attempts to forge a modern empire."
Only as they resisted did talk of freedom gain traction. Even as the first bullets flew, Philbrick writes, many of the fighters still hoped for a negotiated peace that would keep them under British rule.
Backing up those conclusions is a deeply researched and well-spun set of stories about the key players and events in and around Boston all those years ago. Well worth your time....
April 23, 2013
You couldn’t have asked for a better couple of days over the weekend for the Los Angeles Times
Festival of Books – temperatures in the low 80s, nice breeze, some 150,000 people, and endless talk of books, and writing.
I moderated a panel on “Landscapes: Real and Imagined,” which was one of those amorphous themes that made for an engaging talk among three authors, and that was broadcast live over C-SPAN’s BookTV (you can watch it here)
. The authors were Julia Flynn Siler, a wonderful writer and fellow journalist whom I’ve known for a number of years, talking about her recent Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure
; T.D. Allman with his Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State
; and Greg Goldin, co-author of Never Built: Los Angeles
, about grand dreams and plans for the city that died on the drawing board.
The best part of the festival for writers like me is the chance to sit around and talk about this odd business we’re in, the different projects we have underway, and to drop in on panels talking about both current books and how we go about doing what we do. Plus it’s a great chance to catch up with old friends and former colleagues.
I also managed to cover a couple of the panels for the Los Angeles Times
, one on American Arguments
and the other on gun control
All in all, a great way for a writer to spend a weekend. Now, back to Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero
. The first draft is done and now I’m diving in for rewriting, tweaking, backfilling and trimming. Which, honestly, is a lot more fun than it sounds.
April 20, 2013
Happy Ludlow Massacre day! What, you didn’t know? Well, you’re not alone, but with luck that will be changing.
Today, April 20, is the 99th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre, which of course means next year is the centennial. I’m pleased to see the state of Colorado has created a commission
to oversee plans to commemorate the event, and I wish them luck and a big budget. And with my friend Jonathan Rees
, a Colorado State Pueblo history professor, on board, I’m confident they’ll get the history right. Which is more than I can say for my colleagues in journalism: Nearly every story about Ludlow seems to contain an error or two. I guess that’s understandable, though, given how much misinformation is floating around out there.
Readers of my Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West
know that the story of Ludlow involves much more than that single day. Between August 1913 and May 1914 at least 75 people were killed in what became running guerrilla warfare between striking coal miners and the Colorado National Guard, by then little more than a public-private military operation focused on keeping the coal mines operating. The strike, organized by the United Mine Workers of America
, involved a dozen or so coal operators, though the biggest by far was the Colorado Fuel & Iron Co., which was owned by the Rockefellers. The Ludlow Massacre itself centered on a strikers' tent colony, pictured on the book cover. After a day-long gun battle, Guardsmen torched the tent village and inadvertently killed 11 children and two mothers, who were hiding in a pit hidden below a wooden tent floor.
The massacre gave rise to a convulsion of retaliatory violence, and at its peak striking coal miners held military control of most of the Front Range from New Mexico north nearly to Denver. They didn’t lay down their arms until President Wilson sent in the United States Army as a peacekeeping force, dislodging the National Guard from the zone. And it need be noted that when the National Guard held the upper hand, there was no talk of federal intervention. Only as the miners were winning were the feds spurred to act, another instance of the federal government looking out for the interests of corporations over people.
I’m looking forward to seeing what Colorado comes up with to commemorate – and draw fresh attention to – this riveting moment in American history. And I hope to play a role in some of the events. I’ll keep you posted here and on Facebook
April 14, 2013
I'm taking a little break* from writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero
with a long weekend in Las Vegas catching up with a handful of old friends from college - we all worked together on the campus radio station, WCVF
, in the '70s. And we schlepped in from California, Utah, Washington state, and New York (three from there), which makes this a small but national reunion, I suppose.
Early Saturday morning I headed out with one of the friends, Stan Maziuk
, before dawn to try to catch the early light in Valley of Fire State Park
, about an hour east of Vegas. I was looking for petroglyphs, and had we more time I would have continued on to Lake Mead, now about 100 feet below its normal level. The depleted lake has exposed old settlements that were flooded in the '30s when the Hoover Dam was built, and the Colorado River backed up to form Lake Mead. I've been taken recently with the phenomenon of lost histories revealed accidentally, such as the ancient people's settlements that were discovered a few years ago on Colorado's Mesa Verde after wildfires scrubbed the earth clean of obscuring foliage.
At Lake Mead, the rising waters inundated a pueblo along one of the tributary rivers. Next time back, I hope to figure out a plan to get close to see what time, and water, have wrought -- or even if the ancient ruins are still discernible after all those decades.
Meanwhile. you'll have to settle for the petroglyph above.
* "Little break" is relative; didn't write much Friday or Saturday but put a few hours in the morning.
April 8, 2013
It was just about a year ago that copies of Detroit: A Biography
began showing up in bookstores, always an exciting time for a writer, but fraught with uncertainty. Will people like the book? Will it get the attention of critics? Will it sell? And, perhaps most unsettling of all, did I screw something up?
I’m very pleased, and gratified, to be able to say that the book has done well. It’s in its third printing, reader reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and I continue to get feedback from folks who say they learned a lot of unexpected things about Detroit, and how it has come to be what it is. The professional critical reviews were light, but except for one culture critic who dismissed the book for not being about culture (?), they have been overwhelmingly positive. And they keep trickling in. This essay-review
ran recently in TriQuarterly.
It turns out my book was at the head of a surge of mass media interest in Detroit, from other books about the state of the city to the national media coverage of the installation of an emergency financial manager (you all know what I think of that)
to some movies that have touched on the city (from “Detropia”
to ”Searching for Sugarman”
). I like to think that, among all these projects, my book offers the broadest foundation for understanding the place.
And from the assembly line of book writing, I’m pleased to report solid progress on Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero
, which is due to the publisher at the end of next month, with a tentative publication date of next Spring. In a touch of inadvertent timing that will coincide (roughly) with the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre, the central event in my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West
, which came out in August 2007.
The publication of Jones’s Bones
will be my fourth book to hit the bookstands in seven years. And I have a couple of unpublished novels I’ve written in between those nonfiction projects. It’s a very gratifying way to live, and work, and I thank you all for your readership and support. It’s an overworked and often ill-used word, but, literally, I couldn’t do this without you.
March 26, 2013
I’m in Washington, D.C., this week doing a final round of research for my Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero
book project, and by sheer happenstance wound up renting an apartment just a couple of blocks from the Supreme Court building. And if I wasn’t heading back into the archives, I’d love to stop by the court today to witness the long-overdue judicial look at gay marriage.
Given the deep conservatism of the majority, I don’t have a lot of faith in the Court to make the correct legal and moral call. But I’m hoping they put prejudice aside and decide the cases before them – California’s Prop. 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act –based on common sense, and belief in a true separation of church and state. They should find that gays and lesbians have as much right to marry as anyone else.
The Supreme Court ruled in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case
, which focused on state laws barring interracial marriage, that marriage was a fundamental civil right and government could not restrict it based on race. The government should not restrict it based on sexual orientation, either. All are equal in the eyes of the law, or so we are trained to believe (and lord knows that often proves not to be the case), and that should apply to the legal institution of marriage.
I’ve long believed that marriage should not be the state’s business in the first place. It is a religious rite and belongs in churches. But it is also in society’s interest, and thus government’s interest, to have a system that allows for the legal unification of lives, which is the legal side of marriage. I’d like to strip the word “marriage” from the legal documents – all of us who marry should be partners in civil unions. And the faithful can also be married in the eyes of their church.
But that isn’t likely to happen. “By the powers vested in me by the state of (fill in the blank)” is too much of our culture now to change in such a fundamental way. But the wording of that time-honored part of the marriage ceremony, when uttered by a minister, is meaningful. “Power vested in me by the state,” not by the bishop or other church higher up. There is no separation between church and state when the state gives authority to ministers to sanction legal unions.
But I digress. A right is a right. Marriage is a right. Gay marriage is a right. Let’s leave our Puritan past behind and move on as a nation. We have a lot of intractable problems in this country, from economic inequality to a government hijacked by corporations to a world standing built on violence rather than diplomacy. But this issue is an easy one to fix. And I hope the Supreme Court does so. Quickly, and decisively.
March 24, 2013
I had the pleasure earlier this week of sitting through a 45-minute interview with NPR’s Don Gonyea
to talk about the current state of Detroit, and the result of that session aired during Saturday’s “All Things Considered” weekend edition. Naturally, given the time restraints and multiple voices in the piece, they only used a couple of snippets of what I said, but I appreciate having my voice added to the national discussion – and am glad for the thoughtful attention NPR paid the issue.
Gonyea, incidentally, is an old Detroit hand himself. We used to run across each other while covering various Detroit stories in the 1980s and 1990s, and then again on the presidential political campaign trail after he joined NPR and I was working for the Los Angeles Times
. Solid pro.
takes you to a story about the segment, which includes a transcript. The podcast of the show is available here
. A catalyst for my book, Detroit: A Biography
, was my desire to explain to people who don’t know Detroit what has happened there, that it is much more than tailfins on Cadillacs, Motown, sports teams, “ruins porn,” and drugs and crime. So I hope my inclusion in the program will bring some of that awareness to more people.
The only point I wish they had picked up from the interview and included in the segment is my argument that the current city government budget crisis – as significant as it is – is a symptom of Detroit’s problems
, not the problem itself. The fiscal manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder – an abrogation of democracy, in my view – will likely use draconian measures to balance the city budget, primarily by selling off potentially profitable assets to the private sector, slashing services, and laying off hundreds, if not thousands, of people – adding to Detroit’s unemployment and poverty problems.
Those “fixes” will do nothing to help Detroit, the community, and far too many people conflate the two problems. By the time the manager is done, Detroit will still be a city of staggering poverty, and urban emptiness, with dysfunctional schools, massive areas of violence and blight, and no plan for improving the conditions under which 700,000 people live
. It is a regional problem that requires a regional solution, but it is also a national problem that we, as a nation, have ignored for far too long.
None of that will change under a balanced city budget.
March 20, 2013
I'm pleased to report that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
has invited me back for another go-around, this time as a panel moderator. For you book-lovers who don't live in the Los Angeles area, the Festival of Books is one of the prime events of its kind in the country. The two-day gathering of authors and readers covers a large chunk of the University of Southern California, and is an exhausting blast.
The panel I'm moderating is called "Nonfiction: Landscapes Real & Imagined,"
and is slotted for 2 p.m. Sunday, April 21. The panelists are T.D. Allman
(whose new book is about Florida), Greg Goldin
(co-author of a book about Los Angeles), and Julia Flynn Siler
(whose latest book is about Hawaii). I don't know Allman or Goldin but have known Siler for a number of years, and moderated a panel with her once at the Nieman Conference of Narrative Journalism. Very bright, and a very good writer (her House of Mondavi
is a must-read for wine-lovers everywhere).
I'm anxious to start preparing for the panel by diving into the works of all three panelists. And the subject is of personal interest to me. In my Blood Passion
books, the landscape served almost as another character, as it does in my still in-vitro novel. So it should be a fun and interesting talk. I'll post more details - like building and room number - when I get them. Hope to see some of you there....
March 8, 2013
The Los Angeles Times
has posted my review
of Stephen Dobyns's The Burn Palace
, which I picked up with great anticipation and put down at the end feeling a bit dissatisfied. It's a good book, and he does a fine job creating a sense of place, and gently satirizing small-town life. But (from the review) ...
For all of Dobyns' skills in creating characters and place, the central plot line becomes transparent early. The subplots resonate better than the main plot, and the writing is strongest in the action scenes, which erupt with cinematic clarity.
Dobyns is sharp too, portraying people under stress. Some of the characters, though, never break out of single dimensions, a weakness of the novel. The gossipy coffee shop owner. The spunky old lady in the assisted-living home. The stoned war vet. State police Det. Bobby Anderson — "Hey, I'm their token black guy." — has potential as a nuanced character, but Dobyns doesn't break him out of the predictable either.
Anderson cracks wise with his white peers, drives a "magnetic black Nissan 370Z coupe with a rear deck spoiler," and, as Woody points out, keeps himself "hidden behind the jive mask." Which is fine if that's the public persona Dobyns wants to give him, but as a novelist Dobyns can, and should, create a more deeply developed and nuanced character, even if only the reader can see that particular interior landscape.
But those are wrinkles in an otherwise enjoyable work of popular fiction.
March 6, 2013
For music fans of a certain age - namely, mine - Richard Hell
remains a key figure. He was among the founders of the punk era in music, and his torn shirts and spiked hair helped set the fashion tone for what became a cultural movement. And as a part of the bands The Neon Boys, Television, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and, then, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, he claims paternity for a whole lot of noise.
I interviewed Hell a few years ago when I was still writing for the Los Angeles Times
and met up with him at restaurant in his East Village neighborhood in Manhattan. That piece was tied to the release of a semi-autobiographical novel, Godlike
, and you can read it here
I got Hell on the phone a couple of weeks ago for another interview piece, this one a Q&A for Esquire.com about his latest book, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp
, a frank autobiograpy of his life up until the time he got clean of heroin and left music, for the most part, behind.
The Esquire.com piece is here
, but this is a bit from it. And I gotta say, I really enjoy talking with Hell:
ESQ: What propelled you to write the autobiography?
RH: Since my 40s — which is now 20 years ago; I'm 63 — I've been disturbed and fascinated by having outlived my youth. When you're young, you don't especially think of yourself as being young. You're just alive and everything's interesting and you don't think of things in terms of age because you're not conscious of it. But then you hit your 40s and you realize, well, you're still alive but you're not young anymore. And things start taking a different kind of aspect. And you start getting curious about what it all adds up to. What does it mean to outlive your youth? I wanted to hold my life in my hands and turn it around and look at it in different ways to figure out what the hell had happened, to see if I could put it outside of myself and make it into a material object that I could grasp. So that was part of it. And the other part was I like writing books.
A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.
After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.
An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.
I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.
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